Interview with Briana Brownell
By Violetta Holl
Briana Brownell is a founder and CEO of PureStrategy.ai, a Saskatoon based startup focusing on machine learning in the business analytics space. Described as a “brilliant data scientist, bold business leader and visionary technologist,” she has created a business analytics system that is pushing the limits in the field of artificial intelligence. Briana believes that her startup will not only advance market research but will provide tools that go beyond human capabilities in efficiency, objectivity, and reliability, uncovering patterns and insights that would never have been possible before. She is also a research fellow at the University of Saskatchewan and an active member in professional and cultural groups improving lives of Canadians, such as Marketing Research and Intelligence Association, which is shaping both marketing standards and the future of artificial intelligence in Canada.
[Violetta Holl] Can you tell us a little about you and your background and what your average day looks like?
[Briana Brownell] I’m a data scientist turned entrepreneur. I started out in data science about 10 years ago working with companies in many different industries like telecommunications, pharmaceuticals, retail, utilities, among others. It’s funny because when I started out in the field, it was not at all popular; it only became popular within the last few years. It’s great to see others becoming interested in something that I have been really passionate about for a long time. Not to mention, there are so many more places where you can learn about data science now.
As CEO of PureStrategy.ai I get to work on both the technical side and the business side – which I love. It’s definitely an art. As an early stage startup you need to wear so many different hats and learn so quickly! Right now I am spending a lot of time meeting with investors. Many founders don’t really like fundraising, but I find it quite energizing. After all, you’re meeting with smart people to talk about the future that you believe in and that you want to create. It’s easy to be excited about that.
[VH] What attracted you to work in tech? Was it a life-long dream, or was there some other factor that pushed you to it?
[BB] I ended up in tech by accident. When I was in high school I was interested in theoretical physics, but when I was part way through my undergraduate degree I found myself being pulled increasingly towards mathematics. I became extremely interested in Godel’s Incompleteness Theorem – how there can be statements which are true, but yet cannot be proven to be true. This led me to wanting to understand the intersection of algorithms and creativity. The attraction of tech for me was always the ability to push the boundaries of what was possible. I just love that you can create something that has never been done before.
[VH] There’s a lot of buzz around “building your community” as key to being successful in tech. What does your “community” look like? Who are the people you look for feedback from? Or, who are the people at work or elsewhere that you can rely on?
[BB] I believe that building your community is essential to success not just in tech but in every field. Surrounding yourself with people who will inspire you and who you can inspire will allow you to expand your capabilities to meet challenges that you otherwise would not be able to.
Your support circle should challenge you, but in a way that helps you grow, rather than makes you afraid to take risks or be vulnerable. Certainly many people in my circle have helped me by bringing different points of view or different experiences. Similarly, focus on building up those around you, thoughtfully challenging and encouraging them, rather than being critical or negative.
Beware of people who try to limit you, belittle you, or make you doubt yourself instead of bringing out the best in you. You’ll know who these people are – if, after a conversation you went into with a great deal of enthusiasm, you feel worried, anxious, ashamed, doubtful, defeated, limit your time with that person. It’s true that misery loves company.
When you invest in building a tribe of supporters who help one another, the payback is enormous. I have been lucky to have a wonderful group of supporters and I owe a lot of my success to investing in it.
[VH] What kind of barriers have you faced as a woman in tech, and how did you overcome them?
[BB] One of the things that I find challenging is the isolation of being in that tiny intersection of technical women who are also startup founders. Then the even tinier group who are startup founders of AI and machine learning companies. People don’t quite know what to make of you. They sometimes try to fit you into a box that you don’t really fit into.
In some ways the lack of a specific tried-and-tested path is freeing because you can chart your own course. But just as often, it’s easy to feel lost without a road map. I’ve learned that it takes an enormous amount of patience and hard work to create your own map – much more than you might realize going into it. We need to recognize that that’s normal. I’m hoping that as more women become interested in tech, data science and AI, it will become easier and easier for those who are starting out to see the footprints of others who have gone before.
[VH] What does the phrase “diversity in tech” mean to you?
[BB] To me, diversity in tech means having teams of people who bring new perspectives and different skills to make a better output. Research has shown that, while the quality of the output is much higher for a diverse team, the self-perception of the team’s effectiveness is lower. So what that means is – you have a team that is doing better work but they don’t feel like they are doing better work. Working on a team where everyone brings the same perspective and everyone agrees is mentally easier but it’s prone to having major blind spots and biases. I think one of the most challenging things about working in a diverse team is that it forces you to confront your own limitations in perspective, and admitting that your perspective is only one of many points of view is extremely hard for most people.
We would like to thank Miloš Jovanović and Joanne Fedeyko for nominating Briana Brownell and helping us share her story with the Women in Tech World community through our Voices of Women in Tech series.