When it comes to starting, growing, and maintaining a business, it can be very easy to get hung up on long-term plans and goals for the future. But while it’s good to have direction, this over-scheduling can prevent the “magic” of luck, fate, and chance — call it what you will.
And with CEOs becoming increasingly successful, Rana El Kalioubi – AI pioneer, machine learning scientist, co-founder and former CEO of Affectiva – believes it’s important to find ways to keep the magic alive to grow your company and your mindset.
“I leave room for chance connections because you never know what will result from them,” she says. “It helps not to be too disciplined and to leave a little room for randomness because it will likely lead you to exceeding your planned goals.
“Very early in my career, a professor at MIT invited me to join it and fundamentally changed the course of my life. I took a risk and now feel like it’s my chance to take the opportunity for other people to begin their journey.”
“Personally, the easiest $5 million I raised came from chance, just because I was on a business trip everyone said it wasn’t worth traveling, and I ended up talking to someone at the airport who made contact with an investor for me. You can’t design that, it was just a coincidence” .
Rana sure worked hard when it came to her development AI . company Affective, which aims to improve how computers interact with humans, after earning a PhD at Cambridge University and taking a role as a research scientist at MIT Media Lab.
Upon meeting her, it is clear that her enthusiasm to listen and sincere interest in those she meets has benefited her business life. No wonder her area of expertise has become an application of emotion recognition technology — she’s even made empathy a core value of her company.
It says Affectiva’s sale last year to makers of the Smart Eye driver monitoring system for $73.5 million was more than it had expected.
“Selling the company as a founder… you are very emotionally attached,” she says. “He’s like my third child, so it was an interesting transition. The hardest part for me was the first six months when we were merging the two teams, it was like an identity crisis. I’m no longer CEO of my startup.”
Overcoming imposter syndrome
As a woman in AI, Rana has always been well aware of being “the only woman in the room”, and going from Affective, she decides to do something about it. To this end, it is looking for opportunities to support and encourage diversity in the tech world through the Artificial Intelligence Fund, which helps invest and build the next generation of tech giants.
“I realize how difficult it is for women, underrepresented founders and even underrepresented ideas. I used to and found my voice now but it took years,” she reveals.
“It’s really great to be different because we need diverse people to solve problems in our world and diverse teams do better financially and economically.”
Rana recounts the moment she realized she needed to work as hard on herself as her company. After starting Affectiva in 2009, she hired Experienced CEO to satisfy investors. When he left in 2013, she didn’t run for the role because it wasn’t her role before. Several years later, when she really delved into what the position entailed, she realized that not only was she qualified for the job, she was already doing it.
“One of my mentors said, ‘You have to convince yourself first that you are ready,’” explains Rana, “so we did several visualization exercises.” As soon as she thought I was ready, we took her to the board of directors for a vote and it was unanimously agreed that I would take the role of CEO.
“That was a big lesson – you don’t want it to be your biggest obstacle. But often women don’t raise their hands for opportunities unless they meet 100 percent of the requirements, while sometimes men are ready for it if they check 30 cent. I encourage the women on our team to raise their hands even if they think they’re not ready.”
It’s not just companies that are hampered by a lack of diversity. Rana highlights the broader ethical issues of society, which have resulted from the lack of women and members of minorities in the AI workspace.
She notes that “the biggest problem with AI today is data and computational bias.” “If you train any artificial intelligence algorithm Based on the data that is not diverse, it becomes biased, and then if you spread it around the world, and you scale it up, you stress the bias that exists in society a thousand times over.
“I think business leaders have to be intentional about diversity, equality, and inclusion. It just won’t happen by itself.”
“The only way to solve this is to have diversified data – and the only way to diversify data Is to have diverse people around the table say, “Have you considered including data on women who wear headscarves or men who have beards?” I think the more diverse the people around the table, the more powerful the solution.”
seat at the table
To ensure this change happens, Rana believes companies need to take a proactive stance in hiring, rather than hoping the right candidates will knock on their doors. “We as business leaders need to do a better job, to reach disadvantaged minorities who might not think they could have a job in technology,” she asserts.
“Affective had an amazing internship program and would get over 600 applications for five jobs. But we realized we were getting kids from universities and private schools, so we decided to look for kids who would never think of applying. Sometimes they just didn’t have any background about programming and we were like, ‘It’s okay, we’ll teach you – you just have to be a crook,’ motivating and motivating“.
The pace of change is something that Rana finds frustrating when she launches the AI fund. Since founding her startup all that year, she says things haven’t developed as well as she had hoped. “It is very difficult to find female investors to put money in the fund. But I am adamant that there should be women; even if they put out smaller checks, I want to bring women around the table as investors and as founders.”
However, the inspiration and joy that Rana gets from working with those who started their companies with an AI fund makes it so worth the time she achieved everything – and more – she hoped she could do when she was a teenager.
Rana acknowledges that it also gains in addition to those supported by the fund. “One of my core values is lifelong learning,” she explains. “I am a cultured, curious human being and I love to learn new things, it just feeds my brain.
“It’s definitely key for any entrepreneur who has done a good job, because that stops you from getting stuck and pushes you — sometimes you have to look outside of yourself and your own business. You have to put yourself in a place where you are open to random connections, to open new doors.”
Let that precious coincidence back.