It’s okay to be a non-STEM woman in a STEM field. You don’t have to be an engineer or data scientist to work in AI. It’s a highly technical field but there are so many other functions, HR, Legal, People, Marketing, beyond Data Science and Engineering.
As part of my series about the women leading the Artificial Intelligence industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Anna Counselman is co-founder and head of people and operations at Upstart, a leading AI lending startup with more than $160M in venture capital funding. Anna co-founded Upstart in 2012, after a career at Google leading operations. She helped scale Upstart from zero to 200+ employees and originate more than $3.5B in loans. At Google, Anna led Gmail Consumer Operations for 5 years as it scaled from 150 million to 450 million users and launched the global Enterprise Customer Programs team. She also held a variety of operations roles at McMaster Carr and several other startups. Anna graduated Summa Cum Laude from Boston University with a BA in Finance and Entrepreneurship. Anna received a White House Champion of Change award and was recognized as one of Silicon Valley Business Journal’s 40 under 40.
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’m one of the few people whose path actually started with my college major. I studied Finance and Entrepreneurship in college, and today I’m closely applying this undergraduate field to my work at a growing fintech company. I’m passionate about online lending because access to capital is vital to upward mobility and the path towards empowerment, independence, and success. I’m always telling people about the importance of ‘investing in yourself’ and my work at Upstart is exactly that. Upstart is one of the first companies to apply AI/ML to the multi-trillion dollar credit industry. Upstart goes beyond the credit score, using non-conventional variables at scale to provide superior loan performance and increase access to credit. I made the leap and jumped into entrepreneurship after a career at Google. I co-founded Upstart when it was just myself and my two co-founders, one of whom I knew from Google, Dave Girouard. Since then, we’ve scaled the company tremendously and have secured more than $160M in venture capital funding. It’s been an amazing ride.
What lessons can others learn from your story?
Sometimes, when you see an opportunity — you should leap before you look. We often shy away from risk, but in order to achieve outsized opportunities you have to take outsized risks. It can feel like jumping off a cliff, but it’s the best way to grow and challenge yourself. Particularly I’ve observed that women may be less likely to pursue entrepreneurial roles for a variety of reasons. I left the safest, most family-friendly company, Google, to venture out on my own. And I made the move right after getting married and before having my first child. It’s important to feel the fear, and do it anyway!
Can you tell our readers about the most interesting projects you are working on now?
I’m most excited about opening Upstart’s second office in Columbus, Ohio. We’re working on building out the new office, our brand, physical working space, and design. I’m passionate about people and culture and determining ways to keep the speed of a startup while also maintaining our unique culture as we scale. Upstart’s values are our north star, and our employees are smart, collaborative, and fast. On a day to day basis, I spend a lot of time on hiring and interviewing candidates as we are scaling so quickly. I’m also excited about our growing Powered By Upstart business which allows banks to leverage our AI credit underwriting models for online lending. My role is to develop the teams and operational processes to support and scale this new business model as it continues to gain momentum.
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?
My mother is an amazing role model. In Moscow, she started the first private boys and girls club, and employed people who had lost favor with the Communist party and were not able to otherwise work. She is also an artist, so I learned piano, art, and dance through her friends and colleagues as a child growing up in Moscow. She’s entrepreneurial, creative, and persistent.
What are the 5 things that most excite you about the AI industry? Why?
1. The potential to improve access to credit by moving beyond the credit score, which is backwards-looking.
2. Self-driving cars. ‘Nuff said.
3. SoundCloud. I’m a musician, and I love the predictive algorithms that seem to know my music choices.
4. Personalized medicine. There is a lot of groundbreaking work being done in personalized medicine, particularly processing massive DNA data at scale.
5. AI-powered space-exploring robots such as the Mars Curiosity Rover.
What are the 5 things that concern you about the AI industry? Why?
1. Fake news, synthetic media, and disinformation campaigns influencing political processes.
2. Lethal autonomous weapons.
3. Job displacement.
4. Privacy concerns in a world where large amounts of data are much easier to collect and process.
5. Hacking and cybersecurity risks.
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?
It’s generally more useful to talk productively about proactive solutions to large-scale problems, rather than alarmist narratives. I believe there are real risks. But the best thing to do is start working on solutions ahead of time. I’m glad there are folks at DeepMind and other places thinking hard about this.
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’ve been thoughtful and purposeful about building AI that expands access to credit and fixes the existing limitations inherent in a credit score. Using additional data and AI allows us to increase loan approvals while at the same time decreasing loss rates. Credit is just about the perfect application of this technology. The rules are clear and the results are binary and easy to measure. The key to designing a responsible AI system for credit is to be deliberate about what the system can and can’t do and measuring outcomes to ensure that the model is performing as intended. Upstart is the first and only lender to receive a No Action Letter from the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, in connection with our use of AI models and alternative data. We regularly test our models for bias as part of a compliance plan we agreed to follow for the CFPB. This involves monitoring and reporting on applicant outcomes to this agency. We must also demonstrate that our model increases access to credit. Though this rigorous process, we’re able to demonstrate that our model actually improves lending outcomes for nearly every traditionally underserved demographic.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world? Can you share a story?
I’ve worked very hard to recruit, hire, and retain women leaders. Our leadership team at Upstart is composed of five men and five women, which is rare in Silicon Valley. I’ve helped recruit every woman on that team and help lead our Superwomen group at Upstart for women in the broader company as the executive sponsor. I’m also active as a mentor for other women founders through First Round Capital network and All Raise.
As you know, there are not that many women in your industry. Can you share 3 things that you would you advise to other women in the AI space to thrive?
1. Take the leap. Take the job before you’re ready for it. Bet on yourself!
2. Look to the future. The future is AI, so it’s important to align your skillset with these new areas.
3. It’s okay to be a non-STEM woman in a STEM field. You don’t have to be an engineer or data scientist to work in AI. It’s a highly technical field but there are so many other functions, HR, Legal, People, Marketing, beyond Data Science and Engineering.
What is your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share a story of how that had relevance to your own life?
- “Think of every opportunity as a chance to prove how good you are.” I tell people on my team not to worry about having a grand plan, just crush whatever is in front of you.
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’d like to see women’s rights in this country and globally move forward instead of backwards.
Thank you for joining us!
About the Author:
Tyler Gallagher is the CEO and Founder of Regal Assets, a “Bitcoin IRA” company. Regal Assets is an international alternative assets firm with offices in the United States, Canada, London and United Arab Emirates focused on helping private and institutional wealth procure alternative assets for their investment portfolios. Regal Assets is an Inc. 500 company and has been featured in many publications such as Forbes, Bloomberg, Market Watch and Reuters. With offices in multiple countries, Regal Assets is uniquely positioned as an international leader in the alternative assets industry and was awarded the first ever crypto-commodities license by the DMCC in late 2017. Regal Assets is currently the only firm in the world that holds a license to legally buy and sell cryptos within the Middle East and works closely with the DMCC to help evolve and grow the understanding and application of blockchain technology. Prior to founding Regal Assets, Tyler worked for a Microsoft startup led by legendary tech giant Karl Jacob who was an executive at Microsoft, and an original Facebook board member.