Never stop learning. AI has the potential to positively impact and change our world. But as those of us in the space know, there’s always room for improvement and we still have a long way to go. It’s important to stay ahead of the trends, attend the team sessions and skill training courses, so that we continue to learn and improve AI technologies.
As part of my series about the women leading the Artificial Intelligence industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Wendy Gonzalez.
Wendy has over 20 years of experience building technology and teams, and is currently the Interim CEO of Samasource, the leading high-quality artificial intelligence data training company used by 25% of the Fortune 50 including Google, Microsoft, Walmart, and more. Prior to her role as Interim CEO, Wendy had spent 5 years at Samasource as COO. Prior to that, she led product and engineering at an IoT SaaS startup, held leadership positions at public companies in IT, and worked for over 10 years in management consulting.
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 grew up in an immigrant household and studied at the University of Washington. I was thinking about getting a degree in history, and my parents convinced me to switch to accounting and I joined E&Y after graduating. About four months in I realized that auditing wasn’t a good path for me, I really loved building things so I switched from auditing to consulting. I spent 10 years working with incredible mentors and leaders learning how to define and solve business problems. I focused on technology transformation, building roadmaps and operational plans, and got really excited about working with companies of all sizes to transform their businesses through technology. I progressed to run a practice within the larger E&Y team. Consulting was great — I loved working with people to solve problems but I wanted to own something. I made the decision to move toward a career path that would allow me to balance my family and take ownership and be more impactful in my career. I joined a public company to work in the technology group, then decided to take an independent consulting job so I could live where I wanted to live and raise my small children. We moved to Lake Tahoe to live the skiers dream and raise our family. I again felt the urge to build something so I joined the corporate world as an executive in technology for another public communications company. One of our clients and I decided to start a SaaS business focused on the Internet of Things.
We’re believers that you leave a place better than you found it, a value that was taught to me from my immigrant upbringing. I realized there were very few opportunities where you can ‘walk the walk’ and focus your efforts on a purpose driven career. Two years prior to joining Samasource, my husband and I made a commitment for one of us to dedicate our time to an organization that was making a difference. We didn’t want to be weekend warriors, and we wanted to live our values. I thankfully got connected to our late founder, Leila Jana, through a recruiter. Her vision of building a company that distributes opportunity amongst those that are not exposed to it really resonated with me. I made the decision to join Samasource 5 years ago.
What lessons can others learn from your story?
I believe that you have to be authentic to your values and trust your gut. At the end of the day, if you don’t lead with your values you are holding back your superpowers. I’ve been very fortunate to see success in my early career, but it wasn’t until I tied my values into my career that I truly excelled.
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 partner in crime is my husband. No question. This may sound a bit corny but I’ve had a strong mentor at every job I’ve had. But, it’s my husband who helps me day in and day out. When I didn’t believe in myself, he believed in me. Imposter syndrome gets the best of us and having someone in your corner that is constantly on your side and helps you not to sell yourself short is so valuable. He helped me figure out how to advocate for myself. If you don’t advocate for yourself, you’ll never get what you’re worth.
Can you tell our readers about the most interesting projects you are working on now?
At Samasource, we’re constantly working to apply our AI and machine learning technology to the problems facing our global society.
For example, we recently announced our AI Bias Detection solution. As AI becomes increasingly accessible in our daily lives, the products we use must be well trained, effective, and unbiased. Right now, however, 80% of AI projects fail due to challenges with training data pipelines. The AI Bias Detection solution combines our trusted classification technology with our diverse, expert human-in-the-loop teams to detect and correct AI biases. After analyzing the current data input, our solution creates an actionable report to take active steps to avoid future vulnerabilities and errors.
Simultaneously, we’ve been working hard to develop critical internal programs. When the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic began to sweep the globe, we took swift action to ensure our teams were able to maintain their jobs safely. Through SamaHome, we provided employees with a safe, hygienic place to live and work during the pandemic. While this was an effective solution for the first few months of lockdown orders, we’ve also worked to develop a sustainable WFH alternative. This long term solution provides all Samasource agents with equipment, regular care packages and public safety guides.
What are the 5 things that most excite you about the AI industry? Why?
- New inventions: AI and machine learning technology is opening the door to new innovations across industries including autonomous vehicles, retail and virtual and augmented realit
- Social impact: When harnessed properly, AI has the potential to incite real change towards tackling global challenges like climate change, conservation and systemic racism in technology.
- Public health: Over the past several months, we’ve seen first hand the limits of our current healthcare and research industries to tackle global crises like the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. While AI has already begun to assist doctors and researchers in diagnostic work and vaccine development, the technology has the potential to revolutionize our approach to public health.
- Error reduction: AI can be used as a tool to validate and judge our decision-making, enabling higher accuracy rates and efficiency. At Samasource, we believe the key to innovation is this collaboration between technology and humans.
- Disaster Preparedness/Response: AI systems are constantly evolving to predict natural disasters like earthquakes, floods and hurricanes. While these systems still require development, they could drastically improve our collective preparedness and response.
What are the 5 things that concern you about the AI industry? Why?
- AI bias: Bias has the potential to create patterns of dangerous AI decision-making. From the Face Depixelizer’s misreading of Barack Obama to the wrongful arrest of Robert Julian-Borchak Williams in Michigan, bias is caused by a lack of adequate data training.
- Pure automation: There’s often a fear that AI will usurp humans. Yet, machine learning technology can’t properly function without human oversight. Instead, successful AI requires a careful combination of advanced technology and a diverse human-in-the-loop team.
- Reputation: A lot of people are wary of AI and concerns like bias and automation have given it a bad reputation overall. Educating the public on what AI is and how it can be used for good will be critical moving forward.
- Regulation: Since so little is understood about the potential of AI and machine learning, there’s a lot of room for potential risks. As we develop a stronger understanding of what role we want the technology to play in our society, creating boundaries will be vital to future innovation.
- Inequality: 85% of Americans already use AI products daily but this accessibility drops off sharply when you look outside of the US, EU and Japan. If AI is not made available to a diverse group of people, organizations and countries around the world, technological innovations have the potential to further inequalities and inequities globally.
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 think that there are absolutely dangers associated with technology. There is a tendency to believe that computers are right and if something comes out systematically then it’s the right answer. There have always been advancements in technology. Back in the day, we used to have elevator operators. Then, technology came around and we didn’t need them. It’s the same with maps and GPS, and now GPS can be used to get live saving services to medical needs. Technology disruption is here, and you can bury your head in the sand or you can be part of the solution. I believe we need to make AI representative, to make it equitable. And, we need to do our very best to drive the appropriate representation and context to make this technology work for us.
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?
I think it’s a combination of things. I’m not sure regulation is the way to do this. AI is pervasive, it doesn’t belong to one country, so defining a core set of rules and governance is going to be challenging. Furthermore, as soon as you put regulations in place, people will game the system and try and beat it. I think there is value to public/private partnerships and developing standards and thought leadership that can build common ground together. We need to need market transformation practices to truly build representative, equitable AI.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world? Can you share a story?
We have built an Ethical AI Supply Chain at Samasource by equipping people in underserved regions with the digital and machine learning skills needed to earn a living wage. By combining leading AI training data technology with a vertically integrated workforce, we’ve been able to vastly improve efficiency and quality of AI training data. Powering this training data is our amazing team, composed of 50% women, that we’ve hired and trained from underrepresented communities in regions such as East Africa. To-date, we’ve helped more than 50,000 people lift themselves out of poverty and support their families.
Outside of my work with Samasource, I’m a huge advocate for our aspiring leaders. I’m an avid volunteer for YMCA’s Project Cornerstone, where I support Silicon Valley’s youth grow into healthy, caring and responsible adults through mentorship sessions. I’m also an active member of MPOWER (Mounties Promoting Others Wellness in Educational Realms), a parent-led anti-bullying initiative. I help facilitate discussions with high school and middle school students to help them understand the negative impacts of bullying.
As you know, there are not that many women in your industry. Can you share 3 things that you would advise to other women in the AI space to thrive?
If I had to nail down the top 3 things, I would say:
- Reach out for support. If you feel like you need more training or have questions about something you’re struggling with, don’t be afraid to ask for support from your team and/or your manager. I think as women we try to take on every challenge ourselves without asking for help and sometimes that can hurt us more than we realize.
- Remind yourself of the positive contributions you’re making. The recent pandemic has really shined a light at the many roles women play — moms, teachers, leaders and so much more. It’s important to recognize the wins we bring to the board — both big and small.
- Never stop learning. AI has the potential to positively impact and change our world. But as those of us in the space know, there’s always room for improvement and we still have a long way to go. It’s important to stay ahead of the trends, attend the team sessions and skill training courses, so that we continue to learn and improve AI technologies.
Can you advise what is needed to engage more women into the AI industry?
Two things: Support and skills training. It’s really crazy when you look at the statistics. Only 20% of tech positions are held by women. Of those, just 3% are held by African-American women, 6% held by Asian women and 2% held by Hispanic women.
Samasource was founded over a decade ago with the mission of creating opportunities and providing economic empowerment and upward mobility for individuals through skills training and digital work. Since the beginning, we’ve been hyper-focused on providing underserved women with training, tools, and the opportunity to uplift themselves. And we’ve seen that it works. Through that purpose-driven mission, we have been able to engage more women in the AI industry.
Today, our leadership team is nearly 50% female and more than 50% of our entire workforce is female. So when other leaders in the industry look for ways to engage more women in the AI industry, it really just comes down to providing training and support.
What is your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share a story of how that had relevance to your own life?
Leave people and places better than when you found them. This is one of our core family mottos that we teach our children and do our best to model in life. If you see a piece of trash on the street, you don’t walk over it, you pick it up and throw it in the trash, even if it’s inconvenient.
It seems like a simple thing, but it affects your outlook. Your starting point is how to solve problems to be the change that you want to see in the world, for yourself and your community. It’s this belief that led me here to Samasource.
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. :-)
If I could wave a magic wand, it would be to influence our biggest companies and corporations to include impact criteria in their buying decisions. Imagine if every large company and chief procurement officer used a fraction of their budget to support social impact and sustainability criteria.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
They can follow me on Twitter @wendykgonzalez1 and can connect with me via LinkedIn, just search Wendy (Koh) Gonzalez.