Women Leading The AI Industry: “We need universities, accelerators, startup and tech organizations to empower women to learn more about AI and gain confidence on the topic” With Francesca Boccolini of SonicJobs

I think education is the first step. The AI industry still has still a considerable diversity problem, but much has been done to support women in tech, from fundraising to free coding courses. We need more courses and programs promoted by companies, but we also need universities, accelerators, startup and tech organizations to empower women […]

I think education is the first step. The AI industry still has still a considerable diversity problem, but much has been done to support women in tech, from fundraising to free coding courses. We need more courses and programs promoted by companies, but we also need universities, accelerators, startup and tech organizations to empower women to learn more about AI and gain confidence on the topic. I’m even thinking about incentives for women who join the industry, especially on the tech side.

As part of my series about the women leading the Artificial Intelligence industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Francesca Boccolini. Francesca is the co-founder of SonicJobs, the first virtual recruiter for hospitality and retail recruitment, a mobile app that uses AI and occupational psychology to find, screen, score, and connect employers with the right candidates — instantly. Today SonicJobs is the second largest mobile recruitment solution in London, used by more than 2,500 employers and more than 85,000 candidates. Boccolini, who has been featured on Forbes as one of “The Top 100 Women in Tech to Follow in Europe,” holds a Masters in Science in Technology Entrepreneurship from the University College London, University of London, and Bachelors of Science and Masters of Science degrees in Business and Economics from Italy’s LUISS Guido Carli University.

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’ve always had a natural curiosity for technology and innovation, so after my BSc and MSc in Economics and Business, I started my career as Product Manager and then as Digital Marketing Manager in a big telco in Italy. I’ve been incredibly lucky to be working with talented people and close to the senior management on innovative digital and startup projects, which sparked my curiosity for the startup world.

I was so fascinated about how quickly startups around the world were changing the traditional economy and impacting the way people interact and live. Think about how fast you can find a cab or order some food, clothes, watch a movie or even meet new people. It all happens in matters of seconds.

So after five years in a big company, I was ready to accept the challenge to leave a managerial position, change path and take the risk to jump and try to create my own innovative project for the world.

From there I decided to move to London to do a Masters in Technology Entrepreneurship at University College London (UCL), with the goal of creating my own venture and becoming a leader in the startup world.

What lessons can others learn from your story?

My story illustrates the importance of taking your life into your own hands and going beyond your own boundaries to achieve the goals set out for yourself.

As a female foreigner, with no tech background and no previous experience in London, no one would have bet on me founding a tech startup, in one of the most competitive cities in the world. It takes a lot of enthusiasm, courage, sacrifice, and perseverance–-but it’s possible.

We are responsible for our own change. No one around us can make us take bold decisions and actions, so I believe it is vital to think bigger about who we are and what we can do in our life.

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

We are working on really exciting technologies to help people in the blue-collar market find a job even faster, especially when they don’t have any previous experience in the industry.

We are creating a video coach solution –- that based on predictive data and behavioral analysis –- will help candidates create a digital presence and match with the most suitable jobs in real time. Additionally, we are building a personalized training program to upgrade their skills and get a better salary.

We are also investigating decentralized systems on blockchain where –- through rewarding programs –- users are incentivized to behave better and progress in their career faster.

None of us can 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’ve been so fortunate in life to have a great family who has been supporting and encouraging me unconditionally in any decision, and I’ve been incredibly lucky to have met the right people with whom to start this journey.

There is not a perfect recipe when it comes to creating a great team. Complementary skills, experience, and affinity are what you start with, but being able to grow together as a team along the journey and keep building a strong relationship is at the basis of great teams.

But if I have to think about a role model and a mentor who inspires me every day, that person would be my father. He’s always been the example of greatness to me. He’s taught me the importance of patience and dedication in life and the courage of dreaming big.

I have an episode in particular that gave me incredible courage at the beginning of my entrepreneurial journey. It was one of my first pitch events, and I was really nervous to be on stage in front of an experienced audience of investors, including prominent VCs.

I was at that time working at my university startup project and was so excited about that (never had so much adrenaline in my body). I’d just finished my presentation when one of the VCs raised his hands and said “I like the idea, I think you are brilliant, and this could be a great success story, but as a solo female founder you will struggle to raise money to the point where you’ll eventually give up. And this is all our fault”. Then turning around he asked the rest of the investors: “Does anyone agree with me?”. Everyone raised their hands.

He smiled and closed saying “I’m sure you’ll find a great team but in the meantime don’t give up.”

I felt disarmed but also empowered at the same time. Solidarity and honesty can give us the power to learn quicker and be more conscious about risks and what really we need to succeed.

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

There are several exciting aspects of AI that will be impacting recruitment enormously. Among those are how people find jobs and hire across industries and geographies, and in those sectors that historically have received less attention from tech pioneers. The blue-collar industries are a perfect example of this, where a data-driven approach based not only on traditional but also on ‘non-traditional’ data, can democratize access to jobs and ultimately increase the supply of candidates in the labor market.

1. AI will massively impact people from underrepresented backgrounds: Understanding and predicting needs and behaviors to find the most suitable job opportunities, where candidates can be more fulfilled. Through AI and analyzing multiple traditional but also ‘not traditional’ data points, we now have the power to have a better understanding of people, give them the possibility to create a digital presence and stand out in front of employers, especially when they don’t have any (relevant) work experience or access to a network.

2. Responsible AI implementation: If implemented responsibly, AI can be powerful in overcoming human and cognitive biases, reducing gender and race discriminations. We are already aware of the first failures in recruitment algorithms, with Amazon’s sexist internal recruitment tool being the most recent example. The engine was trained to evaluate candidates by observing patterns in CVs and applications received over a 10-year period.

Unsurprisingly, most applicants were men and this explain why the algorithm was biased towards male candidates. It’s all about the kind of data AI is using to make hiring screening and recommendations, and that’s where relying on data that goes beyond past experiences and hard skills, can give employers the power to be more informed and make smarter decisions. This gives employers the possibility to have access to a personal recruiter and occupational psychology consultant at a fraction of what it’d cost and AI has the power to make it scalable and available for everyone.

3. Improve matching systems between employers and candidates: Helping them create meaningful relationships. As many believe, AI is not just about automating menial tasks to make business processes more efficient and simplify workflows.

There are complex problems that humans struggle to tackle, and that’s where a data-driven and more objective approach can empower human cognition, providing predictive elements to make more objective hiring decisions. This is how AI can give us access to more quality data and logical frameworks that are elaborated on our specific needs, allowing us to make smarter decisions.

4. Speed up recruitment: Through AI job seekers and employers can be matched in a fraction of the time, far less than traditional solutions. Most of the time within the recruitment process is spent on sourcing and screening candidates.

Employers spend on average 6 seconds reviewing resumes, and when there are hundreds or thousands of resumes to consider, this process can become time-consuming, and CVs inevitably get overlooked.

Especially in high-volume recruitment, the problem becomes particularly daunting and often results in many CVs not being reviewed at all with the risk of good candidates falling through the cracks. This is where AI can facilitate the workflow and automate repetitive tasks, streamlining the process and accelerating demand and supply matching.

5. Make recruitment more human: There is a big misconception about automation generated by AI and the fear that AI and automation could beat and replace humans. As AI can make recruitment more efficient by automating repetitive tasks, this would free up time for employers and recruiters to focus on human relations, which is particularly relevant in high-staff turnover sectors like hospitality and retail, where trust between employer and candidate has eroded. This erosion results in a negative cycle and eventually human commoditization, where employers and candidates build short term and opportunistic relationships, impacting candidates’ professional growth and business performance.

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

  1. The possibility of malicious intent: Humans are in control of the rules, frameworks, and regulations underpinning AI. If not implemented correctly and responsibly, AI can provide sub-optimal outputs. The most significant risk, therefore, is corruption and malicious human intents and activities.
  2. Biased outcomes: Self-teaching systems can lead to biased outcomes against races and genders. There have been cases of self-learning chatbots discriminating against races and gender, as well as Amazon’s recent sexist internal recruitment tool. There are several other examples of wrong input data and learning patterns that have produced biased algorithms that evolved against their initial purpose.
  3. Criteria transparency: With more companies adopting advanced AI algorithms (such as deep neural networks), their ability to be transparent around criteria used and give an explanation to internal and external stakeholders become crucial to build trust and create a virtuous cycle of innovation. AI is complex, and this can limit the possibility to provide understandable explanations to a broader audience which can result in a lack of trust and diffusion of the innovation.
  4. Reduced interaction between people across industries: From one side, AI can streamline business processes, helping people take better and faster decisions. On the other side, AI is still early stage, and there is often the misconception that machines could outpace human intelligence and dominate us, replacing humans. Programs are created by humans, so they are vulnerable to biases and deep-rooted prejudices of people behind the code. It will be our responsibility to make sure we build reliable and safe algorithms and put in place the right processes to control and monitor it.
  5. Ethical risk and corruption: AI is still software and software can be corrupted. The real threat is around malicious human activity, where developers train machines and create programs with harmful intents and effects.

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 see people and machines stronger together. AI will help humans gain more intelligence about the space around them, making better decisions in the least possible time. This can have enormous impacts on human development and progress.

I don’t have a catastrophic view and don’t see a dystopian future as a result of AI and tech progress. Human tendencies to malicious intent linked to technological development and AI is a risk we are aware of, even if it’s too early to assess at this stage.

To understand if AI can realistically be dangerous we should take a look at the history of mathematical models. Some tech pioneers see an uncertain AI-dominated future as an effect of what is called a complete logical system.

However, if this were the case, AI would be able to teach itself from data collected without requiring any input from humans. Although, as the mathematician, Gödel, demonstrated, logical systems are incomplete, which means AI wouldn’t be able to learn anyhow without external inputs of data from humans. AI is strictly dependent on humans programming. At the same time, we are the ones in control of creating the frameworks, rules, and regulations to make AI safe and beneficial.

So if we are in control of it, what are we afraid of?

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?

We need to put in place a properly structured regulation and governance to guarantee transparency, ethics, and safety in AI. Our laws are well behind the progress in tech. We need rules and control over the processes and the people who are shaping algorithms and monitoring AI.

With transparency and education — then — people and users will be increasingly aware of how the technology works, benefits, risk and what the rules are. We are still early stage, but it’s challenging to think AI can become impactful and reach mass-adoption if there is no trust by actors involved and final users.

Also, diversity is vital to overcome the risk that people who program algorithms aren’t aware of their unconscious biases — and to avoid the possibility of working in monocultures.

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

As we have created a recruitment solution, we are constantly contacted by people around the world who are looking for jobs in Europe and also by Europeans who are either hoping to move to the UK or are merely professionals looking for a better opportunity.

Very often there is no correlation with the industries on which we focus. I like to help them as much as we can, sharing details, insights, advice and finding connections that might be helpful for them.

If there is anything I can do to support them in finding a job and achieving better conditions of life, I do it with incredible enthusiasm.

If I had to share an impactful episode, that would be when some candidates showed up at our offices in London, asking to talk to us to get our help in finding a job. We helped them out and contacted employers we thought could have been a good fit.

Some of the candidates had just moved to London, so we helped them out also with all the paperwork needed to start working in the country as well as with finding a place to live. They managed to get a job in the next days. It’s difficult to explain how immense the reward was to see them accomplish their goals and get a better life.

I’m also really active in the community of women in tech, providing my advice, support, and access to the network. Nothing is more rewarding to me than being able to help these women succeed and to see them progress in their entrepreneurial journey.

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

1. Be bold: Have the courage to share your ideas, without fear of needing to be perfect. Look beyond what has been done until today. Technology can change overnight.

2. Create value: Listen to your customers to understand what they need. Don’t be abstract, technology doesn’t have much value if it does not generate value for people and ultimately for your users.

3. Learn fast: Surround yourself by people who can empower you to learn as fast as you can. Knowledge and time are your best assets.

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

I think education is the first step. The AI industry still has still a considerable diversity problem, but much has been done to support women in tech, from fundraising to free coding courses.

We need more courses and programs promoted by companies, but we also need universities, accelerators, startup and tech organizations to empower women to learn more about AI and gain confidence on the topic. I’m even thinking about incentives for women who join the industry, especially on the tech side.

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

“When you have exhausted all possibilities, remember this: You haven’t” — Thomas Edison

It’s not about how many times you try, and it doesn’t work. Making mistakes is part of the process. The only way we have is to grow and keep doing better and better. Whenever it gets tough, and you can’t see the light, or it seems impossible to find a solution, those are the moments when you have to go beyond what you think you are capable of.

Trust yourself, be confident that conditions will align and start playing in your favor again. So when you feel like everything is falling apart, keep trying even harder.

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 envision a movement where technology could work towards reducing poverty, empowering people to share and receive more easily, tearing down geographical barriers, reducing timeframes and reliance on intermediaries.

I’m thinking about decentralized systems over blockchain — for example — where extra profits and donations could be distributed more equally towards those who are in need, increasing the reach and reducing the time.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

For anyone who’d like to hear more about our progress in AI but also on women in tech, I’m active on Linkedin and Twitter:

Linkedin https://www.linkedin.com/in/francescaboccolini/

Twitter https://twitter.com/FranciBoccolini

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/livelyfrancy/

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

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