Shireen Santosham


What do you do as Chief Innovation Officer for the Mayor of San Jose?

My role is to think about how to use technology for social good in San Jose - to engage our citizens effectively, to deliver services at a low cost, and to build a safer, more connected, and sustainable city. 

How long have you been working for the Mayor?

Not very long, I started at the beginning of January 2016, so it has been two and a half months. I’m very new to the role, and I had been working internationally before that. 

Yes, you are a term member of the Council on Foreign Relations. What does that job entail?

It’s a wonderful programme for young professionals who are interested in foreign policy. You apply, and the Council chooses you for a five-year term. Sometimes, at the end of the term, they will take one or two people into the council, but people usually reapply to become lifetime members later on in their career. There are a lot of luminaries who are lifetime members.

What do you find most interesting in your role as a term member of the CFR? 

It is an incredible place to learn. As a term member, you have access to world leaders and thought leaders across all types of foreign policy issues. You really get to be at the front lines of the most pressing foreign policy crises or challenges that are being faced around the world, and you are surrounded by an amazing network of people who are driving that thinking. 

Have you always been interested in innovation in Government?

I have always been interested in innovation, but I was not sure when I would end up in Government. It was a surprise to me that I ended up in local government. I thought I’d end up in the State Department or doing something more international, but I’ve always been interested in how to bring the best of the private sector to bear on social issues. The last few years of my career have centred on technology and the incredible power that technology can have in improving the lives of human beings.

Why did you decide to pursue double degrees in University and in Graduate school?

I did an undergraduate degree in Business [at the Wharton School at The University of Pennsylvania] and a degree in International Relations at the [University of Pennsylvania] College, and then I did something similar in grad school when I went to [Harvard] Kennedy School and [Harvard] Business School. This kind of cross training has been really impactful on my career path. I found power in the intersection between these subjects. To have cross training allows you to really look at problems from multiple perspectives, and come up with solutions differently. It also allows you to speak the different languages of different sectors. You're not bound by speaking only in business language or the language of politics. You can actually think about both of them and connect with people in both sectors - which I think becomes more important as you get more senior in your career.

How would you best describe a 'Smart City' to the #wifp audience?

We recently released our Smart City Vision for San Jose. In my opinion, a smart city vision is about using all of the assets that a city has in order for it to work better. Our smart city strategy is about trying to help the city have a comprehensive digital strategy, and making sure we have the right kind of tools at the fingertips of our staff so they can be the most effective, and serve the most citizens, and amplify their impact. Using technology can make you work smarter, leaner, and stronger. That’s what we’re trying to do. For our smart city plan, we're particularly focusing on a five areas: a) Safe City is about making our roads safer, helping our police office and fire department work better and smarter under limited resources, and managing disaster responses better. b) Inclusive City is about bridging the digital divide, and trying to make Silicon Valley available to all. We have rising inequality in the region, and so we want to create opportunities for people to be part of the technology sector here. For example, we have one initiative that will train people without four-year college degrees and help them get jobs at tech companies. We also want to make sure our most vulnerable residents have access to the internet and tools that they need to engage in our digital economy. c) User-Friendly City is about creating digital platforms to improve transparency in the City of San Jose. d) Sustainable City is about becoming a green city, and being more thoughtful about using our natural resources. The final one e) Demonstration City is the coolest, because we will actually use the city as a platform to test cutting edge services coming out of the private sector. For example, autonomous vehicles. It's an exciting vision for the city! 

What is the timeline for the Smart City Vision?

The vision should be implemented by 2020, so over the next four and a half years. We’re also developing a more detailed work plan. Those details aren’t in the document right now, but they will be coming out over the next two months. You can follow Mayor Sam Liccardo’s Twitter account for updates: @Sliccardo 

Previously, you worked for the Connected Women Program at GSMA. The Connected Women Program aims to accelerate the female digital economy by closing the digital gender gap. Can you tell us a bit about your role?

I led research and advocacy efforts for the Connected Women Program. GSMA [Groupe Spéciale Mobile Association] is the industry association for 800 mobile operators, such as Vodafone, Orange, and Airtel. One or my biggest projects was an 11 country primary research study that surveyed women and men from different countries from Mexico to Cote D’Ivoire to China, and we talked to them about how they were using their phones (if they had a phone), and sized the gender gap across those eleven countries, and came out with regional and global estimates for gender gap and mobile access and usage for women. Shockingly, we don’t have ICT data that is cut by gender. We actually didn’t know the difference between how many men and how many women owned mobile phones in the world. Ours is one of the only studies to do that. It’s really important to understand how that affects men and women differently due to differences in culture and differences in cost of technology. So, that was a really interesting project, and the results of that were quite incredible. Our work was subsequently cited in about 700 articles within the first two months of publication. I got to speak at the UN Beijing + 50 Conference on Women, at events in Mexico, Indonesia, and at the African Development Bank annual meeting. 

What advice would you give to a young woman who wants to pursue a similar career?

Be persistent, and be willing to experiment a little. My career path hasn’t been a straight path. You have to take different risks in your career. At different points in my career, people have said: “You sure you want to leave here? You’re on this great path, why would you change?” I think you have to trust yourself to take these great risks. I would also say that you should try to get the cross training, because it helps a lot. It makes it easier to move across sectors.

Do you have a role model? Who, and why?

My Dad. He’s a successful Doctor in Public Health at Johns Hopkins University, and he’s been able to achieve a lot in his career. He has been credited with saving 70 million children’s lives through his work. 

Shireen Santosham | Chief Innovation Officer | Office of Mayor Sam Liccardo, City of San Jose

15 years' experience

CV in brief

Studied B.A. in International Relations and Affairs from the University of Pennsylvania | B.A.Sc. in Finance from the University of Pennsylvania Wharton School | MPA from the Harvard Kennedy School of Government | MBA from Harvard Business School

Previously worked at NERA Economic Consulting | Save the Children | Vulcan, Inc. | GSMA Connected Women

Find Shireen online LinkedIn | @SSantosham | Office of Mayor Sam Liccardo

Inspired by Shireen's interview? Check out these related opportunities: NERA Economic Consulting | Save the Children | McKinsey & Company | GSMA

Exclusive interview by Aisha Babalakin, March 2016