We look at the accomplishments of women leading the charge, not just as women-in-STEM bosses, but as the creative brains behind paradigm-shifting 4IR technologies and ideas that enable women’s presence to be felt more in this revolution
The voice of a woman is confident
“Speak with confidence. Everyone has a unique perspective and you have this job or opportunity for a reason.” This was the advice Miriam Daniel, VP of Alexa and Echo products at Amazon, once gave in response to a question about what it takes to be successful in her field.
“At the same time, understand that credibility is earned,” she added. “Take the time to dive deep and understand your product or process fully – that will help you speak from a place of confidence.” Perspicacious words from a woman who’s made a name for herself as one of the world’s leading computer engineers and a master implementer who led the team that created game-changing, voice-driven technology in the form of Echo.
The Indian-born mother of two is the biggest fan of the product she’s brought to billions of consumers around the world. “We have a family calendar where all of us log our appointments – travel schedules, competitive schedules, flight schedules and doctor’s appointments. We have Echo Show devices throughout our house, so these appointments show up in all our rooms and they’re tough to miss,” she’s said in the past when explaining how her family manages to co-ordinate their schedules.
Talk about walking the talk!
Reconciling the books and paying it forward
Therese Tucker, the CEO and founder of Blackline, is an unassuming figure with her pink hair and warm smile. Because her company’s essentially a cloud computing business that sells accounting automation software, it’s easy to dismiss her as just another techpreneur. But with more than 2 200 firms (including the likes of e-Bay, Under Armour and Coca-Cola) using her Blackline accounting software, it would be a mistake to overlook this woman who features in Forbes’ Top 100 Self- Made Women in America 2019 list.
“It’s important for young women to know that it’s possible to go out and build a business from absolutely nothing, through a successful IPO, through life as a public company.”
Self-made she is indeed. Having cashed out her retirement savings, maxed two credit cards and taken out a second mortgage to start the company back in 2002, she’s gone on to build a firm that’s worth more than $2 billion today.
“I had a couple of friends who believed in me,” she’s said of the company’s early days – when making payroll was touch and go, with clients taking a long time to pay her. “I’d go and beg [those friends] for $30 000 or $40 000.” This was a cycle that kept repeating itself as she paid them back, then had to borrow again to pay employees’ salaries. “Here’s the thing about companies: they take forever to pay.”
Still, thanks to her breathtaking tenacity and gumption, she persevered and eventually led Blackline to a successful IPO in 2016. She now owns a sumptuous 10% slice of the firm.
The 57-year-old CEO and yoga instructor, whose company was also named by Fortune magazine as one of the best workplaces in the USA, delights in accepting invitations to events to talk to young women about building formidable STEM careers. “I think it’s important for young women to see what I’ve done and to know that it’s possible to go out and build a business from absolutely nothing, through a successful IPO, through life as a public company. Women can do that.”
Correcting the built-in bias in AI systems
When facial-recognition technology was introduced to the mass market, it was hailed as a powerful tool in fighting crime. But when Ghanaian- American computer scientist and digital activist Joy Buolamwini stepped onto the TEDxBeaconStreet stage a few years ago, it wasn’t to make us feel warm and fuzzy about what algorithms can do for the 4IR.
“Machine learning is being used for facial recognition, but it’s also extending beyond the realm of computer vision,” she warned. Through Algorithmic Justice League – the computer engineers’ and coders’ organisation she started – she’s determined to call fight algorithmic bias. For her advocacy, the 28-year-old digital activist was named one of BBC’s 100 Women in 2018 and was also listed as one of America’s Top 50 Women in Tech by Forbes last year.
“When I was an undergraduate at Georgia Tech studying computer science, I used to work on social robots. One of my tasks was to get a robot to play peek-a-boo. The problem is, peek-a-boo doesn’t really work if I can’t see you. And my robot couldn’t see me,” she said in a recent radio interview, explaining her personal experience of the ingrained bias of facial-recognition technology.
“Not long afterwards, I was in Hong Kong on a tour of local start-ups. One of them had a social robot and decided to do a demo. It worked on everybody until it got to me. And, as you can probably guess, it couldn’t detect my face.” The reason? Buolamwini’s complexion was simply too dark for the technology to recognise her facial features.
As more police departments adopt this technology, she stresses the need for self-reflection and circumspection. “We always have to ask with these types of technologies, with AI: who’s included? Who’s excluded?”
Biotechnology to detect cervical cancer at home
While studying bioscience at the UK’s Cambridge University, Chantelle Bell and Anya Roy came up with a simple solution to a problem that’s taken the lives of millions of women: a device similar to a home pregnancy test to detect cervical cancer. According to cancer.net, the five-year survival rate for all women with invasive cervical cancer is 66%. However, if the disease is detected early, the five-year survival rate shoots up to 92%.
Syrona Woman is at the research and development stage, but has already raised hundreds of thousands of dollars as a start-up to invest in, according to Forbes, which also listed the 26-year-old as one of 2018’s Top 50 Women in Tech for Europe.
When this device comes to market, it’s expected to be a disruptive technology that will put the power back in women’s hands when it comes to detecting a cancer that’s the third most common among women and the second most frequent cause of cancer-related death, according to the USA-based National Cancer Institute.
Building the brain of self-driving cars
It’s one thing to be a woman in the proverbial driver’s seat in the male-dominated STEM fields, and quite another to be a woman who’s a pioneer in the self-driving field. Carol Reiley, the co-founder and former President of Drive.ai, is the latter.
The company which Reiley co-founded with fellow graduate students at Stanford’s Artificial Intelligence Lab uses deep learning to try to build the brain of self-driving vehicles. “Deep learning is the closest algorithm to how the human brain learns,” Reiley said in an interview before stepping down from her post as President last year.
To date, the company’s raised almost $100 million and is already beginning to roll out a self-driving car service to the public – not bad for an essentially bootstrapped start-up that was only launched in 2015, a year after she married Andrew Ng, Coursera co-founder and adjunct professor of computer science at Stanford University.
“We approached the whole idea of building our lives and our family from a really analytical place. What are our priorities? Would multiple children help apply economies of scale? What do we want to contribute to the world? The very first thing I decided was that I didn’t want a fancy wedding. What I did want was to invest in myself. I said to Andrew: ‘Let’s use this wedding fund and just put it towards a start-up.’”
And the 37-year-old, who’s now working on her next project – a healthcare start-up, has continued investing in herself, and building a legacy while she’s at it.