I believe we, as leaders in the field of AI, need to take an activist approach to combat systemic bias against women and POC within the tech industry as a whole. This means taking the initiative and banding together to support the brave individuals and groups who are risking their reputations and careers to callout the inequity that is embedded in our corporate cultures. Only by actively rooting out discrimination in recruiting and promotion practices, a lack of representation at conferences, and a paucity of diversity in the boardroom will we be able to establish an equitable work environment that will enable women in tech, and AI in particular, to flourish.
As part of my series about the women leading the Artificial Intelligence industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Erin Michelson, Founder & CEO of Summery. Erin leads a team of behavioral, cognitive, and data scientists developing values-based AI applications for companies like Salesforce, nonprofit organizations, global foundations, and academic institutions. Summery applications quantify individual values and score cultural alignment to help organizations better recruit, retain, and engage key stakeholders, such as employees, donors, students, customers, investors, and community members. A frequent keynote speaker and panelist, Erin has been profiled in @BBCTech, @Entrepreneur, @NPR, @NatGeoTraveler, and @FoxNews. www.summery.ai
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?
As a solo female non-technical founder, I’ve had an unorthodox path to AI. With 3 degrees in political science and a 10-year career in finance and consulting, I quit my job in global banking to travel the world. I sold everything I owned and started a charitable fund that would disperse the funds as I traveled. For two years I traveled alone, visiting all seven continents and 62 countries while volunteering with humanitarian organizations.
When I returned from my travels, I wrote the series Adventure Philanthropist, which highlighted not only my world-wide adventure but thirty other individuals that were leading fulfilling lives that reflected their values. I wrote the book to inspire readers to find their joy by incorporating charitable and civic activities into their everyday lives.
However, it didn’t work. While readers liked my book, they couldn’t make the transition of incorporating the changes that had led others to professional and personal fulfillment.
So, I decided I needed to create tools to help people understand and activate their own personal values. I recruited an ex-Google engineer to build a prototype of the Kind Quiz, a web app that provides individuals with a unique value profile based on 1 of 98,304 different combinations of kindness.
What lessons can others learn from your story?
Hopefully, my shared experiences will help others let go of trying to dictate the outcome of their actions. So, while we can still diligently strategize and execute a work plan, it’s important to be open to unforeseen opportunities and connections. As we let go of predisposed ideas of success and progress, we allow growth to happen in unimagined ways.
Can you tell our readers about the most interesting projects you are working on now?
The Kind Quiz remains our main measurement tool that quantifies individual values like empathy, integrity, innovation, agility, and disruption, however we’re now moving beyond the corporate market and working with nonprofit organizations and global foundations to help match donors with highly personalized philanthropic activities.
We’re also in the process of developing the Kind Quiz: Education edition to help students better choose schools, courses, and career paths that reflect their values. We’re currently piloting with California community colleges to prescribe programs that help students stay in school, complete their degrees, and find a job in their chosen field.
The work that I’m most excited about is the recent launch of the Net Culture Score℠ (NCS), a Natural Language Processing tool that quantifies the alignment between corporations’ stated values and the lived values of its employees. By scoring a corporation’s culture and the alignment with an individual employee or team cohort, we can help companies assess, engineer, and monitor changes in culture to better recruit, retain, and engage top talent.
None of us can 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?
There’s not just one person, but a group of people that are instrumental to Summery’s success — our advisors and team of behavioral, cognitive, and data scientists.
While we were offered funding in our first year, I instead decided to bootstrap the company and go straight to revenue to demonstrate market traction. This path was only possible because our team is committed to pursuing a mission of individual social impact and systemic cultural change.
What are the 5 things that most excite you about the AI industry? Why?
Corporate culture is transforming from a shareholder to a stakeholder-driven business model. We’re seeing this shift in real-time in the form of employee walkouts, manifestos, and proliferating lawsuits around equality and fair treatment of workers. As many corporations address this changing culture, they need an unbiased, quantifiable method of incorporating and monitoring employee and customer values.
AI as the answer. We are now able to build the tools to empower both individual employees and corporate executives who seek cultural alignment with their key stakeholders. Most exciting for us is our ability to:
- Assign a numeric measurement to values like empathy, integrity, innovation, agility, and disruption.
- Produce 98,304 combinations of values, engagement preferences, and social cues.
- Deliver highly personalized, prescriptive activity matching based on individual value profiles.
- Quantify and score the alignment between company culture and employee values.
- Monitor changes in values and culture overtime for a discernible ROI.
What are the 5 things that concern you about the AI industry? Why?
I’m most concerned with the unethical use of data. Throughout the tech industry, we’re seeing infringements on individual privacy, unauthorized sharing of private information, and a lack of transparency around data use. In part, these abuses are the result of:
- Weak data covenants.
- Anemic ethics guidelines.
- Stunted individual access to personal data.
- Data presented without context.
- Lack of ethical counsel from outside the tech industry.
While the situation is serious, I’m hopeful that as drivers of technological change, tech companies will develop and abide by a robust data ethics code of standards. And then it will be up to internal stakeholders, such as employees and investors, as well as external stakeholders like consumers, to hold the industry and individual companies accountable.
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?
Like most technological advancements, knowledge can be used for good or evil. What’s not changing is that as a society we will continue to push the boundaries of technology. Therefore, the onus is on us as a collective community of scientists, engineers, business professionals, consumers, and community members to provide industry oversight and to drive the adoption of ethical guardrails.
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?
First, the public should be concerned. Second, we can’t prevent a misdirected use of technology because there are individual bad actors. We also can’t possibly conceive of how technological advances may be used in the future. Nevertheless, we can and should act.
At Summery, we’ve outlined a 7-point plan to create an internal system of good data governance and to help us remain responsive to new challenges. The plan highlights areas that companies can take to protect their users, including developing a corporate value statement and living these values, recruiting internal and external ethics advisors, embracing transparency about data use, committing to best practices regarding the handling of personal information, and endorsing existing data ethics covenants.
By far, the most important of our ethical principles is our firm belief in empowering individuals with their data. Summery’s business model is to provide data analytics to help organizations understand the values of their key stakeholders. Summery ensures that:
- Each individual has to opt-in to participate in our personality testing.
- Each individual receives a 3-page overview of his/her value profile, providing knowledge to help individuals make informed decisions.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world? Can you share a story?
As a social impact company, we opened the Kind Quiz to the public so you too can learn about your unique kindness and activate your values. Upon completing the 5-minute online quiz, you receive a 3-page overview of your kindness profile and then Summery activates these collective values by donating to a nonprofit organization every month. In this way, we can use our data for good.
We also donate on behalf of every client cohort that uses our applications. For instance, the staff and administrators of Barstow Community College recently took the Kind Quiz. We then honored and activated their values by donating to the Barstow Police Activities League to help keep neighborhood kids off the street and safe.
We data-curated this particular nonprofit because it reflects the college staff’s high levels of empathy, focus on local issues, and preference for direct action that benefits both specific individuals and community groups.
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?
- Work your networks. Our female-focused networks can be as strong as the old boys’ club. Don’t hesitate to ask your friends for business. And return the favor by making introductions, providing feedback, and generally paying it forward.
- Ignore the haters. Whether intentional or not, industry insiders are going to make you feel like an imposter and unwelcomed. I’ve learned to eschew the bro-culture of tech and Silicon Valley’s fascination with fancy degrees, name-brand incubators, and pedigree resumes.
- Set your own pace. Acknowledge that it’s tough to run a company, to work in AI, or to be the only woman or POC member of a team. Change doesn’t happen overnight, which is why we need to ensure we’re healthy enough physically, mentally, and emotionally for the long haul.
Can you advise what is needed to engage more women into the AI industry?
I believe we, as leaders in the field of AI, need to take an activist approach to combat systemic bias against women and POC within the tech industry as a whole. This means taking the initiative and banding together to support the brave individuals and groups who are risking their reputations and careers to callout the inequity that is embedded in our corporate cultures.
Only by actively rooting out discrimination in recruiting and promotion practices, a lack of representation at conferences, and a paucity of diversity in the boardroom will we be able to establish an equitable work environment that will enable women in tech, and AI in particular, to flourish.
What is your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share a story of how that had relevance to your own life?
There were several times throughout my life where this quote can be seen as a guiding force: quitting a successful career in finance to work with nonprofit organizations, closing a thriving consulting firm to travel the world and volunteer, selling everything I owned to start a charitable fund, and launching a social-impact tech company to help people discover their values and lead fulfilling lives.
Each of these decisions presented an enormous amount of risk, but I felt the overriding desire to take a moral stand that reflected my commitment to serving others and to create systemic change for good.
The flip side of taking such an unconventional approach is that I’ve also had to take responsibility and live with the repercussions of those decisions. This included sacrificing financial stability, making tough choices regarding my personal life, and shouldering the stress of building a technology company.
These decisions are my own and I would make the same choices again. Yet, I acknowledge that I come from a place of privilege and am fortunate enough to have support systems that enabled me to assume this level of risk and responsibility.
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. :-)
We’ve recently launched a new movement based on collective kindness called The Kind Project.
I believe that social change begins with us as individuals. I also believe that our collective power is immense. Luckily for us, we live in a world where technology enables us to raise our voices, join coalitions, and form communities that can help activate our beliefs and create lasting change in our work, schools, and social settings.
To begin, we need to understand what each of us values the most and to embrace our unique value profile. I look at values through the lens of kindness and see each of us embodying a highly personal set of values, traits, and characteristics rooted in social good. Once we gain this understanding, we can then individually activate our values and collectively enact change.
You can begin this journey and discover your unique kindness today by taking the Kind Quiz.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
LinkedIn: Erin Michelson
Facebook: The Kind Project
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!