Rana el Kaliouby, Ph.D., speaker at the WomenTech Global Conference 2020, is a pioneer in Emotion AI. She is the Co-Founder and CEO of Affectiva, as well as the author of the newly released book “Girl Decoded: A Scientist’s Quest to Reclaim Our Humanity by Bringing Emotional Intelligence to Technology.”
Rana is a passionate advocate for humanizing technology, ethics in AI, and diversity. She has been recognized on Fortune’s 40 Under 40 list and as one of Forbes' Top 50 Women in Tech. Rana holds a Ph.D. from the University of Cambridge and a Post Doctorate from MIT.
Especially for the WomenTech Network, Rana agreed to give an interview to one of our Global Ambassadors, Mouna Balghouthi.
Why have you decided to turn your journals into a public book? How did you have the courage to funnel your thoughts and emotions into an open book?
I first set out to write “Girl Decoded” because I wanted to evangelize a more human-centric approach to technology and AI. That's always been my goal, with my mission to humanize technology by pioneering artificial emotional intelligence (Emotion AI). But as I started to write the book, I quickly realized that I also wanted to share my story of personal transformation.
I have a somewhat unusual path, having grown in the Middle East as a "nice Egyptian girl," before pursuing my career as an entrepreneur and co-founding a start-up as a single Mom in the U.S. It was definitely not what others expected of me, or what I expected of myself, and I had to grapple not only with others' norms and expectations but also with doubt inside of my own head.
I had to find my voice and turn it into my advocate, not my adversary. I think that by sharing my story, it might help other people to find their own voices. I believe everyone has a story to tell. I hope this book inspires people to forge their own path, even if it’s different from what others expect - or different from what you might expect from yourself.
As a CEO of a tech company, coming from an academic background, in a male-dominated industry, did you take courses in business (online/offline) or lead by nature and got support from mentors?
When my co-founder Dr. Rosalind Picard and I first spun Affectiva out of the MIT Media Lab, we were totally new to the business world. Over the years I've taken a few extension courses, but so much of our learning happened by doing, and through the invaluable support of mentors and advisors. They guided us through the process of raising venture capital, finding focus as a start-up, and scaling our team and technology.
All of this made me realize the value of having mentors and building your network. For many years I didn't make time for networking - I was so focused on building technology and coding. But, once I started to join organizations and form relationships with mentors and peers, I realized how important that is, and even how detrimental it can be if you don't build your network.
These relationships gave (and continue to give) me a chance to get advice from others who have gone through similar experiences, and a safe environment where I can share my deepest fears or seek input on dilemmas I’m facing. That was crucial not only for my transition from academia to business, but also in the years that have followed, and the challenges I've faced professionally and personally.
Those networks are crucial for women in a male-dominated industry especially - finding allies who can lift you up and advocate for you - but it's not just about women. Any young person starting their career should invest time in building a network and continue to foster that over time.
At some point in your startup journey, Affectiva faced financial problems and you only got investors whose vision didn't align with Affectiva's. How did you overcome this challenge and found suitable investors?
One of Affectiva’s founding core values centers around ethics – for example, we will not license our technology for use cases that might jeopardize people's privacy, like security and surveillance, where there is no possibility to get opt-in and consent. We've been tested on that over the years.
One story in particular comes to mind. Several years ago, Affectiva received a preliminary investment offer from a government agency that wanted to use our technology for surveillance. We desperately needed the money - in fact, I was concerned about being able to make payroll. But I couldn't ignore the fact that this application of our technology would be in direct violation of our core values, so we walked away from the investment.
It was an incredibly tough decision, and it posed somewhat of an existential threat to the company - if we couldn't find other investors, I didn't know if Affectiva could continue. But these are the choices tech leaders critically need to make, and stand by, to ensure AI benefits people. At the end of the day it came down to our belief in our core values, and our conviction not to stray from them.
We maintained our focus on finding applications of our technology that could benefit people and would allow for opt-in and consent so that people could trust in the technology. With persistence, we found investors who believed in our vision for how this technology should be used.
It was challenging, but over the years as we've gone on to raise subsequent rounds of funding, that's always a consideration - ensuring our investors share our core values and vision.
You’re enjoying this interview thanks to our devoted Global Ambassador Mouna Balghouthi. Mouna is a Software Engineer from Tunisia who is interested in AI challenges and believes that social entrepreneurship can alleviate poverty.