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Meet ‘Alice’: The First AI Platform For Business-Building (Lady) Bosses

Business

In a world where many complain about the lack of resources for women in businesses, few put their money where their mouth is. However, female-forward companies, Circular Board and Dell, are doing just that. Their new platform, Alice, which is meant to help the 35 million women-lead businesses in the US, offers female entrepreneurs targeted brand-building tools via smart technology.


Elizabeth Gore and Carolyn Rodz.Circular Summit 2017

“Alice is essentially a search tool for founders," says Carolyn Rodz, Founder and CEO of the Circular Board. “Based on their profile Alice will know a user's industry, location and state of growth, so that it can refine [search results] based on real time needs, like securing capital or finding legal representation for a certain niche locale." As more women use Alice, the platform is able to aggregate and disseminate data more specifically.

“Alice gets smarter the more people use it," says Rodz. “She is learning from the community as a whole, learning what works based on geography, industry, getting very granular. Alice is collaborative. It's not just providing information for you, it is helping women everywhere."

Named after Lewis Carroll's wily protagonist, Alice is meant to help women move forward in business building by streamlining their search for resources. “In Alice, we saw an entrepreneurial spirit, leadership skills and guts to push beyond the hurdles to get to where she needed to go," said Rodz," adding that the platform represents the work that has been done manually by the Circular Board up until now. “Alice was created as the result of what we learned was the great value we provided; integration into the existing startup ecosystem. Men can turn to buddies from business school, but a lot of women are a real disadvantage in terms of the value of their social network. We heard there was no shortage of resources but they were having a hard time navigating the space. We realized we can reach hundreds and thousands through the Circular Board accelerator, but if we wanted to impact millions, technology was the answer."

According to Rodz, the choice of Dell as a partner was a natural one, as the Circular Board and Dell have been working together for two years. Both companies also are laser-focused on the advancement of women across industries, especially tech.

“There is this obvious “this needs to be in the world" moment and for us and as we started talking to people to figure out why there was such a disparity, we discovered that the ecosystem is large and the solutions are very granular," says Rodz. "We knew the execution would be complicated. We couldn't do it alone, we needed backing of key players and really significant partners."

Elizabeth Gore, the Entrepreneur In Residence at Dell, says she was all too excited and motivated to be that partner.

“Dell has a really interesting opportunity right now because we had a very large acquisition last year of multiple companies [including tech firm, Pivotal] so now we can be the solution provider for these platforms--whether that be through security, digital transformation, their hardware and technology--and we have a very robust policy team who is always looking out for entrepreneurs," says Gore. “[The idea was] what if we took The Circular Board as a company, put it through a digital [reinvention] and created what is now the first ever artificial intelligence from female entrepreneurs."

In addition to its powerful search engine, Alice is built to get smarter and more refined the more it is used. Through machine learning, entrepreneurs input information about their company needs, including location, stage of growth, employee numbers, fundraising status, and industry vertical. “Based on that, through the life cycle of your company Alice will [populate] resources for you, everything from marketing to accounting to accelerator recommendations to potential mentors. As you grow and as you expand, it will continue to push that information to you based on the data it's continuing to gather from you and your industry peers."

Alice Press Conference at Dell EMC World.Karen Quintos, Elizabeth Gore, Carolyn Rodz and Michele Perras

"Every time you ask a question Alice will put it in this data and analytics to start building out and predicting, says Gore. “The platform will go from good to great to awesome as more and more women populate it. The cool thing about women is we love feedback so we've built in this consistent feedback loop."

Gore, who works with Dell's executive leadership team and is constantly looking for ways to help “bolster ecosystems" for entrepreneurs across policy (her personal passion) and technology. “We look at specific demographics and figure out to get entrepreneurs the right technology," says Gore. “Every country has a very different need and focus."

With 1,200 new female-led companies launching per day, Rodz says the immediate goal is to get 4 million Alice users over the next five years. “We are confident we can do that with the partnerships we are building out and the demand from women for a tool they can use to grow," she says.

Alice User Dashboard

Currently Gore says the Dell team is focused mainly on content aggregation, pulling all available reports and data that can help entrepreneurs grow. One of the key points of focus, according to Gore, will be providing resources for female-focused fundraising, which Gore says is greatly lacking. “A big objective will be to go out to as many groups as possible and ask them to be part of the platform," she says. “A lot of the angel networks are really excited about this." Next, Gore plans to impute more information about banking and loans, as most women go that route to grow their businesses rather than through the VC community. “We want to go after the banks and understand why women aren't getting loans like men," says Gore. "It doesn't make sense."

Ultimately, the greater purpose of helping female entrepreneurs--on a larger level--is the biggest motivator for Gore and Rodz. "There is so much more to come," says Rodz. "It's a big undertaking, but so exciting to have the potential to rewrite the story for women entrepreneurs."

Career

Male Managers Afraid To Mentor Women In Wake Of #MeToo Movement

Women in the workplace have always experienced a certain degree of discrimination from male colleagues, and according to new studies, it appears that it is becoming even more difficult for women to get acclimated to modern day work environments, in wake of the #MeToo Movement.


In a recent study conducted by LeanIn.org, in partnership with SurveyMonkey, 60% of male managers confessed to feeling uncomfortable engaging in social situations with women in and outside of the workplace. This includes interactions such as mentorships, meetings, and basic work activities. This statistic comes as a shocking 32% rise from 2018.

What appears the be the crux of the matter is that men are afraid of being accused of sexual harassment. While it is impossible to discredit this fear as incidents of wrongful accusations have taken place, the extent to which it has burgeoned is unacceptable. The #MeToo movement was never a movement against men, but an empowering opportunity for women to speak up about their experiences as victims of sexual harassment. Not only were women supporting one another in sharing to the public that these incidents do occur, and are often swept under the rug, but offered men insight into behaviors and conversations that are typically deemed unwelcomed and unwarranted.

Restricting interaction with women in the workplace is not a solution, but a mere attempt at deflecting from the core issue. Resorting to isolation and exclusion relays the message that if men can't treat women how they want, then they rather not deal with them at all. Educating both men and women on what behaviors are unacceptable while also creating a work environment where men and women are held accountable for their actions would be the ideal scenario. However, the impact of denying women opportunities of mentorship and productive one-on-one meetings hinders growth within their careers and professional networks.

Women, particularly women of color, have always had far fewer opportunities for mentorship which makes it impossible to achieve growth within their careers without them. If women are given limited opportunities to network in and outside of a work environment, then men must limit those opportunities amongst each other, as well. At the most basic level, men should be approaching female colleagues as they would approach their male colleagues. Striving to achieve gender equality within the workplace is essential towards creating a safer environment.

While restricted communication and interaction may diminish the possibility of men being wrongfully accused of sexual harassment, it creates a hostile
environment that perpetuates women-shaming and victim-blaming. Creating distance between men and women only prompts women to believe that male colleagues who avoid them will look away from or entirely discredit sexual harassment they experience from other men in the workplace. This creates an unsafe working environment for both parties where the problem at hand is not solved, but overlooked.

According to LeanIn's study, only 85% of women said they feel safe on the job, a 5% drop from 2018. In the report, Jillesa Gebhardt wrote, "Media coverage that is intended to hold aggressors accountable also seems to create a sense of threat, and people don't seem to feel like aggressors are held accountable." Unfortunately, only 16% of workers believed that harassers holding high positions are held accountable for their actions which inevitably puts victims in difficult, and quite possibly dangerous, situations. 50% of workers also believe that there are more repercussions for the victims than harassers when speaking up.

In a research poll conducted by Edison Research in 2018, 30% of women agreed that their employers did not handle harassment situations properly while 53% percent of men agreed that they did. Often times, male harassers hold a significant amount of power within their careers that gives them a sense of security and freedom to go forward with sexual misconduct. This can be seen in cases such as that of Harvey Weinstein, Bill Cosby and R. Kelly. Men in power seemingly have little to no fear that they will face punishment for their actions.


Source-Alex Brandon, AP

Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook executive and founder of LeanIn.org., believes that in order for there to be positive changes within work environments, more women should be in higher positions. In an interview with CNBC's Julia Boorstin, Sandberg stated, "you know where the least sexual harassment is? Organizations that have more women in senior leadership roles. And so, we need to mentor women, we need to sponsor women, we need to have one-on-one conversations with them that get them promoted." Fortunately, the number of women in leadership positions are slowly increasing which means the prospect of gender equality and safer work environments are looking up.

Despite these concerning statistics, Sandberg does not believe that movements such as the Times Up and Me Too movements, have been responsible for the hardship women have been experiencing in the workplace. "I don't believe they've had negative implications. I believe they're overwhelmingly positive. Because half of women have been sexually harassed. But the thing is it is not enough. It is really important not to harass anyone. But that's pretty basic. We also need to not be ignored," she stated. While men may be feeling uncomfortable, putting an unrealistic amount of distance between themselves and female coworkers is more harmful to all parties than it is beneficial. Men cannot avoid working with women and vice versa. Creating such a hostile environment is also detrimental to any business as productivity and communication will significantly decrease.

The fear or being wrongfully accused of sexual harassment is a legitimate fear that deserves recognition and understanding. However, restricting interactions with women in the workplace is not a sensible solution as it can have negatively impact a woman's career. Companies are in need of proper training and resources to help both men and women understand what is appropriate workplace behavior. Refraining from physical interactions, commenting on physical appearance, making lewd or sexist jokes and inquiring about personal information are also beneficial steps towards respecting your colleagues' personal space. There is still much work to be done in order to create safe work environments, but with more and more women speaking up and taking on higher positions, women can feel safer and hopefully have less contributions to make to the #MeToo movement.