Once you’ve strapped on a virtual reality headset and grabbed the touch controllers, the metaverse allows you to indulge your wildest fantasies and be whoever you really want to be.
It might be an avatar of a flying unicorn swooping over a lush futurescape, a K-pop superstar or a three-headed minotaur leading a zombie army into battle in 17th century Turkey. If you’re really brave, you could design an aesthetically enhanced approximation of yourself and attend a board meeting.
In the virtual world, you’re limited only by your imagination. Well, that and one other factor. Because a character that’s seemingly beyond even the most feverish, simulated cosplaying realities is conspicuous by her absence: the female metaverse business leader.
Women can fend off opponents in Fortnite Battle Royale, but actually running companies is still too far-fetched for the real world. In the past five years, only five percent of metaverse funding has gone to women-led companies, while men run nearly all the major players in the broader AI space.
“I see more women taking up computer science, but they often stop their journey before they get to board level.”
The world-renowned smart tech entrepreneur, author, and Founder and CEO of global AI solutions firm Addo has held senior analytics roles for more than 20 years. She sees the gender skills gap as one of the biggest issues for the future of intelligence gathering, smart cities and enhanced data-enabled marketing.
She’s particularly concerned that women also aren’t on board with the next iteration of the internet.
“In 2021, everybody started to speak about Web3, which includes decentralization, blockchain, cryptocurrency and economic augmented reality, but once again, not enough women were involved,” she explains.
“The gender gap is closing, but very slowly. I see more women taking up computer science, but they often stop their journey before they get to board level. It’s called the ‘broken ladder’ and we’re trying to figure out why it happens and what kind of support is required.”
There was never any doubt that Khanna – who, as Addo CEO, has an enviable list of clients including the world’s biggest technology players, governments, telecoms and airlines – would not only reach the top rung of the ladder, but then also find ways to extend it virtually to continue her climb.
That said, when she came first out of all 53,000 students across Pakistan in her school leaving exam, she was shocked. She was promptly offered the chance to study economics at Harvard.
“I fell in love with statistics because I had a great teacher at school in Lahore. That’s why I started out as a software engineer on Wall Street,” she reveals.
Data fascinated her and she could see its potential for traders.
“What we’re lacking are experienced AI scientists who aren’t just running an algorithm, they’re deciding how to interpret it.”
“I was at the intersection of computer science and statistics, which we now call machine learning, but it wasn’t a sexy subject back then,” she recalls. “I knew the power of optimizing forecasting so I worked on implementing models that could do just that.
“Luckily, Wall Street had the foresight to invest in data and software way before anyone else. It had the very best people, usually straight out of college.”
In 2010, after four years as a pioneering analyst in New York, she formed the Hybrid Reality Institute. The research and advisory group pushed the boundaries of geotechnology and other emerging sciences on how machines could gain intelligence in the age of cloud computing with its seemingly limitless possibilities.
“The explosion of data led to more accurate algorithms and wider access to market insights. It was no longer just the few rich companies that could benefit,” she confirms.
Khanna is a member of the Young Presidents’ Organization (YPO), a global network of chief executives that offers support and networking opportunities to its members. It has helped her reach more girls and young women and introduce them to Web3 and AI.
“It’s a very valuable problem-solving group that connects business leaders and promotes dialogues that produce new ideas and strategies,” she says. “I’ve personally found it a fantastic resource.”
Ironically, as AI took the human element out of so many tasks, what held it back was a shortage of skilled humans to make sense of all the zettabytes of information being generated daily.
“Anybody with a software engineering degree can take a couple of modules on Coursera and become a junior data scientist or machine-learning engineer,” Khanna points out.
“But what we’re lacking are experienced AI scientists who aren’t just running an algorithm, they’re deciding how to interpret it, and achieving incredible breakthroughs that help them formulate strategy around a set of goals and values.”
The scarcity of women in such roles led her to establish a series of initiatives to redress the balance. When Khanna and her family moved to Singapore in 2014, she started a charity called 21C Girls to teach coding and AI basics to schoolgirls and young women.
Now she’s launching Squad, a global women’s collective based in California that will partner with large enterprises to connect women to opportunities in Web3 and the metaverse, giving them the skills they’ll need to succeed in the science and gaming revolutions already underway.
“There are still times when a woman’s technical knowledge isn’t respected. I know female computer scientists who are absolute rock stars, but when they’re presenting to a client, all the scientific questions are directed to their male colleagues,” Khanna says.
“I’ve had it happen to me. It’s subtle, but it chips away at your confidence. I’m a big believer that the only way to counteract it is to keep upskilling.”
“There are still times when a woman’s technical knowledge isn’t respected.”
When that happens, it will democratize access to education and data, and mean the AI ‘co-pilot’ becomes a valued member of staff that’s able to bring new insights.
“If you embrace it, you’ll be able to amplify your own potential to be innovative and creative,” she asserts. “That’s exactly what we’re seeing with generative AI, a new breed of machine learning that can create strong content, write code, make movies and chat with each other.
“So we can either get very afraid of our new colleague or take the bull by the horns and harness the possibilities it allows.”
Khanna’s herculean efforts to make sure women have a place at the virtual Web3 table are paying off. However, she concedes there’s still much work to be done to ensure that in the metaverse, female chief executives one day outnumber three-headed minotaurs.
“Mark Zuckerberg’s version is premised on technology being more advanced than it currently is,” Khanna suggests. “It’s clunky – there’s no vibrant community there. The metaverse will be driven not by technology, but by human behavior.
“There are 3.21 billion people already gaming and watching entertainment in the metaverse, so why would you create a new one where nobody’s there? For him to be successful, he needs to create something interesting.”