Stepping into Element AI as CEOx1DAY

As an undergraduate business student, I have often daydreamed of being a CEO. Of course, through school assignments and case studies, I realize the immense duties that fall on individuals leading companies. However, these professionals all share one fundamental responsibility: leading people. “I want to be in that position” – I said to myself during my classes.

I participated in the CEOx1Day program in Montreal, Canada, because it was a chance to learn first-hand rather than through daydreaming. The selection process allowed only a small handful of students who applied to shadow CEOs around Canada, but once selected we were able to take our pick. Naturally, I decided that my day was going to be shared with Jean-François (JF) Gagné, co-founder and Chief Executive Officer of Element AI.

JF’s professional journey is quite inspiring: starting at an early age, he created two important start-ups and held high management positions in a large American software company. As a young leader in technology, JF seemed to have been able to draw valuable partners and important collaborators that  supported the Element AI mission of getting the mainstream business world to adopt an AI-first strategy. But  the international recognition of Element AI made me think there was much more to learn about JF and Element AI than what I could simply read in the papers. What could make JF a great leader in this famous company? And what is his true vision of AI?


LabCrossFit at 7am - the Tip of the Iceberg

While it was forecasted that heavy snow was going to fall on the city of Montreal, I was ready to break the ice with JF—and following along in his morning session of CrossFit definitely did the job. After burning a few holiday calories, I was physically and mentally prepared for following the rest of the day as CEO at Element AI.

As we entered the office, I felt like impersonating Charlie Bucket in the Chocolate Factory. My golden ticket earned me entry to the state-of-art premises of Element AI where I was received with the warm welcome of the company’s people. Once in his office, I saw the secret tools of inspiration for this great leader : books. “Is it ok if I take some pictures of your books?” I asked timidly. “Sure! There is nothing to hide there,” he responded in a warm tone. Some of his readings were: Radical Candor by Scott, The Future of Management by Hamel, The Fifth Discipline by Senge, and The Art of War by Huynh. (I have already gotten my hands on a few in the library after my day with JF!)


WonderLab – Fearless Creativity

After a few important meetings with different teams, it was time to explore the Element AI Lab. This place is where real human ingenuity and cross-discipline work can be found. Passionate and clever individuals were working together to build novel solutions that tackle business challenges in different industries. It was indeed remarkable to witness the fearless innovation held at the heart of Element AI – an admirable “fail fast, thrive fast” approach.


Lunch time – Building Relationships with People

All the excitement made my stomach rumble, and I was thankful when the time to grab some lunch arrived. As JF and I were sitting down at our table, he mentioned that a few other people would be joining us. As it turned out, our upcoming guests were either close co-workers to JF or general staff that wanted to simply have an informal chat with the CEO. The goal was to connect on a personal level with employees – something deeply dear to JF—and employees could simply book this informal lunch with the CEO. The guests at our table were delighted to be sharing this occasion with him; it felt as if friends had come to share personal thoughts and anecdotes around great food.


Humanizing Artificial Intelligence

Throughout the meetings, I was captivated by the efforts that JF and the Element AI team dedicated to humanizing the conversation about Artificial Intelligence. Being a technology that has been evolving at an unprecedented pace, even students like myself know little about the facts. However, it was amazing how JF and his team were rendering the subject accessible to anyone curious enough to read their blogs or listen to their podcast (I am such a huge fan now!). It was important for me to see the important consideration they placed on demystifying this new technology and its capabilities to professionals and the masses. How can the next technological revolution materialize if people do not fully understand it or its implications? JF is determined to help us understand that AI represents a collaboration effort between human and machine.

Some companies are employing AI technology for national defense and secret intelligence purposes, I asked JF his position about this. After a few exchanges, it was clear that neither JF nor Element AI supported these types of efforts. I was pleased to hear that such an important leader in the field regarded AI technology for the betterment of our society, not for the control of it. Undoubtedly, this filled me with hope to know that responsible leaders like JF regard this technology with passion and purpose, and accordingly, no secondary agenda has a logical fit with Element AI.

Before we headed out to a non-profit fund-raising event in the city of Montreal, I dared to ask one last question: “JF, what is your vision of AI?” Quite simply, he answered “There will be a point in time that you would not believe how you went through your daily routine without AI.”


It is Just the Beginning

The first thing I did when I got home was to call my family, who all reside in my country of origin at the moment. “How was it, my dear?!” exclaimed my mom with a sentimental voice. Quite honestly, I did not know where to begin. However, if I was given a second opportunity to answer this question, I would go about it in the following way:

  • Quenching one’s curiosity can be done through relentlessly educating yourself – Books, conferences, podcasts, blogs…never stop learning
  • Human genius can be achieved when failures are seen as inevitable consequences – It’s fine to fail but thrive fast
  • Business is not about buying something at $1 and selling it for $2--it’s about understanding, empowering and inspiring people – the driving force of a company is the hundreds of employees “behind the scenes”’
  • Artificial Intelligence is not what has been seen in popular films (machines taking over the world is nonsense!). It is a concrete science that has beneficial applications to the business world and our society –humans and machines working together for responsible betterment of the world
  • A few years in the future, most of our seemingly mundane routines will be supported by AI – Artificial Intelligence is here to stay
  • Challenges and successes lie ahead in a path of positive disruption. The goal is not to make a buck but rather to solve world problems with novel thinking. This was something I learned from observing and talking with JF; something that I could not have read in the public papers. Intensely follow your passion and purpose. Stay true to your values and principles.

After this day, I feel inspired to continue pursuing a path of responsible and humanistic leadership. Progress and innovation can only be achieved if we fearlessly work together. This is just the beginning, a start of many days that shall be seized – CARPE DIEM!

I sincerely would like thank JF and the team of Element AI for this magnificent day. My heart glows violet, the color of Element AI.

This article was originally published on the Element AI website.