‘It’s a Dream’—Toyota Research Institute’s Charlene Wu on Why She Loves Her Job

In her role as Senior Manager, Head of Machine Assisted Cognition at Toyota Research Institute (TRI), Charlene Wu leads a department of interdisciplinary scientists across fields like behavioral science, machine learning and human-computer interaction. The goal of the department is to research and develop AI technology that augments human decision-making.

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Fairygodboss
May 26, 2024 at 2:27AM UTC

In her role as Senior Manager, Head of Machine Assisted Cognition at Toyota Research Institute (TRI), Charlene Wu leads a department of interdisciplinary scientists across fields like behavioral science, machine learning and human-computer interaction. The goal of the department is to research and develop AI technology that augments human decision-making.

Although she’s only been at TRI for nine months, Charlene already calls her job a “dream.” We spoke with her about why she loves the people and work and how they help her achieve her goals.

What was it about TRI that made you want to join the company?

The mission and the people. TRI’s mission of “Innovating to improve the human experience” is ambitious and inspiring. The TRI team is also talented, passionate and kind. Enjoying the work and enjoying the people you get to work with—it’s a dream.

What drew you toward your work in behavioral science and AI research?

Throughout my career, I’ve been drawn to opportunities to leverage behavioral science to solve novel and challenging problems. There’s an opportunity to take an even more human-centered approach to AI to develop technology that can really empower and extend our existing abilities, and one way to do this is to incorporate our understanding of human behavior—how our cognition, emotion, social and cultural identities give rise to our behavior.

What are some of the biggest challenges you face as a woman in tech, given that it is a male-dominated industry?

One of the biggest challenges is paving our own paths. There’s still a lack of representation in the most senior levels of technological leadership, and where there’s no mold or pattern for us to follow, we’ll need to find our own way, while remaining authentic to ourselves.

Are you involved in any resource groups or networks at TRI?

Yes! I’m involved in TRI’s Women and Allies, Parents, and Asian groups.

Why do you think TRI is a particularly supportive work environment for women?

In addition to our Women and Allies ERG, TRI is committed to promoting DEI across the organization and the community. I’ve also felt especially welcomed as a mother. I joined TRI during the COVID-19 pandemic, and along with many parents, one of my chief concerns involved childcare during this uncertain time. 

As an organization, TRI made it clear that supporting our employees and their loved ones was a top priority. I felt genuine care and empathy from everyone. People frequently asked about the health and safety of our families.

What’s the first and last thing you do at work every day?
 
The first thing I do every morning is review my calendar and list of top priorities for that day. I cross-check it with any emails that may have come in to confirm that these priorities are still the right items to focus on. I also check to see if there are any messages from my team members and respond to any questions or concerns as quickly as I can. 

The last thing I do each evening is to prep for the next day, reviewing my calendar and listing out top priorities, as well as identifying and reflecting on one great thing that happened that day—it could be learning something new, supporting a team member in their work or sharing a fun moment with the team, such as an insight into our research or a joke. 

What’s your go-to stress-relief activity or routine?

Neighborhood walks. I love exploring hidden stairways and fairy gardens in my Noe Valley neighborhood of San Francisco. 

What advice do you have to others in tech who want to take their career in tech to the next level?

Get to know yourself first. Understand what your interests are and what kind of impact you want to have. Understanding yourself well will help you identify the type of roles and organizations that you will best serve and thrive in. 

Don’t limit yourself to what you see available in job postings—if you don’t see what you want, go create it. This could mean taking an unexpected or risky choice that allows you the freedom to define your role, but the payoff could be worth it!

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