Funding the Future of AI: Our collective challenge

Funding the Future of AI: Our collective challenge

Funding the Future of AI: Our collective challenge

A common thread ran through the Women in AI Ethics Mid-Year Summit — how do we resource the amazing women doing work in this sector? Whether they are employed in a private or public sector organization, academics, entrepreneurs or not for profit leaders, it’s clear that women, and in particular women of colour, need vastly more resources and support to do this necessary work.

WAIE founder, Mia Dand, kicked things off with a thought experiment. She asked the audience if any of these scenarios sounded familiar….

Sadly, these questions reflect the actual lived experience so many of the attendees shared. How do we change that?

The theme of support and resources continued with an expert panel: Michelle Shevin (Ford Foundation), Michele Jawando (Omidyar Network) and Renee Wittemyer (Pivotal Ventures). These highly accomplished women shared their personal experiences as well as some sad statistics and stories from the tech sector.

Only 5% of AI roles are held by women of color. It’s one of the reasons why Pivotal Ventures was founded, to advance women, and AI is a core focus area, shared Renee Wittemyer. Meanwhile, millions (sometimes billions) of dollars are being allocated to questionable agendas, like long-termism and the effective altruism* community. Mia Dand asked the panel for comment. Omidyar’s Michele Jwando shared her thoughtful process to balance short and long term visions — reflect/do, pivot/do, act/do. Michelle Shevin of the Ford Foundation noted that many of those billionaire types who are determining our future seem to think it’s OK to extract everything and leave the Earth a dried husk before hopping on their rocket to Mars! All the panelists agreed that we need a better model and that asking questions about power is central to getting to “the tech that we want to build”.

WAIE collective member, Hessie Jones, led a chat with iGlobe Partners, Jennifer Jordan, and startup founder Patricia Thaine about the challenges of securing venture funding for female founders. Jennifer bluntly shared that it’s not an equal playing field, that even if there are women funders in the room they may not be the senior decision makers. She went on to say that you (as a startup founder) need to appeal to venture capitalist’s “greedy little hearts” and to not settle for “little girl valuations”.

Patricia shared how she managed to do that while still maintaining her values. Private AI is her second venture and she successfully secured her first round of funding after many pitches and a lot of due diligence, evidenced by the 70 discovery calls she made to determine product market fit. Throughout the session, I did wonder about just the whole system that funds the tech sector. For a sector that values innovation, the tech funding playbook feels incredibly formulaic with its seed, pre-seed, series X steps and the host of accelerators that go alongside it. While it’s important to understand what it takes to play this funding game, perhaps a bigger question is, do we want to play? Is this the only way forward?

Closing out the day, Dr. Safiya Noble and Mia Dand shared some personal accounts about what it takes for women of color to have their work funded. Dr. Noble is a pioneer in this field, as one of the first people to draw attention to the harms of tech with her incredible book, Algorithms of Oppression. Yet, for all her success, she talked about the ongoing struggle and the personal costs. She moved her family many times to build her career, faced challenges getting support for basic needs as a new mom on the speaking circuit and wasn’t able to fully pay off her student loans until she won the MacArthur Genius Award.

Meanwhile, Noble and Dand shared how men of questionable merit are failing upwards and continue to set the agenda across many sectors, including the tech sector. Their comment about failing up reminded me of one particular story from the Canadian arts sector. Jeff Melanson held numerous senior level roles moving from one prestigious organization to the next despite a past that included allegations of sexual harassment and misconduct. After his high profile divorcefrom heiress Eleanor McCain, he’s now a partner at a high profile media consulting firm. Whenever I think about “failing up”, I think of this story.

To end on a more positive note, Dr. Noble shared her vision for a $100M fund to address the important issue of how to support women, especially women of color, to continue to lead in the AI ethics sector. In her version of the future, we have diversity, we support new talent, we uphold “all nodes in the network” and there is support for the whole person. Wealth is not hoarded away by the few, but used to fund the work of the many, for the greater good. On days like today, at events like this, I’m hopeful. I think we can make it happen.

*A quick aside — I misspelled effective altruism as affective altruism before correcting it, but I actually think affective altruism could be a cool movement that centers on the idea of care and doing good now. Maybe it should be affective altruism instead? Just a thought.

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