Blog: WiMLDS Bay Area: Women Entrepreneurs in AI (2019 Meetup Recap)
After a small meet and greet, four powerful women spoke about their struggles and stories behind the companies they founded: Deborah Hanus (CEO, Sparrow), Trisha Kothari (CEO, Unit 21), Manasi Vartak (CEO, Verta.ai), and Jean Yang (CEO, Akita Software). Britteny lead the discussion with key questions.
They all had different beginnings into working. From working in the university’s lab to selling handcrafted keepsakes, they all wanted to answer a need.
Deborah noticed how difficult it was for wives to file for disability and childcare leave during her PhD work at Harvard, with overbearing paperwork and deadlines to juggle. She decided to offer a hand, and built a system to set aside overlooked technicalities and processing difficulties and allow people to continue thriving in their work and life when they need an extended leave. This system became Sparrow.
Trisha wanted to help keep companies secure and safe. Especially in a time where security is underestimated or difficult to keep track of, small businesses and entrepreneurs may not realize when they are vulnerable to hackers and fraudulent activity. She blended machine learning and human analysts together into Unit 21 to support all companies concerned about money laundering and fraud.
Manasi explored countless ideas, but during her time working on her PhD at MIT, she noticed the opportunity that machine learning and data science afforded all businesses. Working on ModelDB, an open source model management system, she decided to evolve the concept into Verta.ai, a platform where data scientists and machine learning engineers can work together seamlessly in developing and managing models being used during production.
Jean began her idea as a passion to research in improving data management. She put her tenure-track position as Assistant Professor at Carnegie Mellon University on hold to pursue her own project. Alongside her experience at Microsoft and Facebook, she realized the freedom of being small and independent. With knowledge she gained from Cybersecurity Factory and her PhD work with MIT automating security enforcement and privacy policies for sensitive information through data models, she founded her own company, Akita Software.
Starting up their own companies, they shared similar difficulties. Working alone had its own set of challenges; it was easy to get discouraged by self-doubt and criticisms. There wasn’t a perfect, linear path; it was impossible to predict which ideas would or wouldn’t work. So, they believed in making decisions in the face of adversity and uncertainty. They believed in themselves. As self-starters, the freedom from being autonomous, growing a team, and watching their company grow were rewarding.
As Jean liked to put it, when you’re alone, you’re swimming along with the raft. It would be okay to drown alone, but when you have others on your raft — you see them worry. Now they can drown with you, too. You do everything within you to make sure they don’t drown. Maybe just you.
Being female entrepreneurs in a start up culture that began around male figures, they also faced subtle hardships in discrimination.
Jean wanted to tell her personal story of how she had to forgo love for her business, but was told it was a bad idea. Masculine traits of power and machismo were often lauded, in place of vulnerability and intimacy. In such a landscape, it was more important for them to stand true to themselves and follow their own path that worked for them, including understanding motivations to use as incentives during negotiations. Among the mansplain-ers, bandwagonners, and white knights, those who were experienced and invested enough into following their whole process were the most helpful — including angel investors. There was a disarming level of strength in having a capable woman standing her ground.