Women Leading The AI Industry: “We need to organize more women-friendly hackathons or AI talks so that anyone could join and not feel stupid or out of place” With Alina Bezuglova

As with many tech savvy buzzwords, many people think they know the meaning but in most cases they don’t. I think making AI more accessible and understandable will drive more women into AI industry. Maybe run somewhat “open days” at AI companies and invite women students to learn firsthand what AI “looks” like in practice. […]

As with many tech savvy buzzwords, many people think they know the meaning but in most cases they don’t. I think making AI more accessible and understandable will drive more women into AI industry. Maybe run somewhat “open days” at AI companies and invite women students to learn firsthand what AI “looks” like in practice. Or run more internships for learning purposes. Bigger companies could organize more women-friendly hackathons or AI talks of different levels (e.g. beginners/intermediate/advanced), so that anyone with different background knowledge could join and yet didn’t feel stupid or out of the place.

As part of my series about the women leading the Artificial Intelligence industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Alina Bezuglova, the co-founder of EMERGE conference, the founder of Rutech, helping tech companies from Eastern Europe go global, and the leader of Tech London Advocates RUSSIA, developing Russian speaking tech community in London. Alina got her Masters in Design Innovation and Сreativity in industry and has previously worked as the head of marketing at some startup accelerators in London. She advises tech companies on business development, scaling and fundraising strategy. Together with a creative economy specialist and a co-host of CreativeMornings Minsk chapter Marge Lazarenkova, Alina has founded an international tech conference — EMERGE — that brings together promising startups and ecosystem players from the New East region to discuss the most disruptive technologies.

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?

Long before I moved to London I’ve started my first startup in fintech, while living in Vilnius, which is quite a remote tech hub with less opportunities comparing to London, Berlin and let alone Silicon Valley. At that moment I got excited about getting involved in developing local startups ecosystem. I’ve started running startup meetups and became an ambassador of an Amsterdam-based accelerator Rockstart. When I moved to London I started working in startup accelerators learning the ecosystem from the inside.

In the meantime, I was thinking how I can add value to my own homeland — Russia — where startup movement was still in its infancy, yet had great potential given strong engineering background of Russian education. That’s how at first Rutech community started. During its first 1.5 years we observed great interest from European tech community towards startups from Russia and CIS, as we now call that region the New East (meaning countries from Eastern Europe, the Balkans and Central Asia), and it was clear that we needed to be more attentive to the whole region in general and to Russian startups in particular.

By then I met a very entrepreneurial girl from Belarus, Margo Lazarenkova, who did something similar a year earlier but for creative industries solely. We decided to bring our forces together and that’s how the idea to set up EMERGE emerged: with an aim to give highlight to emerging markets and emerging technologies from these regions. The New East is the main region we target but more to be unleashed soon.

What lessons can others learn from your story?

I wouldn’t say my journey is somewhat special. I personally tend to believe that everyone should be treated equally and, most importantly, no one should make excuse for themselves thinking they should be treated differently just because they are a minority or a woman or come from a certain background. That’s my opinion. Therefore I never applied “special rules” to myself when building my career in tech. And although society may treat you differently, there are plenty of stereotypes about Russian tech startups (read: ‘hackers’), or about being a woman in the tech world, etc.

Yet again I believe it’s up to you how to form your position and react to these stereotypes. I believe that the most important things here are hard work, determination, healthy amount of arrogance, friendly and social approach to new contacts and even to your ‘enemies’ (read: ‘competitors’), keeping your mind open for different opinions and opportunities and constant belief in yourself, and finally always keeping in mind where you started from and what’s your journey, and moving fast! The last two points I find crucially important! It’s easy to start comparing your journey to someone else’s, especially if it looks like they have achieved more than you did in same amount of time. Each circumstance is different. You should only compare your progress to where you started from. And the only takeaway you can take from watching others is to remind yourself to move fast! Tech world is a rapid world. And if you aim for a big game, you should be planning your next move while still working out your current steps.

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

Most interesting projects… Well, one of the longest relationships we’ve had so far with startups is BrainPatch. It is a UK startup with a team from Russia and Kazakhstan. BrainPatch are currently developing brain stimulation methods that could help people boost their concentration only without side effects of drugs. They also hope to be able to cure Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease in the future.

BrainPatch joined Rutech community in London, later came as semi-finalists at last year’s EMERGE conference. Since then they’ve exhibited at London’s CogX AI conference, won numerous awards, and were shortlisted by our experts board for EMERGE 2019.

This project seems surreal. Movies like Limitless or Lucy back up the “10% of the brain myth” that suggests all humans use only up to 10% of their brain power. These movies operate under the notion that the rest of the brain could be accessed through the use of a drug. Brainpatch could access the power of brain in a non-invasive way and who knows what other applications of this technology are possible.

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?

It’s two people actually. The first one is my dad who almost forced me into entrepreneurship, making me quit my job offer from KPMG as a recent graduate. To be honest, auditing wasn’t my dream so I declined the job offer quite easily yet didn’t know what I was getting myself into. With my first startup I had no clue how building a tech product works, I knew nothing about web development or difference between frontend and backend, etc.

My dad’s approach was to throw me into the water and let me figure out how to swim by myself. And after I would make another mistake, he would say: “See? Don’t do it again!” But by then I would have figured it out myself. Or he would try to pass his experience and lessons learnt to me so I could cut time by avoiding these mistakes.

But trust me: you only learn by making your own mistakes so don’t be terrified by this. It’s all part of your journey. My first venture didn’t work out and my dad was furious: he thought I was giving up too early. I believe that going on to work in the industry and getting more contacts gave me more confidence in starting my second venture.

Second person is my husband who believed in me and gave me that confidence in starting my second venture. Once failed and then started a “safe” job that you enjoyed, it’s easy to continue in this direction. But my heart was giving me signals that entrepreneurship is where my heart belongs to, so I had to change something.

It is freaking scary after you failed once. You start thinking: “What if I fail again?”

Getting back to entrepreneurship, you need to change your lifestyle again, get back to bootstrapping mode, get on the same emotional rollercoaster and 24/7 work mode. Without the right support and belief it’s going to be a very lonely and stressful journey.

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

  1. AI lets us create new brilliant ways of using data for good: like for example in the field of healthcare. Here’s a great example of such a wonderful duet of AI and health: a startup from the New East called Flo which was backed by Flint Capital, and this year Flo achieved more than 20 mln monthly active users! It helps millions of women worldwide track their reproductive health with the help of AI, and this is fantastic.
  2. There are many offers based on AI in the entertainment market (games, chatbots, etc.). But there are also quite a few solutions with a real life effect, that are designed to help ordinary people improve the quality of their lives, such as tools for finding essential information quickly and easily, or seeking for help, etc. A bright example from the previous EMERGE participants: an AI-based startup called Visabot, which helps people apply for the US visa. The Visabot team has already launched another service — DoNotPay — with an even more impressive aim: to help people defend their legal rights (and make small claims). We can see that AI-based chatbot not only can entertain you, but can also help you solve real problems by becoming almost your personal lawyer, for instance.
  3. Last year I got acquainted with OneSoil startup, who participated at EMERGE. These guys analyzed satellite images with machine learning technologies and made a free map of all the fields across Europe and the US, so that all the farmers have access to precisive agriculture. BBC Russia made an interview with OneSoil right at the conference with a headline “How to feed us all”, so this is perfect example of how AI can help us feed human population on the planet, which is growing exponentially now.
  4. You know that all the routine work will be replaced by AI in the future. What cannot be replaced is our creativity. Or can it? That is the question which fascinates me, but I don’t know the answer yet. This year we invited Lysandre Lafayette from Nike Innovation Kitchen to EMERGE, to dive deeper into this question and understand how we can create and design together with machine learning algorithms and what the role of “designer” in the future is then.
  5. MIT Technology review named “AI for everybody” as a disruptive tech trend of 2018. This is what we see now gets more and more use-cases. Different platforms from tech giants like Google AI kit and Microsoft Azure’s Machine learning studio are offering free-to-use machine learning tools for everyone.

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

  1. Technological unemployment is a well spread concern that everyone is talking about. Hence more and more parents focus on soft skills development of their children. However, I am not concerned about jobs cut, since if you look back in history, you’ll see that every progress has come along with this threat, while making our lives more efficient. Each time people managed to find new kinds of jobs that didn’t exist before. So we just need to be a little bit more patient and creative to launch new ventures and consequently create new jobs.
  2. Data privacy and security is another concern, indeed. Think of all that facial recognition or widespread access to data… If used for malicious purposes, it can create damage. Although, I am not freaking out about the fact that companies like Facebook or Google have got so much data on us. I think it’s a price we pay for living in the Internet era.
  3. Potential hacks of power plants, healthcare or transport systems, logistic webs is also kind of scary. We have already faced such situations when cyber terrorists can bring down the whole medical care system of a hospital, which is super terrifying.
  4. This point is not really a concern about AI itself, but about how society is dealing with it. We often come across such media headlines as “Elon Musk-Founded OpenAI Builds Artificial Intelligence So Powerful That It Must Be Kept Locked Up for the Good of Humanity” or “Musk-Backed AI Group: Our Text Generator Is So Good It’s Scary”. There’s been a column at the Guardian titled, apparently without irony, “AI Can Write Just Like Me. Brace for the Robot Apocalypse.” All of this hype can be very harmful to the technology that is yet to become mature and to discover its own applications. Society needs to embrace it and stop being afraid of it, but rather learn more about AI and implement it if possible in current businesses. Just like we are expected to have basic IT-skills nowadays (using Microsoft Office, emails, social media, even perhaps creating a website without coding), in several years we might be as well expected to be able to handle AI applications in everyday life.
  5. There are talks that government needs to regulate AI. Every time something is trying to be regulated, the industry can eventually find itself harmed. Instead, governments could try collaborating with disruptors, who created these new technologies, and finding ways how state administrations and society can benefit from these new technologies. This is my concern, that governments don’t research opportunities fully. However, I am not totally against regulation. Smart, well-thought through and accurately implemented regulation is a good sign that the industry has become mature and that new technology is accepted by society — e.g. crowdfunding. I think it’s worth looking at AI in different contexts. For example at EMERGE 2019 we decided to focus not on technologies but more on their applications. How will we live, work, even die? And how technologies affect these areas of life? We’d like to know AI affects an average person’s life.

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?

In my opinion, to better understand where Musk and Zuckerberg are coming from, it’s worth taking a look at the type of business these guys run. If you put it in business strategy terms, Musk is a first-mover and Zuckerberg is a follower. Musk is clearly forward thinking, creating something that doesn’t exist. Failing, starting again. He can even be claimed “crazy” or “insane”. Therefore his view on AI is also pointed to the future.

Whereas Zuckerberg (yes, indeed a great businessman) is not a disruptor. Facebook wasn’t any new invention. Myspace already existed back then. Zuckerberg is a brilliant businessman to spot an opportunity, improve the existing product in the market and offer a better solution. Hence his view on AI is reality-driven. And he prefers to solve existing problems, while Musk is anticipating the future.

I tend to agree with both. It’s better to be prepared for what might come, yet I wouldn’t make too much fuss around these concerns and better concentrate on what can be done now, rather than speculating on “what if” scenarios.

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?

Knowledge is power. Spreading knowledge is duty and blessing.

We need to discuss this topic as much as possible at all levels — that is why we make it public at the EMERGE conference and invite representatives of corporations, state-related organizations to draw their attention to this agenda.

I’ve always thought that conferences don’t make any practical impact. But now I see that in order to make real changes, you first need to make these changes in people’s minds.

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

I’m still on the journey to success and to make a real impact, I believe. What we’ve achieved as a team so far is breaking stereotypes about founders from emerging tech hubs like Russia and the rest of the New East. Ultimately, giving more opportunities to founders from this region is our main mission right now. With events and publicity we share more examples of success stories from the New East. There are so many global tech companies originally from the region that do everything they can to hide their background. Why? Because, for historical and political reasons, it’s considered to be untrustworthy, unattractive for PR or investors. From the business point of view, I can understand why these companies act like that, but I believe it’s very damaging for the new generation of founders from these countries. The international tech community doesn’t observe enough success stories from these countries (of course! Because they are carefully disguised as British and American startups), investors don’t see these success stories either and all of that seeds stereotypes about founders from emerging countries as being not capable of building global tech companies. So with that little success we have, we aim to give more publicity hence hopefully change the situation for better.

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

Like I said above I don’t differentiate men and women when it comes to professional work. Society does. But since AI is believed to be quite complicated area and definitely science-driven, I’d encourage more women to focus on the technology side of the business — i.e. understanding how technology actually works and its application. With AI being such a hype technology, so many entrepreneurs add AI to their business, thinking it will attract more investors, without even properly researching if AI technology adds any value to the business. By doing this and not having a clue how technology works, it’s easy to lose credibility as a business and as a professional. And women — for some reason — need to prove even harder that they belong to the tech world and are capable of understanding such complex things as AI.

It’s not three things but surely most important ones, in my opinion.

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

As with many tech savvy buzzwords, many people think they know the meaning but in most cases they don’t. I think making AI more accessible and understandable will drive more women into AI industry. Maybe run somewhat “open days” at AI companies and invite women students to learn firsthand what AI “looks” like in practice. Or run more internships for learning purposes. Bigger companies could organize more women-friendly hackathons or AI talks of different levels (e.g. beginners/intermediate/advanced), so that anyone with different background knowledge could join and yet didn’t feel stupid or out of the place.

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

“Fake it till you make it”. First time I heard it was from a founder of an Amsterdam-based accelerator. I was an ambassador for them running a pitch competition in Vilnius at that time. My first startup didn’t work out, and I was at the crossroads of what to do with my professional life. Being a founder, you have to be a ‘Jack of all trades’ performing different tasks, which doesn’t make you an expert in one single niche. While such quality is quite handy for a startup, in most cases it’s useless when applying for corporate jobs.

So, having this background, I felt very confused about positioning myself in the labour market when searching for a job. And this “Fake it till you make it” has become my pushing forward magic kick in the ass. Obviously, I wasn’t taking on tasks that I had no clue about (like engineering), but I was more proactive to learn and accept jobs which — in theory — I knew how to do, but had little or no experience at all. That approach helped me gain experience I had never had before and helped me build self-confidence. I tend to apply this philosophy to running a business, too. Following this motto is a great way to get out of the comfort zone.

If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be?

I believe that given this mad (and, actually, accelerating) speed our world is currently progressing at, we should rethink and reorganize the way we educate our children to raise them more adaptive to the changes. And we should start working on that as soon as possible. Recently I’ve become a mum to a little boy and I already cannot help thinking about how he will find his place in the world. I have got no idea (and nobody has) what the world will be in 20 years — when my son turns 20. So I am dreaming of starting a global educational project — the “new school” that will teach our future disruptors some skills of entrepreneurship while they’re still young. The sooner they get the rules of the game, the better.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

Facebook/Instagram/Twitter: @alinabeztech&

Alina Bezuglova-Nilsson on LinkedIn

Facebook/Instagram/Twitter: @emergeconfhq

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