Moojan Asghari, a 31-year-old French-Iranian woman, is very active in the Artificial Intelligence (AI) community. A campaigner to promote the role of under-represented women in this field, she co-founded the NGO “Women in AI” in 2017.
Where did you grow up and what is your career path?
I grew up in Tehran where I studied industrial engineering before moving to France where I attended the EDHEC Business School. I did a Masters in management with a major in corporate finance. I worked in the bank for more than a year, only marginally interested in what I was doing. Some friends and I decided to form an events company for the state-of-the-art technology sector.
In May 2017, you co-founded the NGO “Women in AI”. How did you go from events to an influential woman in Artificial Intelligence? What is the main objective of this community?
It was a happy coincidence! One day, a friend asked me to organise an AI hackathon. There were over 100 people but only 4 women. That was when I realised that something had to be done urgently to promote the role of women in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Maths); they make up less than 20% of the workforce in France, and less than 12% in AI.
Against this background, I started a group on Facebook: “Women in AI”. The idea was to create a group of women, then events for the general public with AI experts giving free courses for young women. Education is at the heart of our project, it’s a key point. We create opportunities for girls to encourage them to get into AI so that they can later share their experiences in events with the community.
You champion diversity and the presence of women in AI, saying that they are the “forgotten people of AI”. Why are the presence of women and diversity such fundamental points in AI?
Including women is crucial in the development of AI. The fact that almost 90% of people in the field are men means that the program developers necessary for AI are discriminatory and biased because they don’t incorporate certain data. It has created problems, for example, with facial recognition, with cameras that don’t recognise black or Asian women, or women who were different from the people who created the applications. AI developed by women and men will be more representative of gender characteristics. The diversity of the players in AI development will lead to a greater commercial roll out because it will work for all of society and not just half of it.
What challenges do you face with Women in AI and what actions have you implemented to meet them?
We have two major challenges. The first is encouraging young girls to choose AI, to be bold enough to move towards this type of career. It’s difficult because it will take time and it needs to be done through a change of mindset. We have several programmes to raise awareness among young women including partnerships with primary and secondary schools where we do introductory sessions to AI.
The other challenge is part of our 2021 strategy: a decision-making role in AI rules and regulations. Alongside organisations that decide on AI regulations, we are going to develop expert groups with female professionals to be involved in the major decisions regarding ethics and AI. Because all the decisions are made by men.
Where does the development of AI stand with regard to society and technology? What programmes are being developed? What new professions or sectors are emerging?
AI is present in virtually every sector these days but the biggest drivers are the financial technology and healthcare fields. With people working from home because of the health crisis, a new sector is emerging: cybersecurity, to protect internet users from online harassment.
As of this year, you are co-president of the Gender Committee of the European platform for the development of AI, AI4EU. Can you tell us about this platform? What is your role?
AI4EU is a consortium in which Women in AI participated with the Thales Group. Financed by the European Commission, its goal is to centralise and connect the sector’s players. We want to create an interconnection for a platform that establishes partnerships between sectors. The Gender Committee’s goal is to promote diversity and inclusion in AI. We communicate a lot about the importance of this diversity.
As a French-Iranian, you launched the first Silk Road Start-up competition in Iran in 2018. What does it entail? Is Iran a country where women have a role in the state-of-the-art technology and AI sectors?
The idea for this initiative came to me from a French association, Ticket for Change, that helps entrepreneurs develop their projects. The association goes all over France and at each stage it meets young entrepreneurs who want to get started. I duplicated this model with Silk Road Trip. The ecosystem for start-ups is less developed in Iran than in the West. Which is why I built an international network of project developers to drive Iranian start-ups. Every year we go to the ten most dynamic cities and organise a competition. In Iran, 70% of engineers are women and 30% are men. They have the technical skills but after their degree, cultural tradition means that they don’t work or find it difficult to set up their company. The difficulty is helping them to make their project a reality and helping them find high responsibility positions.
I also created the “Thousand Eyes On Me” initiative in October 2020, a personal development and personal branding platform for women who want to explore their potential, gain confidence, and become influential leaders. We share online courses and coaching sessions for women on different aspects of leadership like self-confidence, negotiation, and public speaking.
The Institut français realised this interview to promote the exchange and circulation of ideas, and bring public debate to life around the world.
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