Honoured by Forbes in 2018 as one of Southeast Asia’s ground-breaking female entrepreneurs, Khanna’s AI solutions firm and incubator ADDO AI works with clients to implement AI engines in areas such as customer service automation, predictive maintenance and resource optimisation. Respected for her knowledge and insights, the Pakistani-born Singaporean is also a member of the World Economic Forum’s Global Future Councils and sits on the board of the Infocomm Media Development Authority. Married to global strategy advisor and author Parag Khanna, the mother-of-two knew she could do more to help nurture the next generation of tech leaders. 21C Girls, which she started in 2014, organises free coding, AI and robotics courses for girls in Singapore, through which they can develop values such as collaboration, creativity, analysis and ethics.
One of the key objectives of 21C Girls is to advocate gender equality “Gender equality is important for three reasons. Firstly, more diverse tech teams build better products and services; instead of catering to only male consumers, they can start to take women (a rapidly growing consumer segment in Asia) into account. Also, having more diversity in our engineering talent results in less bias in the algorithms we write. For example, one AI recruitment platform always chose men for high-paying jobs: upon investigation, it showed that the algorithm was systematically biased against women due to the firm’s historical tendency to hire men for specific jobs. Finally, to distinguish ourselves in a competitive global economy, we need everyone to have basic knowledge of tech and AI in order to contribute to innovation and economic growth — no nation can afford half its population being under-skilled and insecure about participating in this sector.”
Having the right skills make you more confident about pursuing your dreams “One of my proudest moments while working with 21C Girls happened at Ngee Ann Polytechnic, where we conducted an AI course for female students. When it started, we did a survey and asked if they thought they could compete with the male students for jobs in the future economy. They shared that while they were aware of subjects such as AI, they lacked the skills or confidence to be able to contribute. So imagine our amazement when, after just 10 weeks (three hours every Saturday morning), the girls had learnt not just the basics, but also applied their knowledge to business applications and made great presentations too!”
Closing the gender gap also involves other factors “There are two other factors. One, having role models through media and mentoring campaigns, where women see others like themselves becoming tech founders or engineers and playing other roles in powerful tech companies. It also helps to increase representation of women in corporate boards and senior management, so they can advocate for gender parity in the organisation. The same holds true for venture capital firm leaders since we should have more investment in women-led tech companies.”
Artificial intelligence is the backbone of every smart economy and will drive automation, optimisation and innovation “To keep up with the developments in the global economy, 21C Girls has continued to expand our reach. When we started, we focused on young kids aged four to six and taught them mostly robotics. In 2017, we partnered with Saturday Kids and self-help cultural groups for Code in the Community, a project sponsored by Google, to teach programming languages such as Python to kids aged eight to 15. Last year, we introduced our AI courses to tertiary institutions.”
She started enjoying tech only after working as a software engineer “As an undergraduate at Harvard, I met students from Eastern Europe — Russians, Romanians and Croatians — and I was bowled over by their perception of science and math. For me, who’s from Asia, science and math were more about tests and getting correct answers; for them, these subjects were like poetry: beautiful, awe-inspiring journeys to understand and approximate the truth of our existence. Then, I started working in New York as a software engineer and became hooked on tech: it was the most creative, productive and fun thing I’d ever done.”
This story is one part of a multi-person feature on the women changing the tech industry. For the other stories, click here.
This story first appeared in the March 2020 issue of A Magazine.