I urge any parent whether you are in a STEM field or not, to treat children as equally as possible. As a parent I would want to know that my daughter has the same opportunities as anyone else. I only can hope that the people that influence her will support her in anything she wants to do. Let them find their talents and passions and pursue it themselves. I urge companies to not treat women in tech differently because they are a minority. There is an incredible organization here in Israel called “She Codes” that has after hours free coding courses for women. The goal is to get women to be 50% of the software developers in Israel. It started by a woman working in tech who was sick of working in a male dominated environment. Until we reach 50% female developers, we will not be able to rest.
As part of my series about the women leading the Artificial Intelligence industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Leah Kolben, CTO and Co-founder of cnvrg.io
Leah is the co-founder of cnvrg.io, a funded data science platform shaping the future of AI. After years as an AI consultant, she developed cnvrg.io to help data scientists, software developers, and analysts develop AI and machine learning. Since cnvrg.io’s inception Leah has helped customers from Fortune 500 companies build and leverage AI in all industries: finance, gaming, BI, automotive and manufacturing. She’s lead a growing R&D team innovating features for data scientists, and has even had two children while building cnvrg.io. If that does not make Leah the mother of AI, I’m not sure what does.
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?
I actually started computer science at a very young age. By high school I had studied BS in Mathematics and Physics in the university. Following high school I was drafted to the Israel Defense Force where I was recruited to the intelligence unit specializing in electrical engineering. To be honest, at that point the path had been set for me. In parallel to getting my degree, I simultaneously worked as a software team leader at WatchDox which was later acquired by Blackberry. For me, it was pretty simple, go where you are most challenged and do your best to continue being challenged.
What lessons can others learn from your story?
Sometimes, when you are beginning a career path, the best thing to do is find something that is interesting enough and challenging enough. What I mean is that there will always be critics or skeptics for whatever path you choose, so whatever you do, do what is right for YOU. As a Woman entering any STEM career, there are endless barriers that we experience that others do not. Perhaps it is being identified as a minority, or being treated differently. Working in a male dominated field takes its toll on your mental stamina, and your character. I look back today and recognize how focused I was on completing my degree, and just simply being good at my field. I didn’t even consider myself as a minority, and was blind to the fact that I had more hurdles than others around me. Sometimes, people aren’t even aware of hurdles unless they are pointed out to you. I didn’t consider it to be an anomaly to be a female computer scientist until it was pointed out to me. The best you can do is to stay focused on your own goal, and follow something that interests you and challenges you. Stay away from any statistics telling you you’re an outlier. Children do not naturally become interested in something because of their gender. Often it’s society that labels certain positions, activities or passions. It is a made up assumption! Plow through that tunnel and eventually, you will come out the other end, look back and laugh at all the hardships that you surpassed.
Can you tell our readers about the most interesting projects you are working on now?
As you can imagine, my primary focus today is on making innovative solutions for cnvrg.io customers. The data science field is exploding with popularity. Most of this popularity stems from the growth of AI. Data scientists are the primary source of AI, and the job requires a wide range of skills and a wide range of technical tasks. As a former AI consultant and data scientist myself, I can attest to this. One feature that our team has just released — and I am particularly proud of — is our automl pipeline feature: Flows. With Flows, users can build production-ready machine learning pipelines in minutes. This feature is going to save days of work for data scientists, by automating tedious tasks, and has the potential to make AI way more accessible. What excites me the most about this project is that it’s the first of its kind, and really makes strides in standardizing data science workflows. What really makes me proud is hearing from users that we are genuinely solving their problems.
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?
Of course, my husband has been a rock, and I could write an entire novel about his support. I wouldn’t be able to be who I am without him. Though, today I want to point out someone else that helped me along the way.
Many people do not know this about me, but I grew up in a religious Jewish family, in a religious school system. When I look back at my path I think one of the first people who trusted me and believed I should choose my own path is my high school teacher. She taught me the most important lesson anyone can ever learn. If you want something badly enough, anything is possible. So, when I decided not to be religious and to study computer science even thought it was against school rules, she supported me. While the school was not willing to start a class for me to learn computer science, she fought for me to learn outside of school. It’s forbidden in Orthodox Judaism for boys and girls to study together, but despite how impossible it seemed for other people, she pushed for it to happen. I studied my BS in high school and was already on my way to computer science. She understood that there is no reason to force someone to follow rules that they do not believe in themselves. She told me that anything can be fixed somehow, and that anything is possible. All you have to do is find the ways to make it happen. And, because of her, here I am today!
What are the 5 things that most excite you about the AI industry? Why?
1. AI is a very powerful tool that has the potential to greatly influence society, much like the internet boom influenced our lives today.
2. AI can be used endlessly and can be applied to any use case. It excites me to know that AI can improve so many industries, especially the outdated industries in need of change.
3. AI revitalizes data and gives us insights that allow us as humans to make data supported change.
4. While some people worry that AI is replacing human jobs, I see it differently. AI is enabling humans to use their intelligence to innovate and be creative. cnvrg.io AI and automation allows data scientists to focus on the magic which is creating algorithms instead of on time consuming technical tasks.
5. I am excited to be on the cutting edge of the technology and to influence the way it is used. I think it’s important for the AI industry to have as much diversity as possible to ensure all points of view are accounted for. I’m excited to be a leader and role model for future data scientists so more can lead ethically.
What are the 5 things that concern you about the AI industry? Why?
1. I am concerned that instead of focusing on the needs of consumers, AI will follow the money. For instance, cnvrg.io is really focused on the needs of data scientists. We create products that data scientists will find useful. For many new entrants in the field, we are seeing an influx of tools that sound snazzy with markey features, but are not seeing practical solutions.
2. As with any technology, I am concerned about bad actors in the industry. AI can be used for so many great things, I only hope that the good outways the bad.
3. Human bias is already a daily concern. Matched with AI, algorithms can perpetuate human biases if not careful. It’s important to be aware of these biases and interrupt them early.
4. I hope AI innovation does not get blinded by money. I can only hope that companies are taking measures to ensure ethical practices. By developing layers that make it easier for data scientists to ensure ethical practices, cnvrg.io hopes to enable data scientists to make more ethical decisions.
5. Too commonly AI is fully relied upon. It is important that humans remain skeptical of outcomes, and companies continue to be transparent when AI is being used.
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?
Considering it is human intelligence that creates artificial intelligence, it is not AI per say that we must worry about. It is the humans behind AI development that we need to ensure are doing the right thing.
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?
I understand that SciFi movies like the Terminator depict extreme situations of AI, but in reality, it would take a very bad person and a LOT of work to produce such a thing. Such technologies as nuclear power have much more devastating capabilities. Ultimately humans are in control of machines, and if we stay on top of new technologies we won’t create something we can’t fix. Also proper regulations can help combat this concern and allow us to take measures to prevent bad actors.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world? Can you share a story?
For the past two years, Data Scientist has been the #1 best job on Glassdoor. But, let’s face it, data science is one of the most difficult and unstructured jobs out there. It requires so much knowledge and critical thinking, programming, knowledge of different tech frameworks, math, and above all it is difficult to collaborate on as a team. Every data scientist has their own method of solving problems. While it is not world peace, I find it really gratifying to help support the data scientists behind the scenes of AI. I am even further gratified by the positive feedback I get from data scientists that use cnvrg.io and hear about the ways it improved their jobs and passions.
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?
1. As I stated in an early question, I advise Women in AI and any other STEM-based job to focus on their goal and let your skills guide you. Don’t fall into the trap of stigmas or biases. Remind yourself any time that you lose focus that you are just as capable as anyone else to do the job you are doing. Remind yourself that stigmas are imaginary.
2. Address biases head on. If you walk into a meeting and you sense that someone is making assumptions about you because you are a woman or you just had a baby, address it right away. If you talk about it before people ask you about it, they won’t fall for the stigma. Be direct about other people’s fears and thoughts about you.
3. When you reach the other end of the tunnel and become a leader in the field, don’t let others around you play into the stigma. When you have the power to hire and recruit, when you have the voice to make a change, take every opportunity to eliminate that stigma.
Can you advise what is needed to engage more women into the AI industry?
I have two children. It is my responsibility as a parent to not introduce any biases. I urge any parent whether you are in a STEM field or not, to treat children as equally as possible. As a parent I would want to know that my daughter has the same opportunities as anyone else. I only can hope that the people that influence her will support her in anything she wants to do. Let them find their talents and passions and pursue it themselves. I urge companies to not treat women in tech differently because they are a minority. There is an incredible organization here in Israel called “She Codes” that has after hours free coding courses for women. The goal is to get women to be 50% of the software developers in Israel. It started by a woman working in tech who was sick of working in a male dominated environment. Until we reach 50% female developers, we will not be able to rest.
What is your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share a story of how that had relevance to your own life?
I recently watched the RBG movie. I have idolized her for some time, but the movie really brought it home. This particular quote stuck out to me:
“My mother told me two things constantly. One was to be a lady, and the other was to be independent. The study of law was unusual for women of my generation. For most girls growing up in the ’40s, the most important degree was not your B.A., but your M.R.S.” — Ruth Bader Ginsburg
For most girls growing up in the technology age, it is rare to find Women striving for greatness in technology. This inspires me each day to be independent. Who cares that I have gone against the grain, I am just being my true self and doing what I am good at. As for the first part about being a lady — I can’t say I know exactly what it means to be a “lady” — I don’t think there is just one type of lady or persona. I think if I were to adapt this quote for today, I would tell my children to be you, be respectful, and be independent.
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. 🙂
It might sound totally biased, but I believe AI has the potential to bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people. There are many world problems that can be solved through AI. It would be amazing to see tech leaders strive towards not only solving capitalistic issues, but also solve world issues. For example we can use AI to solve more medical issues and cures to the world. I recently saw a group from MIT that is helping keep the bees alive with machine learning. If we can solve all these issues with AI, why not make it happen?
How can our readers follow you on social media?
You can find me on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/leah-forkosh-kolben-4239a254
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!