Founder of Teens in AI, Elena Sinel, talks the inspiration behind founding her company, why diversity is crucial for the tech industry and how the pandemic has exacerbated inequalities within society in our latest #SheFounders Q&A!
Tell us about your background.
I’m originally from a small town called Bukhara in Uzbekistan, Central Asia. Growing up in a country that had just become independent was challenging. There were occasions when we had hardly any food on the table because my parents hadn’t been paid for 6 months. Growing up in a post-Soviet country, I knew from a young age that I wanted to travel the world and make a difference. I was very lucky that my mum recognised the importance of learning English as a second language and she managed to get me into a school which provided an extra two hours per week of English lessons. This opened lots of doors for me and this is really where my journey began.
After starting my degree in Economics, I transferred myself to a University in the capital of Uzbekistan, Tashkent, to study Business Management. I knew my passion was to work within international development helping communities thrive, so I volunteered in international organisations and debate programmes. While I was studying, I was also working in the Aral Sea, 800km away from my hometown. During this time, I found the kind of poverty and deprivation I had never seen before. The Aral Sea was completely depleted because of water mismanagement as a result of the government’s cotton irrigation policies. I remember seeing families burning their furniture to keep warm as there was no electricity. I was only 19 at the time and working for a pilot project with 40 other women who were designing handmade purses. My role was to take the purses and sell them! It was a lot of pressure and responsibility to have all these women’s livelihoods dependent on my ability to sell. This experience really opened my eyes to the needs of different communities.
How did you get involved in working with young people?
In my early twenties after my daughter was born, we moved to Macedonia in the Balkans. At the time it was recovering from the 2001 war in the Balkans. Working there was an amazing experience and opened my eyes to how inspiring and resilient young people are. I worked with university students in the conflict zones helping rehabilitate the area, bringing back innovation and productivity to the communities. Seeing the students who were the drivers of the project succeed was extremely rewarding. This is when I knew I wanted to work with young people, to help give them the support they need to succeed. By the time we left we had managed to connect eight countries through entrepreneurship, a project then dubbed 'Business Without Borders'. After Macedonia, I lived in Ethiopia where I worked with a World Bank funded project and in my spare time I was teaching English in a local school, like I was taught at their age.
It is obvious to me now that the years I had spent volunteering and working with different communities, engaging with young people I was gaining the skills needed for Teens in AI!
What inspired Teens in AI?
Moving to the UK it took me a while to figure out what I wanted to do. From working in countries with such deprivation I thought I wouldn’t be much use in the UK, however, what I’ve learnt is that even developed countries have inequalities and issues that need to be addressed. I looked at the curriculum at my daughters’ school and saw that there was a real lack of skills being taught that would benefit her within the working world. Tech is the future and having these types of skills is essential. As a parent I would take her to different networking events and hackathons around London. From this I was able to do a lot of learning and networking myself. I saw that what was missing in education in general was the opportunity for young people to collaborate and learn from different industries and companies. This really inspired me to create a space for teenagers to learn the skills they might not have the opportunity to do in school and that will be relevant to them for their future careers.
For me tech is just the enabler! Everything I do is about empowering young people, helping them unleash their potential. The mentors that come into our hackathons often find that they learn from the students just as much as the students learn from them. I believe in what I do, it’s not just a career it’s what I’m driven by and what gets me up in the morning.
At Teens in AI you run lots of hackathons, tell us more about them.
Our hackathons aim to help address the lack of diversity within AI. In order to address this imbalance, we need everyone to be part of the conversation and our hackathons provide this opportunity. Since launching Teens in AI in 2018 at the UN AI for Good Global Summit, we have partnered with a number of companies to bring our unique programme to teenagers in the UK, US, Africa and Middle East. Since Covid19, we have moved all our programmes online and have run 4 global hackathons. This year we had our virtual Ada Lovelace hack in October to encourage more girls to embrace the data science and AI for impact. Out of 130 children joining us from across the globe, the winning team from Syria developed a product that addresses the lack of educational opportunities for girls in Syria. Our next hackathon will be in March on ‘International Women’s Day’ where thousands of young women from across the world will learn about how AI has the potential to improve communities. Our hackathons give young people the opportunity to learn and to become inspired by the challenges. It is very important to us that we are diverse and inclusive, appealing to all communities to really democratise access to tech and push our agenda forward.
This year because of the pandemic we ran our summer accelerator programme virtually which was great as we got to reach a wider audience of young people from Africa, Romania, Europe, Middle East and the US. We have also just launched in Brunei and are anticipating launching in France in January 2020, whilst at the same time exploring opportunities in Middle East and Europe. We’re very engaged within the tech community and are part of various industry events and conferences like CogX and London Tech Week. We are always looking for opportunities to either create or co-create bespoke programmes or events with different companies whose vision is aligned with ours.
How have you seen Teens in AI impact the young people you work with?
It has been a fascinating journey to see how Teens in AI has inspired so many teenagers particularly the girls. I’ve had young girls say to me, had it not been for the hackathons they wouldn’t have chosen Maths at A-Level. Our Hackathons show young people that Maths and Science can be fun. Recently one of our UK-based female students from our accelerator programme had taken the initiative to launch a petition asking for all schools to provide AI skills. Her school didn’t have a Computer Science teacher, so during the accelerator programme it was the first time she had learnt what Computer Science was. She had only spent three weeks with us but it had clearly inspired her and given her a platform to inspire change. I was so blown away that she had taken the initiative to create the petition because of us.
Why aren’t these opportunities readily available for young people in schools?
I am not really the one to advocate that every child needs to learn how to code, but I think we do need young people to understand how technology works and try to use it to solve real problems. Coding for the sake of coding is quite useless, coding for a purpose, when it solves a real societal or environmental issue is where the real need is. So instead of advocating “all schools should teach computer science”, I advocate for multidisciplinary project-based learning underpinned by technology. I don’t think there should be a separate computer science class, but rather, I would like to see subjects interlinked with technology like AI, data science, VR and robotics used to solve a real problem. This will fuel creativity, innovation, teamwork, collaboration, leadership and communication skills. These are all the kinds of hard and soft skills the industry really needs and the skills that will help get our economy out of recession.
But this is easier said than done. Teachers and schools are under a lot of pressure and under resourced, plus getting new subjects approved within the UK curriculum is a very drawn out process. Even if they do, the teachers might not have the right training to understand what is really needed for the tech industry e.g. teaching Java when the industry needs Python and data science. The world of tech is moving too fast for the education sector to keep up, it’s therefore important to focus on developing what is known in the industry as “growth mindset” or “learning to learn”. Now more than ever, parents are relying on external providers to inspire their children and connect them to opportunities where they can unleash their entrepreneurial potential and learn the skills that matter in the industry: creativity, innovation, collaboration, problem-solving and this is exactly where Teens in AI comes in.
Teens in AI is on a mission to encourage more girls in STEM for the future workforce. Why aren’t more girls getting into STEM?
Usually young people’s first port of call is their parents or friends, however, if they’ve grown up in an environment where subjects like Computer Science aren’t spoken about, they might not know what it is. There is a long-standing assumption that Maths and Computer Science is “just for boys”. Girls can be pressurised from a very early age to choose safe traditional jobs without realising that every single job in the future will involve technology in some way or another.
I have always felt education in this country is quite outdated and backwards. The education system has not changed in over 100 years and schools still teach kids to pass an exam, very much the “factory” style. Something that shocks me still is that students in the UK can drop Maths completely at A -Level and I think this is one of the reasons for the lack of girls in STEM. Girls seem to find Maths more challenging and I don’t know whether this is because Maths is not taught in an engaging way, a suggestion from a colleague from Imperial, or there is some other prejudice going on, but this is an issue I haven’t found in Eastern European countries, Russia, or Asia where students aren’t allowed to drop Maths. This is why it’s so important to target students aged 11 plus to show them the options available to them and to show them how fun it can be. Having said this there are some encouraging stats out there for example “There are now over 50,000 women in engineering professional roles – almost double the number 10 years ago”. Things seem to be changing and I am proud to be part of that change, though I feel there is still a very long way to go to get to 50/50.
How has the pandemic affected young people?
I cannot think of a worse year to be taking A levels, starting a degree or graduating from a university. Young people have been massively affected by the pandemic, particularly the generation of teenagers looking to go to university or apprenticeships. The latest A-Level fiasco certainly didn’t help either. When determining young people’s results in their A-levels the use of historic data to predict grades raised issues of fairness. With GovTech, trust and transparency is key and the algorithm used were not based on what the student’s teachers observed but historical performance data. This meant that low-performing or state schools were affected negatively whilst the high performing private schools continued to do well. This is not offering young people the kinds of opportunities they need to pursue their passions. Algorithms can predict a lot, but they can’t account for the student’s personal circumstances and predict how a student might perform in a real exam setting. The pandemic has really exacerbated the inequalities within society and further showed us that the world we live in is unequal.
Why is diversity so important for the tech industry?
"Only 22% of professionals who work in artificial intelligence across the globe are female.” It is extremely important that the products being created and the teams making them represent all of us. Not only do we interpret diversity in terms of gender, but it’s very important we account for ethnic diversity, neurodiversity, disabilities and age to say the least. In order to minimise algorithmic biases and ensure technology doesn’t undermine human rights, it is vital that the teams working on the products are representative of the societal makeup. We need more women, BAM, LGBTQ groups and people with disabilities within the tech industry so the make-up of the team mirrors the make-up of the buyer. This is at the very core of human centred design and ethical design principles and should be followed by all technology teams and tech companies.
What challenges have you faced in your career?
I’m a working single mother so I have struggled recently with lockdown to balance being in a google classroom with my child from 9pm to 3pm while working myself. You have to get a schedule and do the best you can. On a more personal level I have experienced many challenges throughout my life that have made me who I am today. From running away from an abusive relationship to a women’s refuge with just £20 in my pocket, to rebuilding my life and career. I always say, “you only get given in life what you can handle, you’re stronger than you think.” Going through these obstacles you have to find a way to carry on.
Now with Teens in AI, having the opportunity to combine my passion and skills while making a difference is an amazing feeling. I have learnt through my work that you can rehabilitate communities, societies and countries but most importantly as humans we can rehabilitate ourselves. A lot of the time all it takes is to find one’s purpose in life. I found my purpose with helping young people, bringing them together and empowering them. It’s what my life purpose is and it’s what I do from 7am in the morning until midnight.
What would you say to your 18-year-old self?
Learn to ask for help! During our hackathons that’s the advice I give to all the young people doing the challenges. Asking questions doesn’t mean you’re stupid, it’s a sign of intelligence and curiosity. There is no such thing as a wrong question. So, if I were teleported back into my 18-year-old self I would say you don’t have to do it alone. Something else I’ve learnt over the years is that the imposter syndrome never goes away so learn to live with it. When you are recognised for your work within the industry for example, I was recently in Computer Weekly’s Most Influential Women in UK Tech 2020 and even I sometimes get that feeling of “do I deserve this?” It’s human and natural to feel this way, however, it’s important to know you are worthy of recognition.
If you were shipwrecked on a deserted island, but all your human needs such as food and water were taken care of, what three items would you want to have with you?
A book as I love to read, my laptop and some WIFI so I can use the laptop. The way the world is going now, get me to the deserted island, some peace and quiet would be nice!
Read more of our #SheFounders stories here.