According to a World Economic Forum study from 2020, only 26% of the AI and data workforce is female. Leading by example, Danielle Gifford is a prime example that this statistic may be changing. Coming into her first position out of university, she did not have a traditional education in computer science or STEM that conventional thinking dictates is needed to understand the technology field's inner-workings and technicalities. After several years working in and working with B2B, as well as B2C startups across augmented reality, cloud technologies, and fintech, Gifford became the Director of Operations, Applied AI Lab of AltaML, one of North America’s leading Machine Learning and AI companies, while also leading the Woman in AI Canada's Calgary Chapter with John Wick’s “focus, commitment and sheer will." A fundamental curiosity and willingness to put herself out there helped equally.
As a constant theme in her life of not letting the odds define her, she tossed the dice on her career by joining an Ontario startup as the 25th employee after obtaining a dual honours degree in psychology and business. Rather than taking the comfortable path of a stable, predictable marketing job at an established consumer goods company or a recognizable marketing agency, she took the road less-traveled and embraced “startup life” by following her passion into the convoluted intersection between human cognitive science and technology. Unbeknownst to her then, working in a startup allowed her to take on responsibilities beyond her job title. She would soon learn that experiences with the positioning of a technology product, finding product use cases, implementing sales strategies, and growing a business would be highly applicable to a career in AI. From positioning products to ‘smiling and dialing’, Gifford was keen to get her hands dirty.
In spite of the immense learning opportunities, five years of fast-paced startup life took a toll on her mental and physical health. Describing this period as one of her career failures, Gifford decided to take a break with nothing lined up. Alberta’s world-renown, picturesque mountains shown in travel blogs attracted her to come to Calgary to pursue her MBA (while pursuing mountain activities on the side). A small break helped rejuvenate Gifford, and she came back with a renewed passion and a formidable sense of purpose. While studying a full-time course load, she also worked as a Venture Manager and Site Recruitment Lead at the Creative Destruction Lab (CDL), a technology incubator that helps startups accelerate and commercialize their ideas. Now Gifford went from working in startups to working with startups, sourcing and managing a portfolio of ventures across energy, agriculture, fintech, and health, leading to over $250M in equity value creation with mentors who founded, operated, and exited tech companies. CDL is where she met Cory Janssen, who introduced her to AltaML and mentored her in the world of AI.
Unfazed by the AI world dominated by advanced mathematics, programming and a predominantly male workforce, she again defied the odds and played to her strength of using her business acumen to excel in this exciting field. As the first employee of AltaML’s Applied AI Lab program, with the mandate to accelerate AI and ML business application in Calgary, as well as to build up an AI talent pool, the Lab works hand-in-hand with large companies like Suncor, ATB Financial, TransAlta, and Spartan Controls. From her experience in startup company marketing, she knows that a great product is only a single piece of the puzzle to a successful user journey. It is no different than a highly accurate ML model, which left on its own, has limited value. But pair that successful ML model with a complete understanding of the business problem domain, then you have a recipe to fully capitalize on the entire ML value chain, whether it is to reduce costs, increase revenue or reduce environmental footprint. The Lab continues to impact the City of Calgary significantly and recently has begun to receive national interests. Off the backs of their success, Microsoft came knocking and asked for help in creating a similar program for the University of Waterloo including partners like Rogers Digital Sports and Media, Health Canada, Intuit, and the Toronto Star for undergraduate students interested in working in AI, which will make a lasting impact on the next generation of Canadian AI leaders.
Similar to the educational initiative with the University of Waterloo, Gifford believes in the importance of giving back and using her voice to elevate those around her. Woman in AI Canada (WAIC) is a nonprofit organization, which started in late 2020, that helps to advance women In the field of AI through networking, education and events. As Calgary’s City Lead, she helps fellow Calgarian women learn the entire AI value chain, from idea inception to model utilization, through an inclusive team that heavily emphasizes Responsible AI. This process also allows women to feel empowered to turn their imaginations into something tangible.
With Web3 and blockchain technology making daily headlines like the Internet in the early 90s, Gifford wants to apply her success formula by pairing business and technology to make her mark in this field. There is a saying that “90% of life is showing up” and Gifford strongly believes in that. She wants to let the readers, especially women, know not to be afraid to get involved, and just the simple act of showing up day-in and day-out will carry you a long way despite whatever odds and obstacles you are up against. Taking risks is what led her to where she is today. Sometimes that ‘leap of faith’ is just what you need.