In order to create meaningful change in the lives of women, it is important that we take the “women supporting women” concept one step further, and become strategic in our support. The exciting potential of women in AI is that their presence has such a wide reach. Not only is AI one of the most pervasive technologies industry-wise, the data it produces can have significant social impacts on our society.
In this article, you’ll hear from some of the most influential women investors and entrepreneurs in AI discussing their strategic support of fellow women and their passion for building a future with a plethora of successful, diverse AI companies.
Shruti Gandhi has worked in data for over a decade. She is an engineer and founder of Array Ventures with 6 exits to companies such as Apple, Paypal, and Samsung with 10x returns. She is also an adjunct professor in the CS department at Columbia University.
Array Ventures leads first round investments in data, AI, and ML companies that solve problems for the enterprise in every vertical from health, fintech, to general AI and developer tools. The fund helps technical founders focus on their go-to-market strategy which Gandhi believes is the key to unlock success for the next stages. Despite the challenges of the stage over 75% of Array Ventures portfolio companies have raised great follow-on rounds from top funds.
Gandhi says it is important for investors to support women founders in AI, because AI learns from people that train it. “I often complain that Alexa doesn’t understand my accent,” says Gandhi, “and people often retort back with, “well, it’s trained by a lot of Indian engineers,” but then I ask, ‘Are those engineers women?’ and then there isn’t a good answer.”
She believes that a key to improving the efficacy of AI is to invest in more AI startups run by women and generally more diverse teams. Array’s portfolio consists of mostly AI and data related startups and over a third of them are women-led.
Shruti believes that in order to change the numbers you have to put women in-charge of decision making across the board not only in the founding teams but also at the fund level (GP) and LP teams. This will create a longer lasting effect and create new patterns in the system.
Marisa Warren, Co-Founder & General Partner at ALIAVIA Ventures an LA based firm backing early-stage female tech founders in the US and Australia, Founder at ELEVACAO a global pre-accelerator for women tech founders, and ex SAP, Microsoft and Workday, is very familiar with the challenges women entrepreneurs face when fundraising, especially in high tech fields such as AI. “Very few firms will invest in female tech founders – why is that?” Warren asks.
“One reason is that investors tend to pattern-match based on previous investments. Those investments have typically been in white male founded/led companies. Hence they are more willing to take a gamble on a male founder business at the pre-revenue / seed level than a female founder.” Warren continues, “The market stats support this with less than 2.7% of venture funding going to women-founded businesses. When you don’t have that institutional funding for female founders coming in at the early stage, it just takes women much longer to build out the business and get to a point where they can secure institutional funding. However, when you invest in women-founded businesses they will achieve on average 35% higher ROI than male-led businesses.”
“We are just both very passionate about being able to support women in business,” says Kate Vale, also a Co-Founder & General Partner at ALIAVIA. Vale has held leadership positions with organizations including Google, YouTube, Spotify & Epidemic Sound. “I saw the struggles women faced while I was in the corporate world,” says Vale, “now I feel like this is my opportunity to give back a little.” Kate is also an angel investor and has invested in some great female led businesses such as Vurbl. Vurbl is led by Audra Gold and is revolutionizing the way people distribute and listen to audio-centric information across the web. Just like YouTube, Vurbl allows content creators to upload, earn subscribers and monetize their work. Kate co-invested with Jesse Drapers Halogen Ventures who invest in consumer technology companies led by women.
Aubrie Pagano is a General Partner at Alpaca VC, and is passionate about using more sophisticated, AI-driven technology for commerce. On the topic of women in AI specifically, Pagano states, “Female representation is dire across tech, but is heightened in data science and engineering.”
According to Pagano, it’s important to have female founders building diverse software teams because of the following: “The rules of how the world is run are being written by AI and algorithms. Having diverse perspectives into how those rules are drafted and function is critical. Can you imagine the negative consequences of a world without it?”
Pagano states that women founders of AI companies are facing the same challenges faced by all female founders looking for capital. Over the past few years, women haven’t received more than 3% of capital raised, and Black women received even less.
“I think it’s important that women be involved in AI as founders, not just as you know, the umpteenth engineer or a business hire or even investor,” says Jessica Li, head of content at Elpha, a platform for women in business to speak candidly online.
Dr. Silvia Mah is the Board Chair of Stella Labs, whose mission is to inspire, equip, and propel female founders to successfully plan, launch, and scale their original businesses, thus positively impacting their local, national and global economies.
In 2020 Stella Labs and Ad Astra Ventures hosted the seventh annual Women’s Venture Summit, an event focused on activating female investors and improving access to capital for female founders. To date, the conference sponsored by Cooley LLP and Morgan Stanley has helped women raise more than $10 million in seed capital.
“Women’s Venture Summit delivers on its promise year-over-year to spur investments in women-led businesses,” says Raven O’Neal, executive director of Stella Labs. “Through timely conversations, networking and instruction, the Summit helps female founders connect with investors while also providing investors with access to deal flow.”
This year, several AI founders participated in the all-virtual WVS Women’s Fast Pitch, including Healium, FaceTrace, AGED (Active Genomes Expressed) Diagnostics, BioStrandz, Advocat Technologies, SENSOL Systems, Humaxa.
Another recent event promoting women in AI was the WomenTech Global Awards hosted by Anna Radulovski, founder at WomenTech Network. “To create a more inclusive world, we need to ensure that AI is built inclusive, which means that women and minorities have to be actively involved in the process.”
“With just 13.8% of women having authored artificial intelligence related research papers and only 22% of AI professionals globally being female, we understand that there is a huge gap and a lot of work to be done. In addition to unconscious bias, gender stereotypes and lack of role models, organizations are often failing to embrace the power of diversity in their recruitment, retention and leadership practices.”
To tackle these challenges the WomenTech Network team have launched a variety of initiatives and platforms with the help of 4500+ Ambassadors from 161 countries. Among them are Tallocate, an AI powered platform to reduce bias in the hiring process, the Female Founder Program, to help women launch tech-enabled startups and the Global AI Inclusion Award, to highlight the work of role models in AI.
This year the jury selected Prof. Hajar Mousannif, a Moroccan AI pioneer and innovator, as the Gold winner, for her impactful work in AI and for creating the first Moroccan Arabic speaking humanoid robot based on open source to defend the rights of women and girls.
“I am looking forward to hearing the powerful stories from the Award winners and industry leaders in AI at the Global Conference for Women in Tech,” says Anna Radulovski, WomenTech Networks Founder & CEO.
Raina Kumra is Managing Partner at The Fund LA, an early stage venture capital fund composed of local founders and operators, investing in Southern California. Previously, Kumra helped build the tech ethics portfolio at Omidyar Network, investing in alternative business models and ethical interventions for the technology industry.
Kumra describes herself as working “at the intersection of public interest and technology, and AI is woven into both areas, whether users know it or not.” She is passionate about advising young companies utilizing AI to ensure that they are developing ethical AI and doing some very basic mapping exercises and table top scenario exercises.
“The person who holds the keys or the code in this case, has built-in bias. No matter who we are, we all have bias,” says Kumra. “That is why not just investing in women but in diverse teams and having a diverse portfolio of AI companies that are all taking different approaches to solving the problem is so important.
“It is only through diversity that we are able to shift bias into something more expansive and inclusive, and therefore train that AI in not just one way, but many ways.”
Only 13.5% of those working in machine learning are female – which means there is only a small percentage of companies that will be diversified and de-biased. However, Kumra is hopeful, because “as it grows, even that 13.5% will have a huge influence on AI products, and be able to flag design issues and product issues more effectively than more homogenous companies.”
“The other reason we desperately need more women in the field,” Kumra adds, “is to keep more women in the field. It’s hard to be an outsider, a one of a kind.”
Kumra explained that many early stage startups don’t understand that they have already started building a culture when it is just two white male founders.
“It is hard for a woman to come in as employee number 5 or 6 and stay the course. It’s the same thing with boardrooms. It’s hard to be the only woman at the table.”
On the topic of boards, Annette White-Klososky, Partner at Future Point of View – a technology and leadership consulting firm – and Chair of her state for 2020 Women on Boards explains, “The percent of women on board of companies on the Russell 3000 has steadily increased in the last 4 years going from 16% nationally to 22.6% in 2020. However, one third of the Russell 3000 companies have one or no women Directors, so we still have a long way to go on gender balance.”
White-Klososky is also the Oklahoma Chapter chair for another organization championing women, the Women Presidents’ Organization (WPO).
“The Women Presidents’ Organization is the ultimate affiliation for successful women entrepreneurs worldwide, connecting women who lead multimillion-dollar companies,” says White-Klososky, “The WPO helps women from diverse, noncompetitive industries take their companies to the next level. It is definitely a place to find a champion for you and your business.”
Many VC firms that are known for funding AI are male led and their portfolios reflect their pattern matching bias. Kumra explains that it is difficult for women to break into this world and break through “the discomfort in investing in someone who you do not see yourself in – who is not like you.”
“Luckily at least at the seed stage funding level, there are many female investors who are well-versed in AI and Machine Learning technologies in respective industries,” Kumra concludes, “and they are willing and able to fund, befriend and follow-on.”
In a recent diversity panel discussion, Maria Velissaris, Founding Partner of SteelSky Ventures, made the excellent point that AI impacts almost every industry in existence – including women’s healthcare.
“I think it’s a risk not to invest in women led, women’s health companies. Because if we don’t, nothing’s going to change.” On this point, Velissaris spoke to the machine learning, algorithmic bias of social media platforms towards women’s health companies.
“All of us investors,” adds Velissari, “ we are banding together to not only create great returns, but to also buck the system and change outcomes for female founders as well.”
Moderating the panel was Aakriti Srikanth, an enterprise AI investor. Her experience as an advisor supporting female founders and other minorities encouraged her to launch an accelerator Amalgamma. On bias in AI, Srikanth comments, “Even the data cleansing process that takes up about 80% of the time in most machine learning projects cannot eliminate this bias as the source data is biased.”
Rashida Hodge, who currently leads a $2-3B P&L for IBM’s North America Global Markets Sales Segment, was also on the panel. She stated, “As a black woman in tech, I mean, I clearly understand the harsh realities of what happens when we neglect to do the work of creating these inclusive, diverse environments.”
“We’re all familiar with the number of stories about AI technologies that have incorrectly identified black people or struggled with recognizing the nuances of people’s complexion,” she continued, “A lot of times, the quick fixes for these issues have concentrated on addressing the technology or the algorithm.
However, in my view, the underlying bias of these technologies remains around the challenge of whether we can prioritize recruiting and retaining diverse talent.” A big part of that ability to retain talent means the allowance for authenticity, says Hodge.
“In many instances, we’re not able to bring our personal nuance into these spaces. We’re not really able to differentiate like we ought to, because we’re trying to be like someone else – we’re trying to be like the norm, and the norm is not diverse…It’s a very isolating feeling, as a minority, when you’re being told you have to not just be better, you have to be 100 times better than the person that’s sitting next to you. That’s not how we’re going to be able to fix this problem.”
Shruthi Rao, the Founder and CBO at Vendia, a serverless, multi-cloud distributed data platform, told the panel, “When I was with AWS, I often found myself to be alone in a room full of men, most of time white men, that thankfully, were very supportive to me. And I’m sure all of you have wondered, why is that?”
“Not only is diversity good for everyone, it’s also profitable. So if we start talking about profitability, I think the stakeholders who are just used to listening from that angle are the way we start creating these new products.
“I think there’s a really tight correlation between the technology side and the culture side,” says Christine Heckart, CEO at Scalyr. “By most measures of diversity, we create products and algorithms and experiences and outcomes that are not the most optimized experience.”
“I think there is a cultural aspect,” Heckart continues, “because a lot of companies will hire diverse candidates and then can’t keep them. They can’t keep them because of culture.”
Heckhart continues, “Many companies say we want diversity, but what they are doing in practice is checking the box of diversity. However, the reason you want people who look different in the first place is because they have different experiences. We need those different experiences at the table, but we also need to recognize and accept that means conflict.”
Heckart concluded with actionable advice, “There’s a big difference between mentoring and sponsorship. Mentoring you’ve helped people behind the scenes, but with sponsorship, you put your own political capital at risk, to advocate for them, to promote them, to pull them up.”
“The more that we, those of us who have made it, sponsor people who deserve it, the better the world will be, the faster it will be better.”
Peer championship is also key to supporting an ecosystem of women in AI. Lauren Weiniger is the CEO of Safely Health – a free app that allows people to show their verified STD status privately on their phones. Weiniger, passionate about supporting women in business, especially in technology, states, “It is essential that women play a role in the development and deployment of AI, particularly when it comes to healthcare AI.”
She adds, “The gender gaps that already exist today are immense across the board, but the impacts it has on health and patient outcomes has life or death consequences.”
Sandra Ponce de León, Principal Blue Economy Agency, echoes and summarizes these sentiments clearly, stating, “Women investing in women is a win-win proposition that creates a cycle of empowerment and enrichment. We know that AI has a bias problem impacting major facets of our lives from financial loans to job opportunities, with more women in the field we can get closer to unbiased AI that removes unfair treatment in these areas.”
Women investing and creating their own wealth is a powerful symbol, not only because it’s important to close the gap in funding for female entrepreneurs, but also because women tend to invest their time and money in environmental, social and other initiatives that are positive for communities as a whole.
The combination of AI and gender diversity not only means successful companies, but a more equitable, sustainable future.