Interview by Marija Butkovic (@MarijaButkovic)
Amy Bernal is the Director of Agent Services at Aira.io, a local startup that is changing lives of individuals who are Blind or Visually Impaired through the interaction of smart wearable devices, AI, and real, remote people, called Aira Agents. Founded just over two years ago by CEO Suman Kanuganti, a Rady Alumni, the company has grown quickly, with almost 200 users, and plans to scale to over 2000 this year. Aira was recently awarded “Best New Technology” from PCMag, “Bet Accessibility Tech” from CTA, as well as “Most Innovative Product” by CONNECT San Diego.
Prior to Aira, Amy was a Senior Program Manager at Intuit in the Consumer Tax Group. Before moving into tech, Amy worked for West Health and the Gary and Mary West Foundation, partnering with organizations to reduce the cost of health care for older adults through technology or preventative care. She is a proud alumna of UC San Diego Rady School of Management, Flex Evening class of ‘14. In her personal time, Amy promotes women in technology through her involvement with Athena, Women Give San Diego, and the Rady Alumni Board.
What does your current job role entail?
As the director of Agent Services, my primary focus is creating a new career- the Aira Agent. The Aira Agent is a human in the loop remote assistant who provides exceptional information and assistance for any task our user requests. Refining the service, training, and recruiting process through an optimized Aira Agent Community website will be my biggest project until we launch this summer. As we are a start up, I wear many other hats including Customer Care, User Engagement, as well as Business Development in specific areas.
How has your career progressed since your degree? Has it been an easy industry to get into or have you had many challenges?
My career has been a winding road, and didn’t start in technology. My undergrad degree was in International Studies, I intended to work abroad in international development. I then served a year in AmeriCorps on the US/Mexico border working in urban planning, environmental justice, community organizing and eventually in research partnership for caregivers of those living with dementia. This brought me to Philanthropy where I oversaw a portfolio of investments in lowering the cost of health care for older adults, and then moved to open a healthcare tech accelerator for that organization, which was my segway into the tech sector. I then pursued my MBA while joining Intuit, where I met Suman Kanuganti, Aira’s CEO and Co-founder. He left to start Aira and called me one day to join the team, and now, I am in the wearables space.
How long did it take you to be where you are now? What was the biggest obstacle?
From my last answer you can get the picture it was not a direct path, and took the course of almost 10 years for me to work my way into the wearables sector. The biggest obstacle for me was not getting a tech-focused degree. I am hopeful for girls that are still in school, that we see them matriculate into STEM degrees and careers.
What are your projects you are currently working on within your company?
My focus is threefold: how do we scale the world-class talent that we have in our current Agent workforce with demand, how do we refine and improve our training continuously, eventually exploring how it can serve new populations, and finally how do we leverage the “human in the loop” model for AI to scale and support user’s preferences. You can imagine, for instance, a restroom, or other private moments in which an AI Agent is required.
What does the #WomenInTech movement mean to you? What are the challenges of being an entrepreneur and woman in wearable tech industry?
#WomenInTech means seeing people in the workplace like me, it means seeing women represented on boards, in the C Suite, on the dev team, and it also means creating opportunities for women who did not come from a technical background a space to contribute, women like myself. In my past I would hear comments like, “I don’t know how technical she is,” Or is she “technical?” many times this term was ill-defined. If you need someone to code, that is one thing, and a measured skill set, if you need someone to be a critical thinker, driver, and curious leader, that is another and not always defined by a resume that shows code. I think we need a place for women to recognize that in themselves, and in the role.
What are your biggest achievements to date?
I would say re-defining my career and experiencing roles that are vastly different, all of which have lent themselves to where I am today. My accomplishment has been to learn quickly, and dive in to the challenge.
In your opinion, what will be the key trends in the wearable tech and IoT industry in the next 5 years and where do you see it heading?
Wearables will be everything, they will be like clothing, an essential. They will solve problems, create new ones, entertain us, heal us, monitor us, and make us more powerful.
Can you name any prominent women in this industry that you admire?
I admire any woman that starts her own company, regardless of the space, any woman who has risked something to pursue an unmet customer need, any woman who chooses creating her own path over walking along a well-worn one.
What is the most important piece of advice you can give to all female founders and female entrepreneurs in wearable tech out there?
Surround yourself with a personal board of directors, before you have one for the company, build one for yourself, a diverse bunch who at the end of the day are your champions. They should hard questions, they should make you understand yourself differently, see yourself more clearly, and at the end of the day, believe in you. In the low moments you need these people to get back in the game. Be that for another woman in your life. Don’t underestimate your ability to validate a product concept with low fidelity concepts - get to your customer before you build a business model.
This interview was conducted by Marija Butkovic, Digital Marketing and PR strategist, co-founder of Women of Wearables and Kisha Smart Umbrella. She regularly writes and speaks on topics of wearable tech, fashion tech, IoT, entrepreneurship and diversity. Visit marijabutkovic.co.uk or follow Marija on Twitter @MarijaButkovic @Women_Wearables @GetKisha.