AiAllies – Luchele Mendes, Trust in Soda
If you’re a woman looking to progress your career in the conversational AI sector, there are few better people to suited to help than Luchele Mendes, the Principal Recruitment Consultant for Natural Language Processing and Data Science for Trust in Soda.
But it’s not just her professional experience and high level of technical knowledge that make her stand out from the crowd, it’s also the work Luchele does to promote greater diversity and better mental health practices across the STEM industries that makes her an outstanding representative of the #AiAllies initiative from Artificial Solutions.
Like many of the other industry-leading figures to have features as part of the project, which aims to shine a light on the most inspiring women working across STEM and create a network for other women to connect with, Luchele did not take a conventional route into the technology sector.
A Road Less Travelled into Tech
“I studied Psychology at university but when I finished, I had no idea what to do. I should have taken a year out and tried to gain some experience in different industries between my studies but there was no real push from my professors or career advisors. I don’t feel like the education system in the UK offers enough support for post-study life.”
“I even talk to people that have PHDs who don’t know what to do in the professional world or how to get into certain industries.”
Without a clear sense of direction, Luchele decided to explore recruitment following a suggestion from a Headhunter that had contacted her, “I had no idea what it really was! I had no idea what it meant to find a niche market or how to develop a personal brand as an entrepreneur.”
“I just jumped in and thought that I could help people in a career like this. I always liked helping people and that was my desire. Unfortunately, I was a little naïve when I was being interviewed because I kept repeating that my main goal was to support people instead of making money!”
After an exhaustive period of interviews and rejections, the right company finally came along and provided an opportunity to break into the industry.
Michael Bailey Associates operates in the pharmaceutical industry and acted as the perfect entry point for Luchele. “I’m a bit of a geek and I really enjoy digging into research and technical subject matter. Through following my interests and in an attempt to find a niche to operate in I found a small sector called bioinformatics, which is all about using data to find out what is going in inside the body.”
“That was what opened the door to data science and health tech.”
Following a highly successful four-year period learning the trade and the many nuances associated with working with data science and technology, Luchele took her next step.
“I felt like the pharma industry was a little slow when it came to creating products from technology and so I moved into the tech space. Now, I focus on hiring people with skills in natural language processing for Trust in Soda.”
Taking on the Challenge for Women in Tech
Now, as a highly experienced and knowledgeable tech professional, Luchele is working to influence an increase in diversity across the NLP space through working with partners across the industry and sharing opportunities with people with less representation at tech businesses.
“Just look at how few technologies have been developed specifically for women. Femtech has only just taken off in the past few years but it’s exploding and that’s because women have been crying out for technology to be designed for them!”
A strong desire to support other women in the sector is clear, as Luchele highlights her own personal struggles in dealing with a number of challenges.
“I have had a lot of difficult situations to deal with over the years, and I have received a lot of inappropriate comments while in professional environments that have made me feel uncomfortable. I have been treated a certain way because I am a woman in the past and I know that has been commonplace in tech for a long time, but things are significantly better than they used to be, though there is still a lot of ground to cover.”
For women working in the STEM sector that feel their environment is uncomfortable, Luchele highlights a number of key points.
“My approach was to be vocal and highlight the issues that I came across immediately. In a previous role, I went to my HR department and told them the exact words that had been said to me. I had been suffering in silence because, like a lot of women starting out in their career, I think there is an expectation to behave like men and just accept things the way they are.”
“But, I got to a point where I had to take action and so I raised all of the issues I had and then made sure that the message was spread across the entire organization that I was working for at the time. You should try to do the same if you´re having a hard time.”
When asked about key resources and mentors to follow, Luchele is not short of answers.
“There are so many networks on LinkedIn that women can join to access networking opportunities and Women in DevOps is the perfect example. It´s a group with over four thousand members and there are so many opportunities to connect and grow your professional circle.”
As for learning and improving specific skills, three resources stand out.
“If you would like to practice your coding and data science skills, Kaggle is brilliant as you can enter competitions and win prizes. For working specifically on projects and to build your portfolio, you can contribute to Open Source. You can also develop your experience and work on AI and CAI projects with Omdena.”
And a number of mentors that have helped to inspire and support Luchele also come highly recommended;
Danielle Ralic, CEO, Ancora.ai
Jennifer Cubino, COO, BC Platforms
Julia Hoxha, CEO, Zana Technologies
Duygu Altinok, Senior NLP Engineer, Deepgram
“These people really helped me and continue to do so, I think everyone should have mentors they can take the lead from. I also think women need to work hard to take ownership of their own path and sometimes it takes somebody else to make a suggestion or for you to see how others carve out their own pathway for you to do the same.”
How The Tech Industry Can Better Support Women
Aside from the effort and hard work that a woman can do to progress her career, there are also a number of key considerations for the technology sector to make in order to drive greater inclusion , according to Luchele.
“I think we need to take an immediate and long-term vision of the industry. When you look at the biases that we can already see in AI, its scary to think what the situation could be like in 10-15 years. That’s why we need to have women involved at all levels of the sector, from getting more women into the space straight from university all the way up to getting more women into leadership and board level positions. The effort needs to be from the bottom to the top.”
“I would finish by saying that the progress that has been made has been incredibly positive and you can see the impact of changes in the education system where children are taught to code from a young age now. That wasn’t the case when I was growing up and that wasn’t long ago at all. Anyone can do anything they want in tech as there are so many specialized areas, nobody should be afraid and all you have to do is reach out to learn how to get involved.”
To connect with Luchele on LinkedIn, you can find her here.