We sit down with three female founders who are running AI startups — and they tell us candidly what it’s like to be a woman in artificial intelligence. “Nobody took us seriously, not a single person,” says Davar Ardalan, founder of IVOW, who has been rejected by investors 350 times. “It’s incredibly demeaning.” At a time when billions of dollars are going into AI startups, and the pandemic has caused a digital transformation in nearly every industry, it could not be more important to get women and people of color involved in AI so their perspectives can inform technology. But bias and sexism and racism in the AI field persist.
We share these women’s stories in an effort to raise awareness of the obstacles faced by women in AI. But at the same time, we want to encourage women and girls to chase their startup dreams, especially as AI technology is more widely used in everything from commerce to healthcare to education. Guests include Ardalan; Sheffie Robinson, of Shamrck Education; Carolyn Rodz, of Hello Alice, and Eve Logunova, of Women in AI and WaiACCELERATE.
More in this series
Listen to ‘Ugly Sexist AI’ Podcast
Yes, artificial intelligence has incredible potential. But it’s also reproducing all the gender bias and inequality that currently exists in the world.
MUSIC: There’s more to who we are...there’s more to what we could be...as I feel the weight of being, I’m learning how to break free…
COLLEEN: Welcome to The Story Exchange. This is our second podcast looking at artificial intelligence. That music we just played may sound like a standard pop song but...
SUE: ...it isn’t. It is part of an album created by the singer Taryn Southern, entirely with AI.
COLLEEN: Yeah, it’s kind of an industry first, and shows how AI is making its way into every aspect of life. I'm Colleen DeBaise.
SUE: I'm Sue Williams.
COLLEEN: We've been exploring the complicated…
SUE: ...ugly, sexist…
COLLEEN: Yeah, all that…the complicated topic of AI. As Meredith Broussard, author of the book "Artificial Unintelligence," explained to us in our last podcast...
MEREDITH BROUSSARD: AI is just math. It's a very, very complicated and beautiful and interesting math, but it's just math.
COLLEEN: While AI is changing our world -- in promising and game-changing and even artistic ways -- let's listen to Taryn's song again.
MUSIC: I wish I could sense beyond the present tense...
SUE: But it's also allowing decades and centuries of bias to seep into the technology that we are using more and more in our homes, our workplaces, our police departments, our cities.
COLLEEN: In this episode, we want to share the experiences of women entrepreneurs who are trying to make it in AI.
SUE: At a time when billions of dollars are going into AI startups...
COLLEEN: ...and at a time when the pandemic has caused a digital transformation in nearly every industry...
SUE: The stakes are high. Getting women and people of color involved in AI so their perspectives can inform technology is good for everyone.
COLLEEN: What we're finding is, the amount of bias and sexism and racism in this field is even worse than we expected.
SUE: Stick around.
KERRY WASHINGTON: Well children, where there is so much racket, there must be something out of kilter.
COLLEEN: We're going to go back in time for a sec.
SUE: Trust us, this will make sense.
COLLEEN: 170 years ago, the activist Sojourner Truth delivered an impassioned speech called "Ain't I a Woman."
SUE: About the pain of Black women being overlooked in the larger fight for women's suffrage.
COLLEEN: Here's a short clip of the actress Kerry Washington, doing a re-enactment for the Zinn Education Project.
WASHINGTON: Look at my arm. I have ploughed and planted and gathered into barns and no man could head me and ain't I a woman?
SUE: It's one of the most famous women's rights speeches in American history.
COLLEEN: Fast forward to today...and there's been a new interpretation of the speech.
JOY BUOLAMWINI: My name is Joy Buolamwini, I'm the founder of the Algorithmic Justice League and I'm also a poet of code.
COLLEEN: Joy is a noted computer scientist at the MIT Media Lab who uses art to raise awareness and fight issues of bias. Her AI research has shown that facial analysis software can identify light-skinned males with success -- but not dark-skinned women, often mis-identifying them as men.
SUE: Even highly recognizable women such as Michelle Obama, Oprah Winfrey, Serena Williams.
COLLEEN: Here is Joy talking about this, on her YouTube channel.
BUOLAMWINI: Being that I am a darker female, I wanted to look into this a bit more -- not just from performance metrics, but thinking about what it meant to me to see women that I identify with being misclassified.
COLLEEN: She was inspired to create the spoken word piece “AI, Ain’t I a Woman" -- and I just want to play some of it. This is Joy performing it at Harvard in 2019.
BUOLAMWINI: ...collecting data, chronicling our past…Often forgetting to deal with gender, race and class. Again I ask, "Aint I a Woman" -- face by face, the answers seem uncertain. Young and old, proud icons are dismissed.
Can machines ever see my queens as I view them
Can machines ever see our grandmothers as we knew them.
SUE: Wow, that's powerful.
COLLEEN: Yeah. And Joy is the subject of a 2020 documentary called "Coded Bias" --
SUE: -- which points out that AI is forward-looking, but based on data that is a reflection of our history.
COLLEEN: So against that backdrop, we set out to find women entrepreneurs who are inventing products and services using AI that they hope will shape our future.
SUE: And what we found is bleak...as you will hear.
DAVAR ARDALAN: I'm part of the Women in AI Accelerator, and there were 20 of us women from around the world and nobody took us seriously, not a single person.
COLLEEN: That's Davar Ardalan. She's the founder of iVow, which has built a gender-inclusive digital assistant, like a Siri or an Alexa.
ARDALAN: Mostly, the investors who come to Women in AI are there for decoration. They look at us as Christmas ornaments. They probably chuckle behind our back. I have been in those situations and it's incredibly demeaning.
COLLEEN: She told me she has been rejected..
ARDALAN: 350 times.
COLLEEN: The situation seems even worse for another entrepreneur we talked to -- Sheffie Robinson.
SHEFFIE ROBINSON: Funding as a woman running a startup is one thing, funding as a Black woman is like nonexistent, almost.
SUE: Her startup, Shamrock Education, uses AI to produce customized learning plans.
ROBINSON: The program starts between sixth and 12th grade.
SUE: …preparing kids for technical careers.
COLLEEN: Which could not be more important right now.
ROBINSON: I've had, I want to say...I've pitched about 50 or so companies so far.
COLLEEN: The process has left her dejected.
ROBINSON: The challenge for the most part has been, the questions that I get from VCs and Angels are so...some of them even come across demeaning. In that, I've been asked, "Did you build this yourself? Was this your idea?" I just know I wouldn't get these questions if I looked a certain way. And it's always, "Well, what expertise do you have?" I'm like, "Well, I've been a software engineer for 21 years."
COLLEEN: And then there's Carolyn Rodz. She and business partner Elizabeth Gore are the team behind Hello Alice, a digital resource for small business owners.
CAROLYN RODZ: We talked to over -- I think it was over 500 investors. It was an insane amount.
SUE: The difficulties that women in tech have in raising money have been pretty well documented.
COLLEEN: Here's a story from Carolyn.
RODZ: We literally had one guy we were pitching, and this is a Sand Hill Road, Silicon Valley, big VC partner. [He] came in, kicked his feet up on the table, was flipping through his phone, looking at pictures of dogs as we were pitching.
COLLEEN: Yeah. Carolyn actually called that VC out on this, as the firm is publicly committed to diversity.
RODZ: And we're like, "You guys are committed; you say you're committed to diversity. Yet you show up 30 minutes late to our meeting. You were totally disrespectful." They only introduced themselves to, at the time, or our lead engineer who was a male, walked right past Elizabeth and myself.
COLLEN (FROM ZOOM): Were you surprised or shocked by any of this? I mean, I find it appalling as an outsider.
RODZ: Yeah, we laughed. I remember one time Elizabeth and I went in, and we always would come in professional, and wear a suit if we walked into a...we're trying to raise millions of dollars, we're going to show up as professionals. And I remember one time we sat there and were waiting forever for this meeting. And we look across and we see these four guys walk in and basketball shorts and athletic gear. And we're like, "You know what? They probably got funding." And we didn't.
COLLEEN: Raising money -- big rounds of money -- is of course difficult for any entrepreneur.
SUE: But something about women raising money for AI startups is…next-level difficult.
COLLEEN (FROM ZOOM): Do you think it's harder for women and Black women in AI more than other fields of technology?
COLLEEN (FROM ZOOM): Why is that?
ROBINSON: Because it's an emerging technology that's intrinsically complex.
COLLEEN: Sheffie of Shamrock Education has just added two men to her founding team.
ROBINSON: One's a white guy, and one's a Black guy.
COLLEEN: And here's why she did this. A brief reminder -- it's the year 2021.
ROBINSON: I needed men behind me to validate that I know what I'm talking about. And I can guarantee you I'll probably get more interest in what we're doing, because I did that, than before when I was just a solo founder.
SUE: The damage that's done to entrepreneurial women who are rejected over and over again is real.
COLLEEN: This is Davar Ardalan again.
ARDALAN: I know Covid happened, but I should have been able to monetize some of this by now, and I'm not. I have failed. I'm not giving up, and my team and I are so close and so tight and have grit. We're going to make it, but I have failed.
COLLEEN: She actually kept repeating that
ARDALAN: I have failed. I have failed.
SUE: Did Davar have any thoughts as to how the situation might get better?
COLLEEN: She did -- but she also doesn't think it will happen.
ARDALAN: A lot of men are saying, "Oh, we want to invest more in women." Okay? Well, you know what? If I don't have a technical background, but I have an amazing idea like this, that the world is paying attention to, then maybe you could help me. Maybe you could help me figure out how to monetize it, but they don't do that. In fact, they make you feel really small.
COLLEEN: Davar believes the situation is different for male founders. A guy behind a startup who maybe has a great idea, but lacks the technical background, or who hasn't figured out how to monetize it yet -- he's cut more slack.
ARDALAN: The men who have the money, they are condescending and they come to you and they ask you questions instead of saying, "Let's spend the next two years, we will help you build your business."
COLLEEN (FROM ZOOM): If that were to happen -- if VCs, for instance, spent more time matching women in AI with technical co-founders --
ARDALAN: Then you will see an explosion of ideas and monetizable products that come out of Women in AI. But unfortunately, the standards are not fair.
SUE: And it's a shame, as we know that women create companies from a uniquely female perspective.
ARDALAN: There's a lot of amazing ideas that women have that make AI more empathetic, that make it more human-centered, that bring solutions that really can help bring people together and make really interesting experiences. But instead we're focusing still on restaurant apps and how to get your food faster to your home, instead of thinking about how we can pause and think more about beneficial AI.
COLLEEN: We'll be right back.
COMMERCIAL: The Story Exchange is a nonprofit media company that provides
inspiration and information for entrepreneurial women. If you like what you’re hearing, check out our award-winning podcast about the fight for women's suffrage.
ELLEN DUBOIS: "Men were, at the very least, uncomfortable with women voting."
COMMERCIAL: It's 100 Years of Power… women's history like you've never heard it.
COLLEEN: Welcome back. We've been sharing the experience of women in AI...and it's hard to say a lot that's positive here.
SUE: Listening to Davar, you can really hear her frustration.
COLLEEN: That said, there really is an increasing awareness of the difficulties that women face in technology, which is positive. This may have been swept under the table in the past, but there's much more of a call for action now.
SUE: Is it because society itself is changing a bit? I say with a bit of uncertainty, but we do have the first female Vice President, more women in the cabinet, more women just speaking out...At the same time, from listening to these women, it seems that the call for gender parity has taken on more urgency.
COLLEEN: I think that's right. There's a recognition that we're inventing the AI technology now, and we don't want to make the same mistakes we've always made.
SUE: There are also huge numbers of women interested in AI.
COLLEEN: That's another positive.
SUE: And there are resources that exist to help them, even though they're still limited.
COLLEEN: In our last podcast, we talked about the computer scientist Fei Fei Li...
SUE: ...who created ImageNet, and is currently working on "de-biasing" it.
COLLEEN: Right. She's now behind the nonprofit AI4ALL, which, among other things, runs summer programs to get high school girls interested in AI. There's Women in Cloud, and then there's Women In AI, a think-tank with 6,000 members, which is trying to close the gender gap. I spoke with one one of the organizers.
EVE LOGUNOVA: I'm Eve Logunova, Women in AI ambassador in the Netherlands and global team member of the organization.
COLLEEN: She came up with the idea for the Women in AI Accelerate program...
LOGUNOVA: ...the first ethical leadership and business acceleration program for female founders in the field of artificial intelligence, machine learning and data science.
COLLEEN: She suspected that women would be drawn to the program.
LOGUNOVA: I am so impressed what a woman can do when you give her a little bit of support.
COLLEEN: She was hoping to get at least 15 applications from women-led AI startups, when the accelerator kicked off in 2020 -- instead, she got 60 -- quadruple the amount.
LOGUNOVA: And yeah, I just jumped and started dancing and if I had a champagne, I probably would cork it and celebrate. It was a proud moment to see that they wanted to build the future, how they see it and contribute to the world with their solutions and just learn how to become a successful entrepreneur in the field of tech. That was my proud moment.
COLLEEN: And meanwhile, back in San Francisco, Hello Alice -- that's the startup co-founded by Carolyn Rodz, who we heard from earlier -- is breaking through.
SUE: The team has raised over $1.6 million dollars from investors and is now working on a Series B round.
COLLEEN: I asked Carolyn what made the difference -- how did they do it, when so many fail? Here's one answer...
RODZ: Our first three investors were all women. Jacki Zehner, who led an organization called Women Moving Millions and is just an incredible, amazing investor -- she was number one for us.
COLLEEN: The others include Jean Case, wife of AOL co-founder Steve Case, and Australian entrepreneur Cathie Reed.
COLLEEN (FROM ZOOM): Did that make you feel like someone believed in you when you --
RODZ: When Jackie gave us that first check, I remember getting the news, and Elizabeth and I...it was like we had just won the lottery. It was the greatest thing in the world. And it was, it was validation that yeah, someone buys into this. Every time you get money in the bank, it's validation that you are providing value to somebody.
SUE: Perhaps more women investors is part of the solution for women in AI.
COLLEEN: The Hello Alice example really would support that. They have a number of big-name female backers now, including Melinda Gates and Serena Williams, and of course male investors too.
SUE: It will take more than that -- it seems we need some sort of fundamental societal shift.
COLLEEN: Well, we're basically living in one. As we record this, the pandemic still isn't over. We're seeing the light at the end of the tunnel -- but this whole experience has changed us…
BROUSSARD: I hope that things are on an upswing.
COLLEEN: That's author Meredith Broussard again.
BROUSSARD: I hope that all of the pain and trauma that we are collectively going through right now as a society, globally, is going to result in us emerging stronger and wiser. Because right now, it's really hard for everyone everywhere. Dealing with sexism, dealing with racism...it's a lot. And I hope that we have a better future in store.
ROBINSON: A lot of women don't realize just how amazing they are. And we need more of that.
COLLEEN: That's Sheffie Robinson again. She's doing her part to support other women.
ROBINSON: Every time there's any type of women empowerment summit group pop up, I try to support, because I realize how important it is to just have someone say, "Hey, good job." Versus, "Are you sure you built this?" "Are you sure this is your idea?" "Have a whole patent?" Yes, I'm sure.
COLLEEN: And women are speaking up, publicly. They're talking to the media; they're talking to us. It can take a lot of courage to be candid about the challenges you face…here's Davar Ardalan again.
ARDALAN: I feel like we have to learn and be honest about our own shortcomings, but then also how the industry isn't helping us. I think I'm not the only one, and I appreciate being able to share this with you. I represent thousands and thousands of early stage women in artificial intelligence.
COLLEEN: We thank all the women for sharing their stories.
SUE: And we thank you for listening.
OUTRO: This has been the Story Exchange. If you liked this podcast, please share on social media or post a review wherever you listen. It helps other people find the show. And visit our website at TheStoryExchange.org, where you’ll find information and inspiration for entrepreneurial women. And we’d love to hear from you! Drop us a line at [email protected] — or find us on Facebook. I'm Colleen DeBaise. Sound editing provided by Nusha Balyan. Our research assistant is Noël Flego. Our mixer is Pat Donohue at String & Can. Executive producers are Sue Williams and Victoria Wang. Recorded at Cutting Room Studios in New York City. Thanks to Taryn Southern for letting us use her song “Break Free,” composed with Amper artificial intelligence with lyrics and vocals by Taryn. The piece “Home” is performed by Holly Herndon, licensed courtesy of 4AD and Holly Herndon (www.4ad.com / www.hollyherndon.com), by arrangement of Beggars Group Media Limited and Holly Herndon. The piece “Also Sprach Zarathustra” composed by Richard Strauss is licensed courtesy of C.F. Peters Corporation.