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Future proof your business - let machine learning help

01 May 2019

Sarah Russell Elula

Sarah Russell (above) works in Artificial Intelligence (AI) and machine learning. Whatever the stereotype is of someone in technology – some guy in a dark corner in a hoodie coding in the middle of the night – Sarah is not it.

For many years, she worked in financial services managing teams involved in delivering complex projects. Beginning and running a business is a new “challenge” – one she knew came with personal risk.

Sarah co-founded Elula with Josh Shipman and together they are co-CEO of the company. Elula, which means to shine light and to reveal, was a Westpac Businesses of Tomorrow winner in 2018.

“Elula solves the customer retention problem – it’s a really important problem that goes right to the heart of a business,” explains Sarah.

“Around 20 percent of customers switch their home loan, phone plan or electricity provider every year. This is a big problem for businesses and getting it right can result in significant improvements in profit and customer experience. Elula’s AI product enables more precise ways of solving this problem and Elula quickly identifies the micro triggers that signal a customer is going to leave.

“The AI software provides businesses with a targeted list of customers to retain and the action, for example, the price discount or package to offer to increase customer loyalty,” she finishes.

The focus for Elula is on future-proofing organisations – the proverbial ‘forewarned is forearmed’ model for doing business - and Sarah believes all companies, including those with little or no experience in AI and machine learning, can transform how they operate through the benefits of applied AI. 

Recently, I spoke with Sarah about business and what she has seen work over the years. Drawing on her corporate and business-owner experiences she had these thoughts.

“I wanted to challenge myself, which is why I chose to start a business,” she says.

“Not knowing what the challenges will be until you come to them, well, that is both exhilarating and requires focus and hard work,” says Sarah, who admits she gets a buzz out of the whole process.

There is a large body of research which shows that the proliferation of men in the technology workspace may be happening because young girls and women are not doing the STEM subjects that lead them to careers in these workspaces.

Sarah mulls over this thought and offers: “We all need technology skills. What I mean by that is if you’re in a creative, communications role for example, then you’ll need to employ and use technology to get your message out.

“It seems to me,” she continues, “STEM is such a broad range of subjects and skills that to talk about it as a consolidated thing misses the point. Every day we are surrounded with and use technology and being adept and flexible with it makes sense for us all. We need to remember technology is not all about coding. Technology is much broader, much bigger and showcasing that diversity increases engagement. It’s important to remember the broader elements involved in technology and how you can leverage them for use in the area in which you want to work or where you have a passion.

“Specifically, at Elula,” she continues, explaining her own involvement with technology, “my early career was hands-on work in statistics and economics and I have done a Masters in the area. This quickly shifted to the business application of statistics and economics and overtime this shifted to a focus on leadership and supporting teams to successfully deliver and translate our product vision, and customer requirements into Elula’s solution.”

If a career such as Sarah’s is to teach us anything, it illustrates how - in the world of work - your skills develop to suit the roles you want and where your strengths lie.

Straw polling the women in the Elula office about how to make STEM subjects more appealing to girls and so increase the pool of women talent, Sarah tells me she and her colleagues concluded that there was not silver bullet to solve this problem.

In the recruitment space, for example, Elula is always actively working to attract a diverse range of candidates.  The business looks at the language in its ads, targets for skills other than the role’s defined needs, interviews all female candidates who have the right foundational skill sets, has mixed interview panels for all candidates and challenges recruiters to bring a range of candidates.

“Elula was 50-50 in gender but that has dropped away a little recently because there is such a small pool of female candidates that have the skills required,” according to Sarah.

“For example, with one role for which we were recruiting, there were a total of 1850 people in Australia with the right skill sets (on linked in profiles) and of that list there were only 30 women.

 “We specifically call out the fact in our ads that candidates do not need to tick every box to do the role. In my experience, women tend to downplay their strengths and skills and worry they can’t do everything asked, so we proactively choose a mix of CVs, especially when people show they have more than the tech skills,” Sarah explains.

Sarah also notices the language of the workplace, which she sees as being “very gendered”, plays an unfair role in business success.

“I saw it every day in corporate life. Two people would be talking about the same thing but the way a man would describe it and the confidence with which he delivered his findings or thoughts would be completely different to a woman,” says Sarah.

That difference, she believes, goes on to play into a whole lot of promotional opportunities – whether they are about raising capital for a business, explaining the results of a project, or seeking a job.

In Sarah’s experience, men will state what it is they have done and what they want using language that is meant to leave you in no-doubt that they know what they are doing. Women’s language is much more likely to sound uncertain.

Of course, she also believes we have to consider the listeners in this equation: “If you’re in a meeting or reviewing a candidate or a project,” says Sarah, “you need to think about what you’re being told and assess it for what it is and not for the language in which it is dressed."