Olga Megorskaya

Olga Megorskaya is CEO and one of the founders of Toloka, a data labelling crowdsourcing solution that unites over 9 million performers from 100 countries on a global multifunctional platform serving thousands of data-driven companies worldwide.

Built by engineers for engineers, Toloka is a fast and cost-effective way to collect and label large sources of data which is necessary to progress artificial intelligence.

Tell us a bit about yourself, background and your current role

As a head of Toloka, I’m passionate about giving people all over the world an opportunity to participate in the global advancement of AI, at the same time removing barriers for this participation. I believe that data labelling plays a key role in collecting and labelling data that is then used to advance self-driving vehicles, improve web searches, educate smart assistance and other cool innovations that depend on artificial intelligence. So far, this all cannot exist without human-labelled data, and Toloka is where the demand and supply meet.

Early in my career, I myself worked as an in-house data labeller inside tech giant Yandex, which gave me insight into how the tech industry could do better: I realized that data labelling is a type of job that does not have to, and I would even say should not, become a career, it should be a side job, it can be global and it can be distributed. This inspired me to create Toloka in 2014. Now, as CEO, I apply that experience to tailor our service to meet the needs of both our performers, who we lovingly call Tolokers, and our clients.

I am originally from St. Petersburg, Russia’s most beautiful city, and earned my degree in mathematical modelling from the top-class St Petersburg State University. I’m a mother to a wonderful daughter, two cats, and a huge Newfoundland.

Have you faced any career challenges along the way and how did you overcome these?

When I was 18, I had a serious injury to my spine that dramatically affected both my personal and professional life. I had just begun working as an investment risk analyst, and the injury forced me to find a job where I could work remotely – long before coronavirus brought about this widespread acceptance of working out of offices – which led me to Yandex. My role there directly inspired the creation of Toloka, and it would not have happened if I hadn’t been injured. I guess this is what one would call resilience – I believe it has both led me to where I am today and is still helping me to overcome challenges in my current role.

Did you ever sit down and plan your career?

Before and during university I certainly envisioned my future, but due to circumstances I already mentioned my career did not follow that original path. While I think everyone tries to plan, I’ve learned that it’s also important to be flexible and open-minded in your career. Not only might you be forced to shift from the path you think you’ll take, but your interests and preferences are constantly developing and may change in ways you don’t anticipate. And this is not a negative thing. Industries are dynamic, which means careers are, too. It’s up to us as individuals to adapt so we can embrace the opportunities that present themselves along the way, even if those opportunities are unplanned. My career path is an example of creating something new just in response to a changing environment.

What has been your biggest career achievement to date?

Without doubt, founding and leading Toloka is my biggest achievement. Running any company is both a huge honour and responsibility, but at Toloka, we are working to develop a little-known industry that is vital to the future of technology.

Toloka also plays an important role in increasing the democratisation of the internet. The platform doesn’t discriminate based on location – anyone with an internet device and connection can log on and earn income in their spare time and from the comfort of their home. This is particularly important for developing countries, where Toloka is opening doors for people who haven’t previously had access to these opportunities.

Do you believe there are still barriers for success for women working in tech, if so, how can these barriers be overcome?

I do believe women face difficulties, especially in a few crucial moments in their career. The first is when they choose the education path. I think access to education is generally the key to equality, and if we’re striving for gender equality in tech, it’s all about encouraging women to pursue STEM degrees. I would say in Russia where I come from the women-in-tech part is surprisingly not that bad. The tradition of female engineers lasts from Soviet times and it helps: when both your grandmother and your mother were engineers, it’s not a shock for anyone that you choose the same path. Don’t get me wrong: there are still many problems women face in Russia and Eastern Europe, including gender income gap, traditional attitudes to gender roles, and whatnot. But surprisingly, in Western countries the problem is acute, too: I know the recent US stats that 58% of bachelor degrees were awarded to women in 2016, but for STEM subjects, this number dropped to 36%, and for tech-specific degrees, the ratio was even lower. The bottom line for me is that if we want to see women more heavily represented in the global tech industry we must combat the educational discrepancy.

The second barrier is that women often face a choice: being successful in a career vs being a good mother, which is a totally unfair. To improve this, both the families and societies should accept different role models and give women actual opportunities, such as maternity leave. When I had my first baby, I was lucky to be working for Yandex, where I faced understanding and support of my decision both from my team and my management.

What do you think companies can do to support and progress the careers of women working in technology?

Women don’t want special treatment in the workplace – just a fair crack at success. In general, it is important to have transparent management processes: instead of boys’ clubs, with decisions made and ideas discussed in pubs (or saunas, if you take my home country), employees must be encouraged to innovate, present their ideas and be involved in the decision-making process. Transparency, fairness, and empowerment are key. In Toloka, we try to implement all these principles to ensure Toloka is an environment where everyone can succeed.

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