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The Path of a Disruptor: Rana el Kaliouby

May 28, 2020

This week brought the second installment of our Disruptor Series of events telling the stories of people making waves and changing perceptions in Boston and beyond. Our latest session invited Egyptian-American visionary and scientist Rana el Kaliouby to share her inspiring story, as told in her new memoir "Girl Decoded."

Rana, who spoke on the topic of ethics in tech during HubWeek 2019, is not only an accomplished researcher on the subject of artificial emotional intelligence (aka emotion AI), she's also the co-founder and CEO of software startup Affectiva. She joined us to share an up-close-and-personal look at her life and career following her calling to humanize our technology and how we connect with one another.

Growing up as a Muslim woman in Egypt and Kuwait, Rana was extremely focused on furthering her education. Unlike many other traditional families, both of her parents worked, and her mother was one of the early women to take on technology in the Middle East. From an early age, Rana was intrigued by technology and how it affects us all. She chose to study computer science as an undergraduate and graduated top of her class, with her sights set on a career in academia. 

That all changed after she moved to the University of Cambridge to study for her Ph.D. Newly married and away from home for the first time, she was reminded of the richness of all our nonverbal communication while texting her husband. This was her "aha moment" — she imagined what it would be like if we could redesign technology to unlock all the things that make us human.

Later, when Rana learned about research that was being done for autism, she had another "aha moment," one that inspired her to turn the research on its head and use technology to help autistic children. This project is what ultimately brought Rana to the U.S. to work with Rosalind Picard of MIT, author of Affective Computing and Rana's co-founder at Affectiva.

Along her academic and entrepreneurial journey, Rana learned a lot about herself and the world. Here are just a few of the takeaways she shared with us:

  • You need to be willing to make tradeoffs - There came a point while Rana was juggling a long-distance marriage, having her first child, and working on her Ph.D. that she almost gave up and went back home. Finding herself pregnant halfway through her program, "propelled me to be a lot more driven and a lot more time oriented," Rana told us. She learned that achieving her dreams meant carefully managing her career and personal life.
  • The right mentor can change your life -  Connecting with Rosalind Picard after reading her book on emotion AI set Rana off on a path that would bring her to the U.S. and completely alter her goals. "She took a chance on me, and that totally changed the trajectory of my career and my life."
  • Once you convince yourself, it's easy to convince others - Affectiva was run by a few other CEOs before Rana stepped into the reins. It took time before Rana realized she belonged in the role. With help from her mentors and after reframing her mindset, she convinced herself to try it, and then easily convinced her team, the board, and investors. Her advice for others? “Don’t be your own biggest obstacle. Also, don’t wait until you can check 100% of the boxes.”
  • In dark times, we can rediscover empathy - During the COVID-19 pandemic, we're looking to stay connected in more ways than ever before. Rana feels strongly that technology ought to be part of the solution. With this challenging time, we have an opportunity to innovate and build technology in a way that mimics how we interact with one another and create a sense of shared experience.

If you missed out on the conversation, or want to revisit parts of Rana's story, you can watch a recording of the session in the video below.

We'd love for you to share your thoughts from our Disruptor Series session or about Rana's book, "Girl Decoded," with us on social media: TwitterFacebookLinkedIn, and Instagram.

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