Karen K. Burns of Fyma: “Speak your truth, always”

…The influx of women into the industry from previously ‘uncool’ female-dominated fields like statistics. Gender parity is not only a desirable goal in itself, but also brings a lot of other benefits. Having more women also means harnessing their ability to correct the inbuilt biases in algorithms and thus bring a more balanced set of […]

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…The influx of women into the industry from previously ‘uncool’ female-dominated fields like statistics. Gender parity is not only a desirable goal in itself, but also brings a lot of other benefits. Having more women also means harnessing their ability to correct the inbuilt biases in algorithms and thus bring a more balanced set of insights to our field. Also all the new jobs that will likely be created — there will be careers in the future that we cannot even think of now in the AI industry.

As part of my series about the women leading the Artificial Intelligence industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Karen K. Burns.

Karen is co-founder and CEO of Fyma, a Tallinn based startup whose AI turns any new and legacy outdoor and CCTV camera into a smart sensor to capture real time data and turn it into actionable insights.

With 770 million CCTV cameras installed around the world today and set to exceed 1 billion by 2021, Karen is on a mission to help companies unlock value hidden within existing video footage using AI and computer vision. Her goal is to improve the layout and design of urban spaces so people and objects can move around more efficiently.

Karen is regularly invited to speak on strategy, business development and management topics at conferences and events including Google Baltics, Nordic Testing Days (keynotes), TTÜ Cyber Conference, Digigirls with Telia among others. She is a highly passionate advocate for increasing inclusion of women in STEM and management positions.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you share with us the ‘backstory” of how you decided to pursue this career path?

My dream was to work in film production and I have an undergraduate degree in Film and TV and a Master’s in film studies from University of London and UCL respectively. During my studies I worked as part of ICT teams at British Telecom and then at the UK’s health and social care regulator, eventually managing a small team and an operational budget of £14M, all at the young age of 21. It wasn’t my dream and, after 4 years of office work, I finally got to working in film production and worked on a number of Hollywood blockbusters including the Star Wars and The Fast and the Furious franchises, on set in the Middle East. While it may sound exciting and glamorous, the reality was minimum 12-hour days in a toxic working environment, lengthy commutes as well as the challenge of fitting in family life and raising a small child. Needless to say, the role quickly took its toll and unable to achieve any kind of work life balance that suited me, I made the decision to leave the industry and return to my home country of Estonia.

Back home I fell into a business development role. I have always been commercially minded and found I had a natural aptitude to lead teams and build businesses from scratch. I was invited to join Estonia’s fastest growing software development house, where I helped the company triple its annual revenue within two years. This was also where I met my Fyma co-founder, Taavi. We work really well together and have a complementary skill-set and temperament. So we knew eventually we’d start a business together. Seeing the potential of AI and with computer vision still in its infancy and applicable to a wide variety of sectors we saw an opportunity to make the technology scalable and came up with the idea for Fyma. I also decided to spruce up my education and completed a graduate diploma in law at BPP university, which has come in handy now that I am a founder!

What lessons can others learn from your story?

I guess these stories serve best to let others interpret the kind of lessons that would be useful for them. Perhaps one thing has been that it is possible to change career direction not once, but even twice, like in my case, and with grit and determination make it a success. Perhaps, experiences like mine can open the door for others to change career direction even more times. We are living longer, studying for longer (and a wider variety of topics) and are more entrepreneurial than ever. There is no such thing as a job for life any more, unless you create it yourself. I studied Film and TV and Law, and am now leading an AI company. So it really isn’t about the ‘right background’ any longer.

Another learning I’d highlight, is that it is near impossible to be an entrepreneur or senior leader when you have small kids without a strong support network. Nobody can sustain ‘doing it all’ on their own, it is a myth that really damages women. Whether that support network is paid help, family, or friends — it is necessary. I am extremely grateful to my mom, without whom I’d not have been able to move to Dubai for 6 weeks to take part in an accelerator, travel abroad for short work trips, or attend evening events and dinners (with Covid, these last two things are no longer an issue).

Can you tell our readers about the most interesting projects you are working on now?

At the moment, it’s Fyma, our AI startup. The company is going through a fascinating phase of growth and learning phase. We are hiring and closely observing how our clients use the technology. One of the most interesting aspects of the project is being able to hear first-hand the different ideas clients have for the application of computer vision AI technology.

Whilst we are piloting Fyma with our end customers ourselves, we also work with resellers who are using the tech in very creative and fantastic ways. For example, a client is helping a university in their home country with an experiment. In this experiment, they aim to analyse the impact that a fake news billboard can have. To do so, they placed a billboard in an urban area, monitored by a camera. The feed is anonymised and sent to Fyma for processing to detect how many people and for how long are in the vicinity of the billboard. The stats of people’s behaviour around the billboard are gathered anonymously and securely with Fyma.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

I would not have been able to start building Fyma without my mom’s help. She played a massive role and provided crucial support when I needed it. Essentially, she has been helping out with everything in the household and with my kids. My husband lives and works in Dubai, so I am effectively alone in my day to day life and have to rely on family and paid help to get menial stuff done.

I would also mention my friend Triinu, she’s one of my oldest friends. We have been close for 28 years now. Recently, she started a journey of mindfulness, self-healing and self-improvement. She quit her job as a department head with a Swiss manufacturing company last year and joined a spiritual community in France, carving a gentler, more mindful and fulfilled life and career out for herself. Witnessing her journey over the past 5 years has been extremely inspirational and propelled me to start the journey of my own personal growth. I have been working with a coach since last August on personal development and growing as a leader, to be able to grow with the company, as we expand and increase our team size.

What are the 5 things that most excite you about the AI industry? Why?

The influx of women into the industry from previously ‘uncool’ female-dominated fields like statistics. Gender parity is not only a desirable goal in itself, but also brings a lot of other benefits. Having more women also means harnessing their ability to correct the inbuilt biases in algorithms and thus bring a more balanced set of insights to our field. Also all the new jobs that will likely be created — there will be careers in the future that we cannot even think of now in the AI industry.

What are the 5 things that concern you about the AI industry? Why?

Artificial intelligence is not something that most people are well-informed about. What most people know has also to some extent been shaped by fiction, fear of the unknown, or extreme cases. Misinformation and misconceptions, people not understanding the possibilities, the limitations of this technology. They all contribute to people being afraid and suspicious of it.

Also, legislators, instead of creating frameworks to exploit the technology in the best way, are creating a muddy area. Some areas of the AI industry are over-regulated and some aren’t even discussed. Their very slow movement to understand and regulate a field that is extremely fast moving and their inability to create sandbox environments to enable innovation.

There is also an alarming trend in the business and startup community. Many are claiming they are ‘doing AI’ or have ‘AI in their product’ when they really have no proprietary AI whatsoever. This ends up building mistrust from investors, the community and the general public.

As you know, there is an ongoing debate between prominent scientists, (personified as a debate between Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerberg,) about whether advanced AI has the future potential to pose a danger to humanity. What is your position about this?

I actually had to look this up as I don’t follow either on social media and I am in the Zuckerberg camp on this one. We are still so far from AI ‘wiping out humanity’, it is more Orwell meets HG Wells in my opinion and of course, this sparks people’s imagination and fear in equal measure.

The threats will be (already are) from ourselves as humans and how we use the technology. Artificial Intelligence enables deepfakes, massive spread of misinformation and therefore can be used (again, already has been) to manipulate masses. Terrorism combined with AI is of course a potential major threat. But again, I don’t associate that or similar risks to AI itself killing people, but rather how humans will choose to utilise it.

What can be done to prevent such concerns from materializing? And what can be done to assure the public that there is nothing to be concerned about?

It’s all about education, and from early on. Our school systems are mostly churning out people who know how to use applications, but not how to create them. Curricula are created and reviewed by people who are so far removed from these topics that they don’t get the attention they deserve early on in school. In the very near future, AI will touch every field we operate in and kids need to learn about the possibilities and limitations of this technology, so they can make more informed and free-of-fear judgments about it.

Additionally, legislators need to start moving faster on supporting this field, so that the grey area I described above starts to clear up and take shape. We also need more information about what is and what is not allowed. This will set boundaries and provide reassurances. Ethics and the dangers of AI need to be discussed, acknowledged and then accounted for in the legislative process, with the help of subject matter specialists. More information means less prejudice and fear.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world? Can you share a story?

On a personal level, I am an active member of two grassroots charity projects and donate everything from clothing and school gear to furniture to families in need, coordinate food parcels and so forth. This way I know for sure the help is going where it is most needed and I can buy or give away things people actually have a need for.

I’ve also been a support person to a single mother in difficult circumstances since 2012, supported her from job hunting and interview preparation to refurbishing her kitchen. She got married last week, bought an apartment late last year and it’s been good to see her grow.

As you know, there are not that many women in your industry. Can you share 3 things that you would you advise to other women in the AI space to thrive?

The AI space is perhaps not so different from other male-dominated fields, and what I try to adhere to every day are pretty simple and basic truths — with passion, grit and repetition (this last one is key really):

1) What you do is who you are. No better quote than this book title from Ben Horowitz. For me it means fulfilling promises, learning constantly and on repeat, leading by example (what I do, not what I say, will be the example).

2) Surround yourself with people who know AI and if you’re a non-technical founder, go find that techie co-founder that you can really trust.

3) Speak your truth, always.

Can you advise what is needed to engage more women into the AI industry?

I honestly believe this is purely down to properly marketing the field to girls and women, combined with role models who can both inspire and ignite to pick this field. There are so many cool applications for the tech, women need to discover these more easily. For example, there are brilliant free of charge online courses available I recommend taking to see quickly and easily, if the field is something to move into. The backgrounds of data scientists, data engineers and analysts can be very broad and transitioning into this field from elsewhere can be achieved.

What is your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share a story of how that had relevance to your own life?

I have stumbled upon so many inspirational life lesson quotes that I have written them down on a note in my phone and occasionally read them and remind myself about them. When I find a new quote I really chime with, I add it in. However, one of my favourite ones is from a former president of Estonia, Mr Lennart Meri, who used a farming metaphor to inspire getting over hard times: “the manure we’re in today will provide nourishment for the soil of our future endeavours”. So whatever is happening right now that is not going well, the learning from it will support my future growth. It also reminds me that with hard work, most difficult situations can be overcome.

You are a person of great influence. If you could start 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 kind of already did something like this. When Estonia’s populist government was appointed in 2019, I was part of a small group that started a grassroots movement called #myEstoniatoo, where we started organising to educate people around fake news, democracy and human rights and we held a concert that same year with over 10,000 attendees. We’ve been campaigning almost monthly ever since, hosting webinars, meetups and building a strong community around it. That old government fell in January 2021 and Estonia now is the only country in the world, where the head of state and Prime Minister and both female. The cabinet has 7 female, extremely competent, ministers out of 15 — our biggest number ever — and it is so inspiring to see this, hoping I had a small part to play in this huge change away from a closed Estonia to an open one.

On a more global scale, and related to the work we’re doing at Fyma, I believe we need to think more about leveraging AI to help people, not only businesses. I’m convinced computer vision AI has a big role to play in making physical spaces more equitable for all those that live in it and move through it. Rehaul of the way our cities are built. They don’t take into account women, children, people with disabilities and have been largely built to support car traffic, causing noise, and often forget about the importance of enough greenery.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

On LinkedIn under my name, Karen K Burns, and @Karenkangro on Twitter. The best place to follow Fyma is under the Twitter handle @AiFyma as well as on LinkedIn.

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

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