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Breaking Barriers: Aditi’s Journey Through Sight Loss to Microsoft AI Innovator

Aditi Shah

Facts about Aditi Shah:

Tools she uses: Aditi’s main tool is JAWS, a screen reader from Freedom Scientific, which she touts as the best in the market. This tool has made her digital life more manageable, enabling her to perform almost any task independently.

Aditi also uses Seeing AI, a Microsoft app that she uses for important life tasks, like reading her mail, providing descriptions of different products, identifying colors for her outfits, and more.

Where you’ll find her on a Saturday night: Aditi loves audio card and board games, like poker and Texas Hold ‘Em (which she rarely loses). On Saturday night, you’ll find her playing games with her friends virtually.

Literary aficionado: Aditi reads at least one book every week. From murder mysteries and sci-fi sagas to enlightening self-help and spiritual books, she embraces a wide array of genres.

Role models: From tech titans to personal mentors, Aditi draws inspiration from a diverse group of individuals: Satya Nadella’s bold approach to cultivating culture at Microsoft, which includes helping people growth together, Elon Musk’s controversial but thought-provoking first principles, and the influential mentor at Microsoft, Abhilasha, who taught her to lead without authority and inspire greatness in those around her.

Music Aditi loves jamming to Bollywood music, particularly tracks by Arijit, and occasionally indulges in a bit of Taylor Swift. Her playlists are always full of surprises!

What’s next? Aditi wants to keep scaling beyond what she thinks she can and cannot do. She wants to embark on more outdoor activities and travel more independently in the near future.

“Check your unconscious bias about people with disabilities. Look at people’s abilities instead of focusing on their disabilities.”

Aditi Shah has reshaped the conventional narrative of what it means to be a cybersecurity leader. From steering machine learning automations to pioneering work in AI for cybersecurity, she has left an indelible mark on the industry in just a few years into her career. Beyond her technical prowess, she’s also a fervent advocate for inclusivity and accessibility, driving key initiatives within Microsoft and the tech industry.  Her journey, underpinned by her resilience and determination, is not just a personal triumph, but an inspiration for countless others in the field.

Hailing from Mumbai, India, Aditi was a nerdy kid who always dreamed of pursuing her passion for computers to become a software engineer. Then, at 11, Aditi’s life slowly started to change, when she started tripping over objects and required larger text. Although Aditi’s parents thought she was perhaps a bit absent-minded, a visit to the ophthalmologist led Aditi to life-changing news: she had Retinitis Pigmentosa and would slowly lose her vision. At the age of 15, Aditi lost her sight completely. With no blind role models to guide her, Aditi forged her own path.

An affliction that could’ve derailed her dreams only served to strengthen them, paving the way for a journey she’d never envisaged before, one she would embark upon with unwavering resolve and courage. Aditi’s mother recorded her textbooks onto audio cassettes, enabling her to continue her education despite diminishing sight. Fueled by perseverance and an unwavering will, Aditi’s drive to succeed led to her being one of the top 3 students in the city of Mumbai. After high school, she pursued a bachelor’s and master’s degree in I.T. at the University of Mumbai, becoming the first blind student to study STEM at the University.

Being a trailblazer had its challenges. There were no other blind students in STEM that Aditi could share experiences with and no accessible study materials. Aditi only had access to very rudimentary screen reader technology. Nevertheless, Aditi addressed these challenges head-on, learning the invaluable lessons of persistence no matter the odds, which would continue to serve her well throughout her career.

Despite graduating at the top of her class, the “real world” slammed its doors in Aditi’s face. Companies refused to interview her due to her blindness, assuming that she wouldn’t be able to work as a software engineer. Aditi pivoted and carved out a successful career as a freelancer, which eventually led to a full-time role at an enterprise security solutions company, where she had the opportunity to eventually lead all of product development.

Aditi wanted to go deeper into security, which led to her making a big move to study cybersecurity at Georgia Tech, marking her first experience living alone. She ran into a new set of challenges, such as learning to walk with a white cane, cooking, furnishing her apartment, and more. Despite these challenges, Aditi once again persevered and graduated with a 4.0, and landed a summer internship with Microsoft, which led to a full-time offer in Redmond, Washington.

What sparked Aditi’s fascination for cybersecurity was the need to be a polymath, to know everything. She reveled in the fact that proficiency in cybersecurity demanded a wide range of skills – everything from computer science to operating systems, networks, and databases. She felt a magnetic pull to the field since every creation needs to be secure and the prospect of an ever-evolving landscape of learning and application invigorated her. Schooling taught her the basics, but her thirst for knowledge led her to delve deeper into the hacking world and adopt the security mindset. This fresh perspective made her look at everything through a different lens, always probing, “How can this be broken?”

The current state of security can be overwhelming, yet Aditi saw it as a call to action. The digital transformation, especially accelerated by the Covid-19 pandemic massively increased the attack surface, outstripping the human capacity for response. This stark reality spurred Aditi towards AI as a solution. She saw the need of AI-centric defense, understanding both sides of the coin–thinking as a defender to secure systems, and from the offensive security side to anticipate breaches. As a researcher, she pondered how AI solutions could be harnessed to thwart bad actors and amplify the good ones.

Aditi’s work on machine learning over three years made her realize its potential to think in thousands of dimensions, something humans are incapable of. The ability to use AI to sift through vast amounts of data, cut through the noise, and zero in on key signals is game-changing. Aditi recently worked on the Microsoft Security Copilot, using GPT to empower incident responders to protect customers.

The future of AI, Aditi believes, is akin to electricity—it will power everything. It’s imperative that AI is safe, secure, and fair for all. This challenge is likely to be Aditi’s next adventure, a quest to safeguard the world’s AI systems.

In addition to her regular job responsibilities at Microsoft, Aditi is also deeply committed to making a difference in her community. Within Microsoft, she co-chairs the disability Employee Resource Group for Microsoft Security and is also part of the Microsoft Security Diversity & Inclusion Council, tirelessly working to create an inclusive environment for all types of disabilities.

Recognizing the lack of representation in tech and cybersecurity, Aditi took it upon herself to address the issue from its roots. She collaborates with nonprofits like Our Space, Our Place and Vision-Aid, which focus on underprivileged children and those with disabilities, especially in remote parts of India. Through these endeavors, Aditi helps these children get the support and motivation they need to develop their skills and increase their employability.

Aditi’s story is a powerful testament to her never-ceasing hunger for knowledge and her unwavering dedication to breaking barriers. Today, she is not only a cybersecurity and AI expert, but an inspiring role model for countless others with disabilities navigating their own paths. She also has an important message for allies in the tech industry: “check your unconscious bias about people with disabilities. Look at people’s abilities instead of focusing on their disabilities.” Aditi’s message to people who are blind or visually impaired is simple yet powerful: “Don’t let anything limit your potential.”

Aditi would love to hear from anyone who could benefit from discussion with her, which would include individuals with disabilities or someone who wants a career in AI and security. You can reach out to Aditi via her LinkedIn profile: Aditi Shah | LinkedIn