Every year, The Singapore Women’s Weekly shines a spotlight on inspiring and influential women who are shaping our world. We call them the Great Women of Our Time. This year’s list for 2022 includes Ayesha Khanna, co-founder of Addo, a data science and Artificial Intelligence firm. As well as leading her globally-recognized company, she is on the board of multiple government, industry, and educational bodies, leading discussions about data science and the metaverse. She’s also the founder of 21C Girls (21st Century Girls), a charity that offers free coding and AI classes to girls in Singapore.

In 2012, Ayesha Khanna was completing her PhD at the London School of Economics when she and her husband decided to move to Singapore, along with their two young kids. Prior to the move, Ayesha had a successful career on Wall Street in New York and the couple was debating whether to move back to New York or head somewhere new. She laughs as she remembers their adventurous spirit. “We were young and had no jobs – with two babies! And we thought ‘we can go anywhere!

With two-and-a-half-year-old and six-month-old in tow, they moved to Singapore. “My husband had visited Singapore many times. It had a growing tech industry, and it’s great for kids, so we did it.” 

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Ayesha speaks to Fion Fong, head of business development and strategic partnerships at hawker delivery platform WhyQ.

But coming from a cut-throat Wall Street background, Ayesha had to adjust to working in a different culture, here in Asia. “I was very direct and intense. In the midst of one project, a well-meaning friend told me I should be more ladylike,” she recalls. “That really threw me off because I didn’t understand whether his comment was indicative of gender bias or whether his real intention was to tell me to be more emotionally intelligent.” 

Photo: Courtesy of Ayesha Khanna.

Ultimately she decided it was some combination of both. So she decided to always stand up for what she believed in, but soften her language.  “One thing that’s helped me keep myself centered is continually improving my skills. Gender bias is easier to spot when you are informed, educated, and confident. So I’m a huge proponent of learning about new trends, technologies, and skills.”

It was here in Singapore, in 2017 that Ayesha started Addo, a data science and artificial intelligence or AI consulting firm. “We specialise in helping companies use data to become more profitable, more efficient, and more customer-centric,” she explains. “Data science and storytelling are extremely important. You have to be able to present AI models in a context that your clients will understand, whether that means taking out the buzzwords or simplifying it so they understand actions they need to take.”

Making data and its meaning more accessible to everyone (especially women) has always been important to Ayesha. One way she does this is through the hiring practices at Addo. For one thing, where you were educated matters a lot less than it did a few years ago. And being a superstar is useful only when you are also a team player. She explains, “Our interview process includes tests and problem-solving skills. It’s important to be able to articulate how you solve the problem. It’s important for a person joining us to be able to connect the dots between the data they’re analysing and the business problem they are solving.” Also, tech is a team sport. “Somebody can be excellent at building AI models, but if they are not a team player, their value to the project is less than someone equally good, who is willing to play ball with the rest of the team.”

A surprising element that Ayesha feels is important to success in the engineering and tech industry is her passion for humanities. Broadly, humanities include languages, literature, philosophy, history, geography, law, and the arts. “I’m a big believer in studying the humanities,” she says firmly. “There is a false dichotomy between engineering and humanities. You need to have studied both to be a well-rounded person who can bring value to the future economy. “

Ayesha Khanna believes children need to be exposes to the sciences and the humanities

“We tend to think they’re not related, but technology, science, and engineering are related to the humanities because all these subjects are about creativity, a pursuit of the truth and tinkering, building, and experimenting.” As a mum, Ayesha is committed to making sure her children have both the sciences and the humanities in their curriculum. “It’s very important to me that my son and my daughter don’t limit themselves to just one subject, as it could limit their options and their ability to enjoy the work they’re doing.”

Ayesha is the founder of 21C Girls (21st Century Girls), a charity that offers free coding and AI classes to girls and young women in Singapore. Through this, she hopes to level the playing field in an industry that has always been traditionally male. “There’s a cultural bias for women to avoid engineering and technology degrees and jobs,” she says. “There is an unspoken and false assumption in some families that girls are not as good as boys at maths or computer science – that’s just ridiculous! It’s a self-perpetuating bias that results in fewer women being hired in STEM jobs and getting the chance to prove themselves.”

Ayesha has recently learned the value of slowing down. The pandemic enabled her to take a break from the short-term day-to-day tasks and to focus more on her long-term vision for herself and her company. “The pandemic gave me a chance to re-align the strategic direction of our company with my co-founder, and also rethink and revalidate my priorities in and outside of work. For example, I realised my work to empower girls in tech is increasingly meaningful to me, so I want to dedicate more time to it. The importance of spending quality time with our kids and our parents has also been underscored by these challenging times, as well. So I’ve streamlined my priorities. That has made the path forward clearer and easier.”

Photography: Kathy Lim
Videography: Stacey Rodrigues
Hair and Makeup: Ginger Lynette
Location: Conrad Centennial Singapore