Mummyfique's Power Women List 2019 : Dr Ayesha Khanna

Mummyfique | by Oriella Onni | Monday, 11 March 2019

This year, we celebrate International Women’s day with a series of eight interviews that feature inspiring women who represent the modern empowered woman. In Part Two of the series, we speak to Dr Ayesha Khanna, Carolyn Kan, Jocelyn Chng and Yvon Bock. 

Ayesha Khanna-mummyfique 3.jpg

Ayesha Khanna, 45, co-founder and CEO of ADDO AI

Tech geek doesn’t even begin to cross your mind when you see Ayesha Khanna, who is equal parts beauty, intelligence, and confidence. Yet she is recognised as one of the most influential advocators of how artificial intelligence (AI) will effectively change the way we live an work. Learn how to harness its purpose, and we can “amplify human potential.” 

The former Wall Street software engineer turned AI vanguard, is co-founder and CEO of ADDO AI, an artificial intelligence advisory firm and incubator, headquartered in Singapore. Leading corporations and governments heed her strategic advice on AI, smart cities, and fintech. Her client list includes SMRT, SingTel, SAMPO (the largest Japanese insurance company), and even SmartDubai, the Dubai government’s smart city agency.

In 2017, Forbes Magazine highlighted her company as one of the four leading intelligence companies in Asia. The next year, the magazine named Khanna as one of Southeast Asia’s ground-breaking female entrepreneurs.

Khanna serves on the board of Infocomm Media Development Authority (IMDA) that drives our local digital economy and power the Smart Nation vision. She’s also authored two books, one of which Hybrid Reality, is co-authored with her husband, himself a renowned geopolitical strategist and academic. It addresses how we are fast moving away from a point of co-existence with technology to a phase of co-evaluation with it.

When asked to define what an empowered woman is, Khanna naturally relates it to the world of tech. She says: “When a woman chooses to embark on a journey of lifelong learning, she empowers herself to be able to adapt to any technology disruption that may affect her career path. In fact, she will boldly look at disruptions and challenges as opportunities to differentiate and improve herself.”

Yet Khanna is one of the few female leaders in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) field. It’s something that needs to change, because technology is ever so pervasive in our lives and every single industry, she feels our next generation, girls in particular, need an intuitive understanding of technology, so that they can equip themselves to achieve and surpass potential.

And she walks the talk. Already in 2014, Khanna started a charity 21C GIRLS (21st Century Girls), that conducts classes to teach basic coding and artificial intelligence to girls in Singapore. Artificial intelligence, is transformative technology, disrupting how every industry operates now. Therefore, it is important to educate girls, not just women, to give them the confidence to pursue a career in the field.

The emphasis on STEM in school curriculums and introducing kids to coding, she feels is a step forward, but also cautions that parents need to see beyond technique and graded answers, focusing instead on how a mathematical and scientific way of thinking can hone creativity and experimentation. Technology therefore is yet another medium for a child to express imagination.

It’s something that she encourages with her own children – yes, the busy technologist is a mother-of-two (a nine-year old girl, and a seven-year old boy). She shares her mantra to juggling it all. Instead of multi-tasking, she’s found that the best way is to “focus on one thing at a time”.  

She says: “When I’m with my family, I enjoy our time and little projects together, and when I’m with my team and clients, I immerse myself in that work. I have also learnt to celebrate the little achievements of every day. Entrepreneurship is a marathon, not a sprint, and the journey needs to be celebrated as much as the end.

Ayesha Khanna-Mummyfique 2.png

Is technology sexy?

When I started working as a software engineer, my family did not think it was sexy at all because many people still thought banking and law were the best careers. But I always found computer science and applied math incredibly fascinating and alluring: A lens with which to understand the world, and a medium by which I could experiment with my ideas. It’s a highly creative field underpinned by rigour and discipline.

What made you decide to specialise in artificial intelligence?

I love creative problem solving, and technology and artificial intelligence gave me an opportunity to approach challenges in ways that were interesting, fun and gave me new insights. The era of artificial intelligence is finally here, giving rise in computing power and the proliferation of data, to enable individuals and businesses to experiment and innovate like never before.

Has your gender ever been a disadvantage or barrier?

I’m usually the only woman in a boardroom room meeting who has a software engineering and data science background, and clients are sometimes surprise that I understand AI algorithms and data architecture. Women often face a historical bias that they can’t be as good as men in software engineering and it is critical for us to shatter this myth, and encourage more women to enter this field.

What does it mean to be a woman in this field?

Whether you’re a man or a woman in the field of artificial intelligence, it’s important to instil our values in the way we make our products and services. Coming from a background of working in human and women’s rights, my mission is to build AI engines that amplify human potential, democratise access to basic services like education, healthcare and transportation, and to help humans retain agency over machines, so that we as a species can use AI to expand our horizons and achieve our most lofty goals.

How does it feel to be honoured for the work that you’ve done?

Every recognition I receive is the result of the work of my collaborators, and I share all my awards with them. It’s never possible to be successful on one’s own, and the culture of mutual respect, debate, and partnership is key to making any dream a reality. For my personal contribution to any work, I credit my wonderful mother and father, and their inspirational love of learning and support for my interests and endeavours.

What is one unforgettable lesson that you’ve learnt?

I failed in one of my endeavours because I didn’t invest enough thought in hiring the best team, and finding the right partners to grow the business. It was the most important lesson I learnt. The execution of any idea is more important than the idea itself, and that requires a stellar team of collaborators. Surrounding myself with people smarter and more creative than me has been the best strategy for achieving our goals.

Let’s talk about the growing emphasis of STEM in school curriculums now and teaching coding to children. Are we on the right track?   

Computational thinking is as important as reading, writing and learning mathematics. It is absolutely right to give it attention. However, the key is not to focus on techniques and graded answers, but the mathematical and scientific way of thinking, which is actually quite creative and experimental. We should teach children coding activities on the iPad, or tinkering with robotics, as a way to make fun inventions or try to solve small challenges, so that they see technology as another medium to express their imagination.

Do you think we only place emphasis on certain industries? Do you think there is a better way to approach this?  

We should not place emphasis on industries. Instead it should be on three things:

  • Encourage people to find their passion.

  • Supporting them with the ability to learn the skills to pursue this passion.

  • Teach them how to collaborate with AI engineers and technologists, because there is not a single industry in the future that will not be affected by these technologies.

If we empower Singaporeans with these pillars of seeking meaningful work, they will not only do better in whatever they pursue, but also enjoy it a great deal

Click here to read the full Special International Women’s Day feature.