Meet The Disruptors: Friedhelm Weinberg Of HURIDOCS On The Five Things You Need To Shake Up Your Industry

An Interview With Fotis Georgiadis

Make time to read and learn, even if you think you’re busy, it’s where the answers are. All good managers I ever had modeled this and I have seen that whenever I did not make enough time, that’s when I get stuck.

As a part of our series about business leaders who are shaking things up in their industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Friedhelm Weinberg.

Friedhelm Weinberg is the Executive Director of Human Rights Information and Documentation Systems (HURIDOCS), an NGO that supports organizations and individuals to gather, analyze and harness information to promote and protect human rights. Friedhelm has overseen HURIDOCS projects and partnerships around the globe as director since 2017, having first joined the organization in 2012. He is constantly exploring new solutions, approaches and collaborations.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?

A combination of curiosity and chance led me here. Curiosity was a main driving force for me seeking out experiences in journalism, working at local newspapers, becoming the editor-in-chief of a youth magazine, and reporting from other countries. I was curious about people, their stories, and telling them. At the same time, I had started gaining experience working with nonprofits, in youth exchange and human rights education. Part of me was attracted much more to doing, rather than telling the stories of those doing.

By sheer chance, while visiting a friend in Armenia, I met someone who was working at HURIDOCS at the time, and I was immediately taken by the mission of the organization. I knew that that was what I wanted to be doing. By an even bigger chance shortly afterward an opportunity opened up to which my profile suited, and I jumped on it. Almost ten years later, I am still here and excited about what we do.

Can you tell our readers what it is about the work you’re doing that’s disruptive?

At HURIDOCS, we are committed to helping solve some of the trickiest challenges facing human rights defenders and we are using innovative technologies to do so.

Typically, NGOs collect and curate large bodies of human rights evidence, law, and research, with the goal of making these collections useful for advocates and human rights defenders. However, manually processing these documents can take several days, particularly when they’re published in unfamiliar languages or in PDF format which is difficult to search through.

HURIDOCS is making this process easier by leveraging the power of information and machine learning. In 2018, we were selected as a Google AI Impact Challenge grantee and received a $1M grant and a team of seven full-time Fellows, who supported us pro-bono for six months, to build new tools that automatically tag human rights documents so they are searchable. The result — making the curation process 13x faster (which now takes one week instead of three months).

In June of last year, HURIDOCS also won a CogX Award for our machine learning work, and we are continuing to explore what our machine learning models can do — from creating automatic tables of contents for documents to identifying references within text.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

I was asked to make coffee for a high profile visitor, while I was working at Kreisau Initiative, a Berlin-based non-profit organization focused on youth exchange.

My problem? I did not drink coffee at the time and had only ever watched people making it from afar. I improvised and did my best. After this, my boss took me aside. She complimented the way I served and how that helped make the guest feel at ease. She then went on to say that, alas, the coffee was so weak, it was undrinkable.

It taught me the importance of asking for help, even when it could be embarrassing. I could have easily sought out one of the colleagues in the office that drank and made coffee regularly, and I should have, given the stakes. It also taught me a lot about giving feedback. I did not receive a telling-off, but an important life lesson.

We all need a little help along the journey. Who have been some of your mentors? Can you share a story about how they made an impact?

One was Agnieszka von Zanthier, who was the boss I just mentioned. The other is Klaus Prestele, who took over her role, as she transitioned to our sister foundation. They were so different and so complementary, which in itself was a lesson in what organisations gain from leaders with diverse backgrounds and experiences. From Agnieszka, I learned so much about the importance of relationships, bringing yourself to it, but meeting the other where they are. She modeled how important it was to understand people and to speak to them from your heart. From Klaus I learned about balance and organisation: He was a very present father of three, studied in the evenings, wrestled at the national level, so he could have never worked an 80 hour week. Instead, he used his time smartly and made sure that as an organisation we met our commitments, and did so on time. Trust in people, clear processes and loads of fun were some of the key ingredients for that.

In today’s parlance, being disruptive is usually a positive adjective. But is disrupting always good? When do we say the converse, that a system or structure has ‘withstood the test of time’? Can you articulate to our readers when disrupting an industry is positive, and when disrupting an industry is ‘not so positive’? Can you share some examples of what you mean?

Nothing is ever always good and that certainly goes for disruption. Social change takes a long time, it’s changing attitudes, behaviours and how they shape systems. We’re not going to have an app, a policy or a law cut this journey short — but we should rather see all of them as part of the journey. It’s important to value the people, the movements leading the change. People and relationships are the unseen fabric, and disrupting these woven webs can be absolutely terrible.

Disruption can be much more positive when it is enabling these people. For example, with the machine learning work we do at HURIDOCS, we are enabling highly trained and overstretched curators of information collections to do their work faster and with greater detail. It is building on their work to make critical human rights information accessible, and it is focusing on the tedious and overwhelming tasks that they never ever could have had time for.

We’re hoping this will disrupt how accessible information is, and that, in turn, enables a much more diverse movement to take action with this information: to follow up on recommendations a State has received at the United Nations to combat gender-based violence; to find precedent from an international court that allows an advocate to win their case at the national level; to strategize who your unusual allies can be when you want to bring an issue to international attention.

Can you share five of the best words of advice you’ve gotten along your journey? Please give a story or example for each.

Make time to read and learn, even if you think you’re busy, it’s where the answers are. All good managers I ever had modeled this and I have seen that whenever I did not make enough time, that’s when I get stuck.

There is a physical dimension to thoughts and feelings. Working with a coach made me realize how tensions, fatigue and restlessness are very much physical sensations in the body, and opening up to that has had a powerful effect to deal with them.

Exchange with peers. When becoming the executive director of a non-profit, I did not quite expect how isolated one can be with challenges. Having circles of peers has been invaluable for confidential exchange with people who get it.

Focus not on what you’re trying to say, but what the other needs to hear. It’s really about understanding how to create a connection — whether that’s with the team, a potential partner or the board.

Dress to show respect. My former boss at HURIDOCS was one of the most casual managers, interviewing me in jeans and t-shirt. But he’d put on a shirt and tie for occasions where it mattered to others, even though he would always prefer sneakers and hoodies. Since I fall into camp hoodie and jeans as well, it impressed on me when to make it more about the other person than oneself.

We are sure you aren’t done. How are you going to shake things up next?

We’ve got great plans at HURIDOCS! We’re deeply convinced that information will be at the heart of a rights-respecting future. Truths will allow humanity to grow, learn and reckon with its past. Persuasion will lead to the realisation of rights of the vulnerable and marginalised. Accountability will deter abuse of power.

And that is why we’ll see how we can work with many more human rights groups across the globe. For this, we’re hoping to focus on exploring new technologies and equally crucially the infrastructure to allow all of us to use them, at scale and in a sustainable manner.

Do you have a book, podcast, or talk that’s had a deep impact on your thinking? Can you share a story with us? Can you explain why it was so resonant with you?

“Evidence for Hope” by Kathryn Sikkink would be my non-fiction pick. It’s a compelling, well-researched book that makes a strong case on the incredible success the human rights movement has had, and how that’s rooted in its origin that is a lot more global than many would have thought. It resonated with me, because it grounds in research why we should be forward-looking and excited about the potential for positive change.

But to be honest, it has probably been novels that had the deepest impact on my thinking. I find they are best to open up my mind to nuance, perspective and surprise. There are many that have had that effect, but to name one it would be “Purge” by Sofi Oksanen as it covers so many aspects of oppression, liberty and the human condition.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“It is possible that there is no other memory than the memory of wounds. […] Memory thus is our force, it protects us against a speech entwining upon itself like the ivy when it does not find a support on a tree or a wall.” Czesław Miłosz

It speaks to the importance of remembering, and how it is a force in the present and to build a better future — without taking away the pain it is also linked to and how that endures. Miłosz expresses something that deeply resonates with me, growing up in a unifying Europe, but with the memory of the great crimes committed in the 20th century.

It also speaks to the work we do at HURIDOCS, supporting human rights organisations across the globe to preserve memory, to document abuses with the goal of achieving accountability and healing.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I am a big believer in personal exchange and learning languages as a way to broaden the way we see the world, how we appreciate perspectives and the beauty that lies in something that is different from ourselves. If we could learn more languages together, I am sure that would help a lot of people on their individual journeys, and us together as societies.

How can our readers follow you online?

You can follow HURIDOCS on Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn. Feel free to also connect with me on LinkedIn.

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!

Meet The Disruptors: Friedhelm Weinberg Of HURIDOCS On The Five Things You Need To Shake Up Your… was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

Recommended Posts