This article is part of our Women and Leadership special report that coincides with global events in March celebrating the accomplishments of women. This conversation has been edited and condensed.

Clara Shih, 42, is among a handful of women worldwide leading the development and deployment of generative artificial intelligence for business. (Generative A.I. “learns” patterns from training data and then creates something new and original). As chief executive of Salesforce AI, she leads research, development and market introduction of the company’s A.I. products.

Salesforce is the world’s largest provider of customer relationship management software, which enables businesses to track and manage customer information and interactions. Yet despite its dominance in the market, the company has had some recent turmoil. During 2023 and 2024 Salesforce laid off more than 10 percent of its employees and underwent a series of management changes, including the departure of its co-chief executive, Bret Taylor.

Ms. Shih has been at the forefront of society’s digital transformations for the last two decades. She has two master’s degrees, one in computer science from Stanford University and the other in internet studies from Oxford University.

In 2006, she joined Salesforce as a product manager on its newly created AppExchange team and a year later created a social business application on Facebook (Face-Force, later renamed Faceconnecter), which allowed Salesforce users to integrate their Facebook network with their C.R.M. contacts. The company decided not to develop it as a product, but Ms. Shih recognized that social media was transforming business.

She published a best-selling book, “The Facebook Era,” in 2009 and left Salesforce to co-found Hearsay Social — now Hearsay Systems — with a friend from Stanford. Hearsay allows financial services and insurance companies to use social media and text messaging in a way that complies with industry regulations. In mid-2020 she stepped down as chief executive to become Hearsay’s board chair and in January 2021 rejoined Salesforce as chief executive of Service Cloud. In May 2023, Ms. Shih was named head of Salesforce AI.

You were born in Hong Kong and emigrated with your family to Akron, Ohio, when you were 4. How has the experience of being an immigrant impacted your professional and personal development?

I felt like an outsider for many years as an immigrant in Akron, and my family was completely starting over. Both of my parents changed careers. My dad had been a math professor in Hong Kong. When we first got to Ohio, he shoveled snow for $5 an hour. Eventually, he became an electrical engineer. My mom was an artist and art teacher who went back to school to become a special education teacher. Seeing their work ethic and their ability to embrace reinvention had a profound impact on me. It taught me to always have a beginner’s mind, to embrace self-reinvention.

What about being a woman? You have said that you were often the only woman in the room, whether in your engineering classes or as a chief executive.

I got used to being underestimated, as women and minorities often are. I try to frame tough situations as positive in some way because it’s easy to fall into the trap of feeling like a victim. I reframed being “the only woman” or “the only person of color” as something that instead I take great pride in and feel great responsibility for, because I stand on the shoulders of the women of color that came before me.

Your drive to achieve and innovate started early. At 17, you worked as a computer programmer at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory; while attending Stanford University you founded a nonprofit for underserved youth. Where does that drive come from?

I’ve always felt tremendous gratitude and a sense of purpose from being in America. One of my earliest memories is when we were leaving Hong Kong. My grandmother, who we saw every day, encouraged us to go even though she was staying behind and knew she wouldn’t see us for a long time. She hugged all four of us and told us we were going to the land of our dreams come true. She was sending us off for a better life, and that has stayed with me.

You co-founded Hearsay Social and served as chief executive for 11 years. What did you take from that experience?

The importance of having that ‘beginner’s mind.’ Scaling a high-growth start-up means you are continually reinventing yourself and the company.

I became very good at hiring people and much better at delegating. I burned out at Hearsay because there were no boundaries. Even in the labor and delivery room, I was working. Now, 95 percent of the things that come my way, I say no.

That gives me the time and mental energy to focus on the 5 percent that really matters.

Salesforce’s A.I. technology is called Einstein and is embedded into all of the company’s products. It can, for instance, draft pitches to sales prospects or suggest a response to solve a customer support problem. What do you do as chief executive of Salesforce AI?

I lead my team in building the frontier of A.I. products.

I work very closely with all our general managers, including the chief executives of Slack and Tableau, and general managers of Sales Cloud and Service Cloud, as we remake our products to be A.I. first. I also work with our sales, marketing and customer service teams, to help customers deploy generative A.I. safely and securely.

Safety and security are thorny issues with A.I. How do you see your role in ensuring this technology is developed and used in a way that is ethical and responsible?

I feel a tremendous sense of personal responsibility toward creating A.I. that is trusted. One of the products we developed is the Einstein Trust Layer — it masks sensitive information, doesn’t retain any confidential or personally identifiable information and offers toxicity filters to prevent the sharing of inappropriate, harmful or inaccurate content. A.I. is going to be transformational for jobs, the way the internet was. I do have a healthy level of concern about it, but I’m an action-oriented person, so being in this role gives me a great platform to use to educate others, including members of Congress, C.E.O.s and our customers.

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