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Genevieve Bell – Intel: Globetrotting Anthropologist Tells Stories That Matter

Genevieve BellA peek inside Genevieve Bell’s handbag tells a story. She carries a Blackberry, a camera, an extra hard drive, a blue tooth headset, and a power source: standard fare for someone who works in the technology sector as she does. But she also carries ear plugs, a passport, and at least two forms of currency at all times—evidence of her adventures as a globe-trotting anthropologist.

Genevieve grew up living in aboriginal communities in central Australia where her mother, an anthropologist, was doing field studies. At times the family lived in areas without running water and electricity. Genevieve wanted to be a fireman, “mostly because I liked trucks and the trucks were red!” she recalls. “I vividly remember my grandmother explaining to me that girls weren’t firemen, and I thought that was most unfortunate.”

The grinding poverty of Australia’s aboriginal communities inspired Genevieve to dream of occupations where she could make a difference. “When I was fifteen, I wanted to be prime minister,” she says. “I thought I’d go into politics for most of my twenties.” But she discovered a passion for academic research, and pursued a PhD at Stanford in Native American Studies instead. She didn’t step off the academic path until she joined Intel, in 1998.

Genevieve recalls that she was in a bar in Palo Alto when a man approached her and introduced himself. They chatted briefly about her career as an academic anthropologist. A few days later, her phone rang—he had tracked her down, by calling every anthropology program in the Bay Area to inquire about a redheaded Australian. His interest was professional; he worked in high tech, and he wanted Genevieve to interview at Intel. Gamely, she agreed to fly to Portland for an initial discussion. “I wasn’t interested at all, and they offered me a job on the spot,” Genevieve says.

“I remember lying in bed later in the week, realizing that what I had planned for the term was exactly the same thing I had planned for every term. I’d be teaching courses, publishing, getting on committees. I had a seven year roadmap ahead of me, and I realized it wasn’t for me.” Lured by the challenge and the excitement of the unknown, she called Intel back and asked when she could start.

Genevieve’s role was to help Intel understand how people use technology, and how to better their relationship with technology. She became part of an ongoing effort to design better technologies–starting with an assessment of how people watch television, and how the Internet could be more like tv. “I’ve always understood anthropology to be partly politics – finding other people’s truths and representing those back t them, and to people they don’t know. It’s about storytelling,” she explains. That storytelling skill became a valuable contribution to Intel’s technology forecasting.

The transition from academic anthropology to corporate technologist wasn’t easy for Genevieve. “I packed up and moved to Oregon and started at a company I knew little about in an industry I knew nothing about in a field nobody knew anything about. My boss told me they needed my help understanding women – all women! I said, there are 3.2 billion women on the planet. And she said, yes, if you could tell us what they want, that would be great.”

She approached that first year on the job as fieldwork. “I was always in meetings where I had no idea what was going on. I wrote down all my questions. That first year was traumatic, but fascinating. It was so much more genuinely interdisciplinary than any academic program.”

“The company didn’t know enough about what anthropology was to know what it could and couldn’t be, so they’d ask me to do fantastic things–go to Italy and do field work, for example, even though all of my work had been in American communities. It was liberating!”

Today, Genevieve is well established in her role at Intel. In her words, she is a “storyteller” who helps people understand where technology is going. “That has become a very complex story,” she says. “We have mobile technology, fixed technology, information technology, technology infrastructure. We are in an incredibly fertile period in which there are several trajectories where technology will move forward. How do we make technology better? What anxieties do people have around new technologies and how can we address them?”

Although Genevieve’s PhD in anthropology is unexpected for someone in the corporate sector, she notes that her academic training does contribute to her credibility. “My mom always said that you should get the highest level degree you can stand to obtain,” she says. “Having a PhD quiets certain conversations and there is something about being just a little bit different, in terms of my background, that is useful.” The same might be said about being a woman in technology, where women are still somewhat underrepresented. “When I coach younger women, I tell them that in computer science, the chance that you will be the only women in the room is still very real. That means people will remember you, so say something that makes the attention worthwhile.”

Her criterion for a job is that it must be “something that matters,” and she plans to continue exercising that yardstick as her career progresses. “There are so many countries I haven’t been to!” she exclaims. “I want to keep doing what I get to do now: seeing how people’s lives unfold and how the world ticks on. We all want to feel like we are part of something, something bigger than ourselves. We are all searching for a good story.”

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