The Singapore tech guru teaching young girls how to engineer the future
CNA Lifestyle's National Day series pays tribute to the can-do spirit of Singapore women. In our second instalment, get to know Dr Ayesha Khanna, co-founder and CEO of ADDO AI.
Earlier this year, the Singapore government rolled out a special work visa called Tech.Pass, with the aim of attracting 500 top talents in technology fields.
What’s wrong with Singapore’s education system that it can’t produce its own top tech talent, I asked Dr Ayesha Khanna, co-founder and CEO of artificial intelligence solutions firm and incubator ADDO Ai.
“This dearth in tech talent is not unique to Singapore,” she said. “If anything, we are much better placed to fill this gap with our own people because we have fantastic universities, subsidised programmes like SkillsFuture by the government, tech experts who want to come here on employment passes, that can share their knowledge with our youth and our managers.”
Singapore’s education system is excellent, the 47-year-old added, but “it needs to evolve”.
And the good news is, it is evolving. At all levels, kids are being given creative space and technical knowledge alongside mathematics and humanities subjects.
“We’re actively taking steps in the right direction, building our human capital and skills in emerging industries that include data and artificial intelligence, robotics and biotech. But the only thing is, these things take time, so we have to be patient,” said Dr Khanna.
A GROUNDBREAKING FEMALE ENTREPRENEUR
Armed with a Bachelor of Arts (honours) in Economics from Harvard University, a Master of Science in Operations Research from Columbia University and a PhD in Information Systems from the London School of Economics, the Pakistan-born Dr Khanna spent more than a decade on Wall Street developing large scale trading, risk management and data analytics systems.
She also co-founded the Hybrid Reality Institute, a research and advisory group established to analyse the social and economic impact of accelerating technologies.
She moved to Singapore in 2012 with her husband Parag, a geopolitical strategist and academic, and co-founded ADDO Ai in 2017, taking on the role of CEO.
In that same year, Forbes ranked it one of four leading artificial intelligence companies, and in 2018, named her one of Southeast Asia’s groundbreaking female entrepreneurs.
“Whenever you work on an AI project, you don’t want to do technology just for the sake of technology. What you want to do is actually use it as a strategic lever, both the data and the AI, to become more successful, more customer-centric, and more competitive in the market,” said Dr Khanna.
“At ADDO.ai, we build very large platforms for companies (to gather data). We organise this gold mine of data, and use machine learning then to help them automate and optimise their services.”
Local clients include household names Singtel and SMRT, while international clients include Mercy, one of the largest hospital networks in the United States, Japanese insurance firm SOMPO, Habib Bank, Pakistan's largest bank, as well as Smart Dubai, the government agency tasked to transform Dubai into a leading smart city.
Some of its ongoing and future projects include working with a government on building a health crisis data management infrastructure, enabling it to handle crises like the pandemic better and faster, and to optimise hospitals, doctors and medical supplies to respond to crises more rapidly. It is also helping telco and logistics companies build their data platforms.
TEACHING YOUNG GIRLS ABOUT CODING AND AI
Her passion for AI extends beyond her work. She founded 21C GIRLS, a charity that delivers free coding and AI classes to girls here, with programmes such as the Google-sponsored Code in the Community, that has taught coding to thousands of children aged eight through 14, and Empower, which has partnered with Ngee Ann Polytechnic to teach young women aged 18 through 24 the basics of AI.
Women are still a minority in the field of STEM, she says. But there’s good news: More girls are fighting the traditional bias against their gender in software engineering, machine learning, and data science, and entering tech programmes at college level.
“We want to understand how to encourage more girls to enter the STEM field as students and we also want to reduce their movement away from STEM once they are in the workforce,” she said. “Within five years we will be able to have in Singapore and a lot of developed countries, not parity, but a great deal more women in this field.
“At 21C GIRLS, we teach them the basics of AI, we teach the skills, and also the case studies: Women from Asia who have built their own companies, or who’re engineers who’re working at big companies or are at startups, so that they feel like it’s really possible and they can imagine what success looks like. They see a pathway of long-term career success,” she noted.
She and her husband were so impressed by Singapore’s commitment towards education and technology that they became Singapore citizens a few years ago. This came about from her 2014 stint as part of an advisory committee for the Ministry of Education that was exploring how to ready Singapore’s education system for the 21st century. The recommendations led to the SkillsFuture programme.
“I was really inspired by the committee, which included both the private and the public sector – how dedicated they were and how genuinely committed to benefiting every member of society – and all the students I met from the different polytechnics that were creative, smart, out-of-the-box thinkers, and curious. I saw that Singapore has a fantastic future for myself, for my children, and for the whole country,” she said. Her daughter Zara is 12, and her son Zubin, is nine.
LIFE IN A PANDEMIC
When the pandemic hit, ADDO.ai was hit too, as a part of its clientele was in the travel and hospitality business. But other sectors soon came into play – about six months afterwards, says Dr Khanna – as companies realised how important it was to be agile in the face of disruptions.
“And the only way to be agile is to have most of your processes be digital, and to use data to understand what is happening to your business at every level ... and to be able to predict and forecast what will be needed and how to adapt to it.”
As for her charity, all the classes were moved online. Its Empower programme, which was previously available only at Ngee Ann Polytechnic, expanded its reach to all polytechnics across Singapore.
“No matter which part of my life, digital became increasingly important, but the quality of time spent offline was also appreciated a lot,” she noted.
While she and her family used to travel a lot for work and play, the pandemic brought a halt to their globetrotting.
“The last one and a half years have been transformative for me personally. Like many busy working mums, I took some time to evaluate how I was spending my day and decided to spend more time on physical activity, on meditation, and on spending quality time with the family, given that life is so uncertain and crises can come out of nowhere.
“So even though we were inside the house a lot, we spent a lot of time talking to each other, discussing the news, trying to work on new projects and also learning to enjoy everything that Singapore has to offer,” she said.
And how will the world look in future?
“There will be some jobs or parts of certain jobs that will now be automated or that will look entirely different,” she said. “The most important thing we can do at this stage is to make sure that we are upskilling affected workers and helping them transition to their next job.
“This is not unique to Singapore, every single country is facing the same disruption by technology and again this acceleration by the pandemic. There’s uncertainty for many people. The only way to deal with it, is to help them through the process. We are lucky because Singapore is a small country and we are able to help everybody, and that’s why programmes like SkillsFuture are so important for all of us, even me, to use.”
CNA Women is a new section on CNA Lifestyle that seeks to inform, empower and inspire the modern woman. If you have women-related news, issues and ideas to share with us, email CNAWomen [at] mediacorp.com.sg.