Theresa BercichI have had an affinity for technology my entire life. When I was a young girl, I was already the go-to person for all technology needs within my family and friends. Over the years this passion for technology served as a compass for my academic life and eventually my career.

Today I head Product at Lucinity, an anti-money laundering SaaS platform that uses Artificial Intelligence and its evolution Human AI to detect financial crime. I joined our CEO at the beginning of Lucinity’s journey around two years ago, and it has been an incredible experience to help grow a start-up through Seed and Series A into a 30-person team across 4 countries. Our mission is to stop the scourge of money laundering, which has an horrendous impact on our overall society and disproportionally women.

The journey towards my current role started at Queen Mary University of London (QMUL) where I studied Business Management for my bachelor’s degree and obtained a CFA Level 1. This part of my education prepared me well to work with start-ups and eventually in FinTech because I have a good understanding of business principles and finance. I secured a job at a renowned asset management firm straight after my bachelor’s degree but, that was the year Brexit happened and the entire London office was dissolved. However, this did not deter me, and I saw it as an opportunity to pursue my passion in technology!

I taught myself how to code in several languages and did a master’s degree at University College London (UCL) with a focus on Machine Learning (ML). I wrote my master thesis in AI applications in Neuroscience. Afterwards I knew that I had found my calling and started to work with start-ups to integrate cutting-edge deep learning technologies into their businesses. I learnt a lot during this process, from scoping projects, working with engineering teams to implementing production-ready AI technology.

In late 2018 I decided to move to Iceland since the work I was doing could be done from anywhere in the world and Iceland was a fantastic place to escape the hectic London life for a bit. In Iceland, I was introduced to the CEO of Lucinity: the company I have been working for as Principal Data Scientist and now Product Manager for the last two years.

My journey into tech was not a very straightforward one but definitely a worthwhile one. I gained experience from business and finance and what it takes to work independently. There were obstacles and moments when getting to where I want to be seemed impossible, but perseverance and the mindset of taking opportunities got me into the incredible position I am in today. I love being a data scientist and product manager and am grateful that I was able to take this journey.

I have been mentoring students from both QMUL as well as UCL this past year to support them in the difficulties COVID-19 has posed to their careers and student lives. I believe that sharing our stories, and how journeys from the outside can look very different than when they are actually travelled, is key to helping ease some of the anxiety around careers today. Sometimes career paths are not straightforward, but if you trust yourself then you will eventually end up in a great position.

A very exciting initiative I am currently working on is our partnership with Neo4J, which will supercharge Lucinity’s insights both from a transaction monitoring and an investigative perspective through graph technology. Innovating in this area is of particular interest to me given my affiliation with neuroscience and leveraging graph technology to complete our holistic money laundering detection and compliance solution through data science in network graphs – a truly enjoyable endeavour!

Generally, working in a start-up that has a blue-sky approach to an “old problem” such as money laundering and fraud is invigorating. I was a significant part of the development of a patent pending homomorphic encryption algorithm, which we use within our system. It allows us to transform personal identifiable information (PII data) into a human unreadable format while still maintaining its information content and comparability to be used in data science and deep learning algorithms. Our Secure Lockbox, the name of the algorithm suite, enables Lucinity to be more than GDPR compliant and adds an extra layer of security to the system.

I already have big plans for this innovation in the future to make knowledge sharing, especially in delicate areas such as financial data or health data for research, possible.

Another patent pending concept we developed is around federated learning which allows us to use a form of ‘meta’ ML to share the learnings of AI models across our ecosystem without losing client specificity. This will enable us to continuously increase our customer’s defences without having to share any underlying data at all. Each participating client will benefit from what the AI models have learnt and thus all models are always becoming better while still considering the unique aspects of our financial institution clients.

Did you ever sit down and plan your career?

No! When I was 18 I had completely different plans to where I am now. I believe it is important to regularly reflect upon one’s situation and determine whether there is passion, drive and a joy in what one is doing. Personally, doing something you love, for a purpose you are ardent about is the way to go for a successful career. It is also good to have a general idea of what you want and where you want to go but life happens as we make plans and thus, I am not planning my career other than at a very high level and through these periodic introspections.

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

Transitioning from management into ML, neuroscience and product required a fundamental shift in how to approach problem solving. Management generally involves tackling problems from a higher level, allowing one to view problems more holistically and be content with ‘a solution’ to a problem that is optimal given numerous constraints. However, the technology domain requires more precision in problem solving, with small divergences in a system creating havoc down the chain. For example, when implementing a ML algorithm in production software the predictions or decisions produced by the model need to ‘generalise’ or be highly accurate when the model sees a new situation. When detecting money laundering at Lucinity, we need to build models that can find money laundering even when behaviour significantly changes, for example, during the volatile period of last year.

What has been your biggest career achievement to date? 

  • Driving Lucinity’s machine learning and product development forward, culminating in a fast-growing business and the Nordic Best Newcomer of 2020
  • Designing and implementing two patents in highly complex technology domains
  • Being involved in the AI For Good realm, especially through the United Nations (ITU)
  • Mentoring and inspiring young people in tech to be confident in themselves and their abilities

What one thing do you believe has been a major factor in you achieving success?

Perseverance through passion is an underlying current that guides me daily. Being a naturally excitable and aspirational character, I normally focus on the positives in life. However, there are periods when you must persevere through difficult situations, and having a passion for what you are doing, the people in your life and life in general is the compass that guides you to success. My passion for cutting-edge technology has also driven my desire to build unique solutions and algorithms that find innovative ways to tackle money laundering.

What top tips would you give to an individual who is trying to excel in their career in technology?

Stay up to date with the latest technology, be confident in yourself and your projection to the outside world, find a passion and reach for the stars. The coming decade will be one where technology and humans will increasingly interact, perhaps even learn to be comfortable and understanding of one another. From this perspective, an important tip for people in this domain is to always ensure that technology is being used for good. This truly manifests through a project Lucinity and I have been involved in with the UN ITU agency – AI For Good – which shines a light on companies which employ AI to achieve one of the Sustainable Development Goals for 2030.

AI for Good embodies the notion that progress is good for everyone. Of course, progress means change and that is sometimes scary, but if we can use technology and especially AI to help solve problems from climate change and human trafficking to reduce hunger in the world then I believe we are going in the right direction. The world and the younger generations are waking up and slowly getting into the workforce and it is my firm belief that we all want to leave the world behind a bit better than how we found it. Given the incredible advancements in AI over the last couple of years there is a huge opportunity to build products that achieve exactly that, thus creating a win-win situation where wealth is created by actually helping to achieve good for the world.

AI for good is also a great opportunity to amplify women’s voices in the tech & AI community. Certain global issues are centred proportionally more around women and therefore we should be part of the technology that shapes the solutions. Diversity of thinking is crucial when trying to tackle global issues and women bring a unique perspective that is needed to develop these products.

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

I feel the biggest barrier for women in tech is the perception that it is both a very masculine and mathematical field. From my experience and academic literature, men are more likely to apply for jobs even when they feel they only match about half the required skills; with women that number lies way above 90%. That means that by default more men than women apply to those huge scary job ads that tech companies post for which you have to seemingly know every single programming language and all the newest technological methodologies, and you need of course many years of experience!

Furthermore, men in the workplace generally speaking, exude more confidence, even when they are not necessarily the expert in the discussed field. Women tend to be harder on themselves, exhibit more imposter syndrome and do not back themselves as much as they should.

However, I do not believe that the sole problem for women lies in confidence but mainly in perception. When I used to look at job ads I wanted to tick at least 9 out of 10 checkboxes to apply because I felt that otherwise no one is even going to look at my application. The fact of the matter is that this is not how the game is played. Skills can be learnt and showcasing creative problem solving, the appetite to grow and learn new things is key to a good hiring decision – even if 100% of the required skills outlined in the ad are not met. This is a game changer in mentality towards job and promotion applications.

Furthermore, I believe we need to change the perception of the entire tech sector – it is definitely not inherently masculine, and it also needs much more talent than hard core mathematicians. We need to have a broader conversation of how important all aspects of tech are from product and design thinking, to innovation and creativity, management skills and marketing. Technology is a multi-layered inter-disciplinary industry that requires diversity of thought for it to be successful and that means talented women as well as men. We should also back ourselves more and trust in us. When we are hired, part of meetings or when we have responsibility, we were given so for a reason, because we deserve it. Trusting in oneself is a hard thing and there is no panacea but starting with the fact that the majority of people in this world are not geniuses but are simply trying their best is a good realization. We need to celebrate our achievements, always put our best foot forward, and at the same time be proud of what we do. Everyone’s success deserves to be acknowledged – it is easy to laud a co-worker for a job well done, so why not yourself? I believe that if we can change this mentality, if we encourage unique and diverse thinking in the workplace and if we play to our respective strengths, then the technology industry will thrive for decades to come!

One way to make this happen is to earnestly listen to employees, to support their growth and also give them responsibility. People thrive under these circumstances and their successes can then be rewarded with more responsibility. Creating a perpetual cycle of improvement. Good and constructive feedback is also vital. I feel like we should tell each other more when we do things right, and why a supervisor feels like it was done right as well as constructive criticism of areas that can be improved – this leads to real personal growth.

What resources do you recommend for women working in tech?

I would recommend shecancode as a website, they have very encouraging and informative content by women for women. Women Tech Charge by Dr. Anne- Marie Imafidon is a great and sincere podcast about women in tech.

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