12.12.2023

AI-CONIC WOMEN: Veronika Westerheide

Did you know, in the AI world, only about 30% of researchers are women? And in higher positions, this number is even lower. This isn't just in research; less than 25% of AI specialists are women. I think it's time for a change. I'm Jeanette Hepp, CMO at Frontnow, and I see this imbalance every day. That's why I'm excited to introduce “AI-Conic Women”.

Jeanette Hepp

Chief Marketing Officer

AI-Conic Women

This series is dedicated to the amazing women in AI, who are not just part of the industry but are actively shaping its future. Join me in exploring their stories, celebrating their achievements, and drawing inspiration from how they're making AI more inclusive and innovative. This week: Veronika Westerheide, COO of Rise of AI. She's not just changing the game; she's creating a new one.

Veronika, could you share your journey with the Rise of AI Conference and what inspired you to co-found it?

Technology has fascinated me since childhood and my teenage years. At an early age, I helped repair technology and large lorries in my family's company and observed the mechanics' work with great interest. 

When my husband, Fabian Westerheide, initiated Asgard Capital, one of the pioneering AI investment funds, in 2014, he aimed to create an AI ecosystem with meet-ups to foster interdisciplinary exchange. As the initial meet-ups rapidly expanded to the size of a small conference with numerous guests, I, as an event manager, recognized the prospect of building one of the leading AI conferences in Germany. This is how Rise of AI was born. 

With Fabian's expertise and specialist knowledge in the field of artificial intelligence and my experience in the international event sector, the founding team found the perfect fit. 

It was clear from the very beginning that Rise of AI had to serve the ecosystem and the guests. Our joint objective is to connect people to achieve a greater good. We offer support when possible to help secure Germany's leading position in the field of technology. Our mAI initiative, German AI Month, launched in the year 2023, also serves this objective.

What have been some key milestones or breakthroughs you've witnessed through this platform?

Since our very first meet-up, interest in Artificial Intelligence has grown exponentially. In 2020, our industry, like numerous others, suffered significant downturns and de-focus. In 2016, AI was not yet a widely debated topic, unlike now where it has thankfully evolved into one. Today, Rise of AI is a C-Level conference, allowing our guests to gain motivation and build networks with other relevant industry participants to prepare their companies for the future. 

AI research has been ongoing for several decades, despite many individuals being unaware of this fact. It is important to note that AI has not just been around for 10 or 15 years. We are delighted to have AI pioneers as part of our network and AI start-ups, some of which are founded on the work of AI pioneers who labored decades ago. 

The biggest driving force of AI is the success of ChatGPT. Thanks to the user-friendly interface of OpenAI, the topic of AI has successfully transitioned from being solely discussed within research labs and back rooms to gaining popularity within a broad community. Contributing to the current hype surrounding Generative AI is ChatGPT.

Reflecting on your decade-long experience in the AI field, how have you seen AI evolve and what do you believe are its most significant contributions to businesses and society?

Artificial intelligence is currently undergoing a social transformation. AI has now become socially acceptable, whereas it was initially seen as a niche topic for researchers, specialists and "nerds". Interest is increasing, and in my opinion, there is also a growing curiosity to test the application of AI in everyday life. 

In these volatile times, the varied challenges confronting the global community, with Europe and Germany in particular in the spotlight, AI can be part of the solution to many problems. 

Companies in Germany in particular are complaining about a shortage of skilled workers almost everywhere. Absences due to illness or vacation force some companies to temporarily shut down operations or close for days at a time. Long-term absences resulting from burnout are commonplace, leaving remaining staff to make up for the shortage.  

AI can provide a variety of solutions, including improved employee satisfaction and personnel planning based on workload forecasts.

In manufacturing and industry, AI can assist in producing high-quality products, ensuring excellence while reducing the use of raw and auxiliary materials, thus providing environmental benefits.

AI can already 'invent' new materials. This is particularly important in times of raw material shortages and uncertain supply chains. It is a significant advantage for companies.

In my view, the field of AI and healthcare presents great potential. Personally, I spend a lot of time researching preventive medicine and longevity. I believe that artificial intelligence can help us live healthier, more active lives. 

Furthermore advanced health monitoring can enhance the motivation and productivity of a company's workforce. 

Additionally, we must consider the next generation. There is a significant shortfall in early childhood care within kindergartens, daycare centers, and educational institutions. There is not only a lack of nursery and daycare places across the board. Teachers are usually not trained to implement early technical education in a child-friendly way. 

It is so important that we provide the best possible training for the next generation of employees and entrepreneurs for the ever-growing digital and technology industry. Birds on Mars has successfully implemented pilot projects for children in this field. The situation in schools is far from favorable. The buildings are dilapidated, the toilets are appalling, there is a shortage of teachers, absenteeism and the school meals are disastrously unhealthy. However, the consequences of children being taught with outdated teaching materials are hardly discussed, as the other problems outweigh them. I see it as our social duty to start here in order to guarantee that we can provide employees for the emerging tech industry in the future.

As AI continues to grow, what emerging trends should businesses, especially in the B2B SaaS sector, be aware of?

I recommend that every company, regardless of size, start looking into AI and gain access to AI networks and ecosystems to keep up with the rapid pace of development. With the Rise of AI conference, we offer a compact introduction and access to one of the most exclusive networks in the AI industry. For those who can't join live, we  offer the virtual Rise of AI Conference for free. For specific AI projects, especially in the early stages, KI Park e.V. is the perfect place to start.  But the most important thing is to get started and find out where artificial intelligence can be used in the company. The possibilities are almost limitless.

From AI-based facility management for lighting, capacity utilization and temperature to AI-supported HR management and generative AI in marketing, the applications are manifold. In production and manufacturing, I would focus on solutions that support employees, optimise processes and detect or prevent errors. For example, quality control of raw materials and finished products. Route optimization and tracking of goods or fully automated packaging.

So drawing from your experiences, what unique perspectives do women bring to the AI field?

Women bring different, important perspectives and complement teams with their soft skills. Especially when it comes to the development and application of AI solutions, women can help develop innovative and creative solutions that are suitable for all genders.

Women are often better at integrating ethical and inclusivity aspects into AI solutions, ensuring that systems work more fairly and inclusively. Women's communication skills bring many benefits. We can use this ability to foster team dynamics and mediate in teams to roll out AI projects faster and more successfully. 

A key point is the role model function that women have in the AI industry. The more women who work and are visible in the AI industry, the more they serve as role models for other women and girls to work and build careers in AI.

What challenges do women in AI face, and how can we collectively work towards overcoming them?

We are constantly working on bringing more women into the spotlight and giving them a stage. Fabian and I would like to see a 50/50 gender balance in companies and on conference stages. I would also like to see women supporting each other more and getting rid of the 'mare's bite' once and for all. We should help each other instead of trying to compete with each other.  

We also need more modern men with less ego complexes, who actively support women and give them priority if they are equally qualified. It is unacceptable that women in senior positions are kept in the cloakroom at company events when they should be networking and visible. And yes, I was told this by an friend who experienced exactly this scene at an internal event. At moments like this, I wish more women would shed the deference they have been taught and stand up for themselves. To be confident and stand up for their position and take what is rightfully theirs. 

Women can achieve anything they set their minds to and they deserve to be supported as much as possible. Fortunately, I have never experienced a glass ceiling or discrimination from men. The men around me have always supported me and my female colleagues and have never put me down.  I can only recommend to all women to stand up for what they want and fight for whatever they want. Be self-confident and fight for it. Seek out allies who will support you regardless of gender.

How can AI companies and conferences like Rise of AI play a role in promoting diversity and inclusion within the industry?

From the very beginning, our goal with Rise of AI was to have 50% women and 50% men on stage, but also on board as guests. In 2023, a female attendee expressed her pleasure at having to wait in line for the ladies' lavatory. This is a very rare thing to happen at an event of this kind. 

Fabian and I view all individuals equally, with no regard to gender, ethnicity, language, religion, or any other factor. We believe everybody should be granted the same opportunities and chances. We actively live this and make sure, among other things, that all guests can use the location without barriers and give special attention to special dietary needs.

It's not obvious, but as a person with intolerances, there is no alternative at most events. For us, this is also a form of discrimination. If you can't eat gluten, for example, then you're out of luck. I've noticed that event organisers often opt for standard catering, which tends to be unhealthy and excludes individuals with allergies and intolerances.

At Rise of AI, we take a different approach. We have six in-house chefs who proactively inquire about guests' intolerances and allergies. Our menu also includes delectable vegetarian and vegan options, ensuring that everyone can enjoy a delicious meal. 

Overall, AI companies face the challenge of processing data without discriminating or disadvantaging anyone. For me, every AI starts out as a blank sheet of paper that delivers results based on the data it is trained with. In 2015, Facebook had the problem that the algorithm mistook men of color (referred to in the press as "black" men) for monkeys. This is a problem and needs to be corrected. 

In order to avoid such scenarios, it is important to install appropriate control processes in advance so that discrimination or disadvantage through AI can be prevented. In addition, AI can provide wonderful assistance to people with visual or hearing impairments using assistance systems, enabling them to lead a self-determined everyday life.

Could you share any initiatives or policies that you have found effective in supporting women and diversity in AI?

There are numerous remarkable initiatives, and an increasing number of women in the AI sector who are strongly committed and supportive to women. Overall, I perceive the AI industry, particularly my network, to be exceptionally supportive and cooperative. My contacts have spoken very positively about these women's networks:  

https://www.womeninai.co/
https://www.womeninairobotics.de/
https://we-are-panda.com/

I am heavily involved in KI Park e.V. and actively support the association.

As we look to the future, what are your predictions or hopes for the role of AI in business and society?

My hope for the future is that artificial intelligence will become an essential everyday tool, like a smartphone or a car. Something that we use in all areas of our lives to make our lives longer, healthier and happier. 

We still have a lot of work to do before then, but I believe in a future in which AI is the tool for many situations in life.

Thank you, Veronika, for sharing your valuable insights and experiences.

This series is dedicated to the amazing women in AI, who are not just part of the industry but are actively shaping its future. Join me in exploring their stories, celebrating their achievements, and drawing inspiration from how they're making AI more inclusive and innovative. This week: Veronika Westerheide, COO of Rise of AI. She's not just changing the game; she's creating a new one.

Veronika, could you share your journey with the Rise of AI Conference and what inspired you to co-found it?

Technology has fascinated me since childhood and my teenage years. At an early age, I helped repair technology and large lorries in my family's company and observed the mechanics' work with great interest. 

When my husband, Fabian Westerheide, initiated Asgard Capital, one of the pioneering AI investment funds, in 2014, he aimed to create an AI ecosystem with meet-ups to foster interdisciplinary exchange. As the initial meet-ups rapidly expanded to the size of a small conference with numerous guests, I, as an event manager, recognized the prospect of building one of the leading AI conferences in Germany. This is how Rise of AI was born. 

With Fabian's expertise and specialist knowledge in the field of artificial intelligence and my experience in the international event sector, the founding team found the perfect fit. 

It was clear from the very beginning that Rise of AI had to serve the ecosystem and the guests. Our joint objective is to connect people to achieve a greater good. We offer support when possible to help secure Germany's leading position in the field of technology. Our mAI initiative, German AI Month, launched in the year 2023, also serves this objective.

What have been some key milestones or breakthroughs you've witnessed through this platform?

Since our very first meet-up, interest in Artificial Intelligence has grown exponentially. In 2020, our industry, like numerous others, suffered significant downturns and de-focus. In 2016, AI was not yet a widely debated topic, unlike now where it has thankfully evolved into one. Today, Rise of AI is a C-Level conference, allowing our guests to gain motivation and build networks with other relevant industry participants to prepare their companies for the future. 

AI research has been ongoing for several decades, despite many individuals being unaware of this fact. It is important to note that AI has not just been around for 10 or 15 years. We are delighted to have AI pioneers as part of our network and AI start-ups, some of which are founded on the work of AI pioneers who labored decades ago. 

The biggest driving force of AI is the success of ChatGPT. Thanks to the user-friendly interface of OpenAI, the topic of AI has successfully transitioned from being solely discussed within research labs and back rooms to gaining popularity within a broad community. Contributing to the current hype surrounding Generative AI is ChatGPT.

Reflecting on your decade-long experience in the AI field, how have you seen AI evolve and what do you believe are its most significant contributions to businesses and society?

Artificial intelligence is currently undergoing a social transformation. AI has now become socially acceptable, whereas it was initially seen as a niche topic for researchers, specialists and "nerds". Interest is increasing, and in my opinion, there is also a growing curiosity to test the application of AI in everyday life. 

In these volatile times, the varied challenges confronting the global community, with Europe and Germany in particular in the spotlight, AI can be part of the solution to many problems. 

Companies in Germany in particular are complaining about a shortage of skilled workers almost everywhere. Absences due to illness or vacation force some companies to temporarily shut down operations or close for days at a time. Long-term absences resulting from burnout are commonplace, leaving remaining staff to make up for the shortage.  

AI can provide a variety of solutions, including improved employee satisfaction and personnel planning based on workload forecasts.

In manufacturing and industry, AI can assist in producing high-quality products, ensuring excellence while reducing the use of raw and auxiliary materials, thus providing environmental benefits.

AI can already 'invent' new materials. This is particularly important in times of raw material shortages and uncertain supply chains. It is a significant advantage for companies.

In my view, the field of AI and healthcare presents great potential. Personally, I spend a lot of time researching preventive medicine and longevity. I believe that artificial intelligence can help us live healthier, more active lives. 

Furthermore advanced health monitoring can enhance the motivation and productivity of a company's workforce. 

Additionally, we must consider the next generation. There is a significant shortfall in early childhood care within kindergartens, daycare centers, and educational institutions. There is not only a lack of nursery and daycare places across the board. Teachers are usually not trained to implement early technical education in a child-friendly way. 

It is so important that we provide the best possible training for the next generation of employees and entrepreneurs for the ever-growing digital and technology industry. Birds on Mars has successfully implemented pilot projects for children in this field. The situation in schools is far from favorable. The buildings are dilapidated, the toilets are appalling, there is a shortage of teachers, absenteeism and the school meals are disastrously unhealthy. However, the consequences of children being taught with outdated teaching materials are hardly discussed, as the other problems outweigh them. I see it as our social duty to start here in order to guarantee that we can provide employees for the emerging tech industry in the future.

As AI continues to grow, what emerging trends should businesses, especially in the B2B SaaS sector, be aware of?

I recommend that every company, regardless of size, start looking into AI and gain access to AI networks and ecosystems to keep up with the rapid pace of development. With the Rise of AI conference, we offer a compact introduction and access to one of the most exclusive networks in the AI industry. For those who can't join live, we  offer the virtual Rise of AI Conference for free. For specific AI projects, especially in the early stages, KI Park e.V. is the perfect place to start.  But the most important thing is to get started and find out where artificial intelligence can be used in the company. The possibilities are almost limitless.

From AI-based facility management for lighting, capacity utilization and temperature to AI-supported HR management and generative AI in marketing, the applications are manifold. In production and manufacturing, I would focus on solutions that support employees, optimise processes and detect or prevent errors. For example, quality control of raw materials and finished products. Route optimization and tracking of goods or fully automated packaging.

So drawing from your experiences, what unique perspectives do women bring to the AI field?

Women bring different, important perspectives and complement teams with their soft skills. Especially when it comes to the development and application of AI solutions, women can help develop innovative and creative solutions that are suitable for all genders.

Women are often better at integrating ethical and inclusivity aspects into AI solutions, ensuring that systems work more fairly and inclusively. Women's communication skills bring many benefits. We can use this ability to foster team dynamics and mediate in teams to roll out AI projects faster and more successfully. 

A key point is the role model function that women have in the AI industry. The more women who work and are visible in the AI industry, the more they serve as role models for other women and girls to work and build careers in AI.

What challenges do women in AI face, and how can we collectively work towards overcoming them?

We are constantly working on bringing more women into the spotlight and giving them a stage. Fabian and I would like to see a 50/50 gender balance in companies and on conference stages. I would also like to see women supporting each other more and getting rid of the 'mare's bite' once and for all. We should help each other instead of trying to compete with each other.  

We also need more modern men with less ego complexes, who actively support women and give them priority if they are equally qualified. It is unacceptable that women in senior positions are kept in the cloakroom at company events when they should be networking and visible. And yes, I was told this by an friend who experienced exactly this scene at an internal event. At moments like this, I wish more women would shed the deference they have been taught and stand up for themselves. To be confident and stand up for their position and take what is rightfully theirs. 

Women can achieve anything they set their minds to and they deserve to be supported as much as possible. Fortunately, I have never experienced a glass ceiling or discrimination from men. The men around me have always supported me and my female colleagues and have never put me down.  I can only recommend to all women to stand up for what they want and fight for whatever they want. Be self-confident and fight for it. Seek out allies who will support you regardless of gender.

How can AI companies and conferences like Rise of AI play a role in promoting diversity and inclusion within the industry?

From the very beginning, our goal with Rise of AI was to have 50% women and 50% men on stage, but also on board as guests. In 2023, a female attendee expressed her pleasure at having to wait in line for the ladies' lavatory. This is a very rare thing to happen at an event of this kind. 

Fabian and I view all individuals equally, with no regard to gender, ethnicity, language, religion, or any other factor. We believe everybody should be granted the same opportunities and chances. We actively live this and make sure, among other things, that all guests can use the location without barriers and give special attention to special dietary needs.

It's not obvious, but as a person with intolerances, there is no alternative at most events. For us, this is also a form of discrimination. If you can't eat gluten, for example, then you're out of luck. I've noticed that event organisers often opt for standard catering, which tends to be unhealthy and excludes individuals with allergies and intolerances.

At Rise of AI, we take a different approach. We have six in-house chefs who proactively inquire about guests' intolerances and allergies. Our menu also includes delectable vegetarian and vegan options, ensuring that everyone can enjoy a delicious meal. 

Overall, AI companies face the challenge of processing data without discriminating or disadvantaging anyone. For me, every AI starts out as a blank sheet of paper that delivers results based on the data it is trained with. In 2015, Facebook had the problem that the algorithm mistook men of color (referred to in the press as "black" men) for monkeys. This is a problem and needs to be corrected. 

In order to avoid such scenarios, it is important to install appropriate control processes in advance so that discrimination or disadvantage through AI can be prevented. In addition, AI can provide wonderful assistance to people with visual or hearing impairments using assistance systems, enabling them to lead a self-determined everyday life.

Could you share any initiatives or policies that you have found effective in supporting women and diversity in AI?

There are numerous remarkable initiatives, and an increasing number of women in the AI sector who are strongly committed and supportive to women. Overall, I perceive the AI industry, particularly my network, to be exceptionally supportive and cooperative. My contacts have spoken very positively about these women's networks:  

https://www.womeninai.co/
https://www.womeninairobotics.de/
https://we-are-panda.com/

I am heavily involved in KI Park e.V. and actively support the association.

As we look to the future, what are your predictions or hopes for the role of AI in business and society?

My hope for the future is that artificial intelligence will become an essential everyday tool, like a smartphone or a car. Something that we use in all areas of our lives to make our lives longer, healthier and happier. 

We still have a lot of work to do before then, but I believe in a future in which AI is the tool for many situations in life.

Thank you, Veronika, for sharing your valuable insights and experiences.

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