Founder of the month: Layla Li
Written by Clare Adamson
Layla Li was born and raised in a small town near Tibet, China, and later moved to Shanghai before moving to the US at the age of 18. She had a triple major in college, studying psychology, Japanese, and communication. Layla also did some gap years and lived abroad in Japan and the UK before obtaining her master’s degree in computer science from Harvard. After which, she moved to Amsterdam in 2015.
A Search for Meaning
For most of her professional career, she worked as an analyst, data consultant, or digital consultant. Layla worked at companies like Phillips, Vodafone and Tesla, making sense of data and using it to make strategic decisions. However, she was missing a sense of making a real impact in people’s lives. She worked with fascinating technology but got tired of making cool technology for the sake of making cool technology. After quitting her job at Tesla, she moved to Africa because she was intrigued by the tech ecosystem and the type of problems the tech was solving.
Introduction to the Antler Cohort in Nairobi
Near the end of 2020, she moved to Kenya and joined the Antler cohort in Nairobi as one of the only foreigners. Through talking and meeting all the other participants, she was inspired by the issues they were planning to tackle. Her colleagues were attempting to solve major problems like access to education and healthcare and improving living standards. She was inspired and realised that if you’re building AI solutions, you need access to high-quality data. Companies like to position themselves as object and as making data-driven decisions, “but if you’re a healthcare or a recruitment company and you’re using data from 20 years ago to make decisions about the future, the world has changed so much in that time. Using data doesn’t necessarily make you objective.”
The Intersection of Philosophy, Social Justice, and Math
One person in the Antler cohort was joking about the facial recognition feature on smartphones today and how he and his cousin could unlock each other’s phones. This is because of the poor facial recognition of African faces. He said it as a joke, but she started thinking deeper and deeper about this issue. Layla knew that solving this problem would be challenging, but it combined many of her different interests. “How do you make technologies more inclusive for everyone? That is a tech problem, but it’s not actually a tech problem, I think that that question is, first a philosophical and social one. Then you have to translate that into a mathematical function and then you can quantify it and measure it going forward.”
Layla met her co-founder during the Antler program, Sonali Sanghrajka, who has Indian heritage, was born and raised in Kenya, and was mainly educated in the UK. Her background was in healthcare, so they decided to focus on this area. “The type of kind of AI bias that exists within the healthcare setting has a huge impact. If you really investigate the research, marginalised people, especially if there’s some intersectionality’s, for example if you’re black and you’re a woman. You’re at a higher risk of being underdiagnosed for so many diseases.” KOSA AI is a B2B software that unravels AI bias through better data.
Diversity of thought
They built their team and hired people in Kenya, India, Ethiopia and South Korea. Beyond being visually diverse, Layla also wanted to ensure that they had diversity in thought and were not, for example, all educated in the same university or systems. This is not without its challenges, however. “I remember. One time we’re having a team call and one of our engineers from Ethiopia dropped off. Then tour other teammates asked, ‘Is he going to come back up or like, are we waiting for him, like, what’s happening?’ I just randomly mentioned maybe it’s a power cut or blackout because in Ethiopia, there’s a civil war. So, this is very normal. And then and then our engineer in South Korea, was so shocked. He’s like there’s a civil war in Ethiopia, how is he still working? I was like, people work through all different types of scenarios. You don’t hear much about what is happening in Africa on popular news outlets.”
When asked about their challenges when starting KOSA AI, Layla mentioned struggling to find enthusiastic people to fund them. They are selling a B2B software but found it difficult to convince people that it was worthwhile to buy. “The biggest issue is that the people who control the capital are the people who are causing this problem. They are benefitting from it so there’s no incentive for them to solve it.” They learnt that they need to position their solution slightly differently and make it palatable for the investors they are pitching to, “which is always a compromise, but I think that’s the way progress is made, with compromise.” They now highlight the competitive advantage KOSA AI would offer their clients.
Stereotypes and more hurdles
Layla faces several challenges as a female founder in the tech industry. Firstly, she often feels she has to go against societal expectations of what a “nice” Asian girl should be like. She describes herself as straightforward and unfiltered. “I think people have this idea that I’m an Asian girl. So I’m very nice. And then whenever I am not very nice, I’m not very nice by any standard. I’m not a very, you know, agreeable person. I’m quite argumentative. Then people are always shocked, and then they always think I’m a little bit bitchy. A little intense. And I want people to know that the traits that I possess are, reasonable traits for women to have, especially for, you know, tiny Asian girls to have as well.”
“It’s not my problem if I don’t fit into your stereotype of who you expect me to be. That’s not my responsibility. My responsibility is to drive my business. And of course, that requires some of these traits, which are completely acceptable for white men in leadership to have, but like completely unacceptable for women in leadership to have, which is the whole problem.”
Lessons from Layla
In conclusion, Layla encourages other women who are budding entrepreneurs to stay true to themselves and the traits they know will help them succeed. She encourages women to have a bit more confidence and blind confidence. Research shows men are comfortable applying for jobs when they fulfil 60-70% of the criteria, but women will only apply to jobs when they meet 100% of the requirements. “I think we’re just unnecessarily harsh on yourself sometimes. And then I think that limits your creativity or imagination. You’re kind of self-limiting through a lot of the thoughts and then the standards that you have. Set for yourself. Which is not necessary, you know. So that’s why I think people should have some more blind confidence at times.”
Her journey to starting KOSA AI has been challenging, but she has persevered and will undoubtedly go on to achieve so much more with her determination and passion for improving the world.
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