Sharing the AI journey: Amplifying feminine founder voices

In October last year, researchers at the Alan Turing Institute sounded the alarm that there was an “urgent issue” of gender imbalance in artificial intelligence investment. No one, unfortunately, was surprised. However, it is always good to have the data.

The report found that female-founded companies accounted for only 3% of AI startup VC funding over the past decade. While the study focused solely on the UK, similar findings have been reported in other countries.

With the boom in generative AI, the importance of diverse founder perspectives to counteract bias in a technology set to become ever more omnipresent throughout our daily lives cannot be overstated. Thus, the chasm in gender representation in AI is concerning far beyond the mere recognition of “that sucks.”

Of course, this is not a problem solely with funding, or AI as a sector, for that matter. Female representation in tech is held back by structural factors such as industry culture and lower rates of women in STEM. What seems to matter most when it comes to shifting gender imbalance is support —- and representation that highlights the struggles, along with the wins.

“It’s true that there are very few female founders in AI,” Dr Angie Ma, co-founder of UK-based startup Faculty AI, tells TNW. “But my experience as a tech company founder has been a rewarding one. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not like it’s easy or anything, it is the hardest thing I’ve ever done. But I think it’s the journey that matters. Because along the journey, I’ve come across many wonderful people that have helped me without expecting anything in return.”

A “great time for AI” at UCL

Dr Ma completed her degree in physics during the dot-com boom of the early 2000s. Together with a couple of friends she started a company that created databases for online shopping. In her own words, it “failed spectacularly.” 

After a family-encouraged foray into law and realising she would make “a lousy lawyer,” she began her PhD in physics at University College London, which was, she says, a “great time for AI.” (DeepMind founders Demis Hassabis, Shane Legg, and Mustafa Suleyman attended at the same time.)

Dr Angie Ma. Credit: Faculty AI

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Dr Ma then started Faculty AI in 2014 (with her two co-founders Marc Warner and Andrew Brookes), with the mission to help businesses implement safe, “human-led” AI. The startup now counts names such as Siemens, BlackRock, Stripe, British Airways, and the UK Home Office among its clients.

“A human-first approach means the AI is designed by humans, to augment human decision making, not to replace it,” Dr Ma explains. The company has also worked with NHS hospitals in Wales to reduce bed-blocking. This is when hospital beds are taken up by patients who do not really need them anymore, essentially “blocking” access for other candidates. Faculty’s predictive AI tool managed to reduce the phenomenon by 35%.

Prioritising personal development and networking for female founders

While Dr Ma does acknowledge the challenges women face in the industry, she is also keen to highlight the commonalities amongst founders in general, and how a supportive network is key to navigating an often brutally demanding environment.

“Founders face a unique set of challenges and obstacles, and having a supportive group can make a huge difference,” she emphasises, and explains that she has been a part of a founders’ group that gets together once a month for the past seven years. 

Activities like this may take time and commitment, but the benefits, she says, are immeasurable. “Often, women tend to prioritise others over themselves, inadvertently neglecting to invest in building their networks or participating in developmental activities,” Dr Ma adds.

Co-founding a tech startup “like being a marriage”

It is, of course, impossible to know whether her experience with fundraising as a founder would have been any different had she not had two male co-founders. However, she is decidedly of the conviction that the qualities one needs in a co-founder transcends gender.

“I think co-founding a company is, dare I say, like being in a marriage. You have to grow together as individuals, you have to build things together, you go through good times, bad times. I think founding and building companies is incredibly tough. You want to be very selective with who you do it with.”

Returning our conversation to how women can support other women in AI, Dr Ma tells a story illustrating how even though we may not immediately understand or notice our impact, it does not mean it doesn’t exist. And how no effort is too small.

The day before our conversation, she says, she met with a young woman from her old school, who hd just finished her degree and reached out to because she wanted career advice about breaking into AI. “It turns out she attended an AI workshop I did for 15-16 year old students before COVID. At the time, the workshop didn’t get much attention so I thought ‘oh, people are not interested.’ But nonetheless, it left an impression on her and influenced how she thought about her career aspirations. 

It also prompted me to think about how I can increase my visibility among young women, sharing my story, my journey, my missteps and lessons. Because I think inspiring the next generation requires more than just accomplishment and successes — it actually requires vulnerability and authenticity.”

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