Loubna Bouarfa Featured

Inspirational Woman: Loubna Bouarfa | CEO & Founder, OKRA Technologies

 

Loubna Bouarfa is an entrepreneur, machine learning expert with deep expertise in implementing and commercialising Artificial Intelligence (AI) systems; mainly for healthcare.

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

I’m a machine learning scientist turned entrepreneur by founding my own AI company OKRA, I’m also a mum of two amazing boys (aged 7 an 5).

I spend a lot of my time building my company OKRA, in to a successful AI company to offer Pharmaceutical companies solutions that will help them make better decisions.  Decisions such as identifying the right patient population to ultimately improve patient outcomes. It’s a win-win for everyone; pharmaceuticals, insurance companies and for the patients.

I also work with the European Commission as a High-level Expert on Artificial Intelligence. The goal here is to implement ethical guidelines and policies to enable the effective development and production of AI systems to impact health, safety and freedom of the wider society.

Finally, I love to work with people with diverse backgrounds. I strongly believe in the power of diversity in challenging the status quo. Being born and raised in Morocco, I moved to the Netherlands at the age of 17, and then moved with my young family to the UK.  This made me realise that the best place to be, is outside of your comfort zone. I'm constantly looking to surround myself with people that share the same values and who are cut from the same cloth both personally and professionally.

Did you ever sit down and plan your career?

No, I never planned my career, I genuinely believe in learning from previous experiences and connecting the dots moving forward.  However I’m an objective oriented  person, so once I have a target in mind there is only one option left for me and that is making the target a reality.  After academia I was fortunate enough to experience both the Start-up world and big corporates, I guess my only plan was that I knew I was going to set up my own company and try to apply my learnings to help people.

Have you faced any particular challenges along the way and if so, how did you deal with them?

Absolutely, being an immigrant woman in a male dominated tech industry is challenging.  But to be honest, I have never had doubts about my decision to pursue my goals.  Sometimes my patience is put to the test, at stationary times, when no progress seems to happen, it doesn’t feel right. But suddenly something great happens. Besides, I strongly believe “after hardship comes ease”, from the tough times I get more energy. If everything is too good to be true, I get very nervous.

If you could change one thing for women in the workplace, what would it be?

Implementing diversity policies on all levels, on gender, ethnic background, sexual orientation, and age,  the diversity of the team will serve to create a stimulating work environment with novel ideas representing the society we live in.

How would you encourage more women and girls into a career in STEM?

Personally, I think we need to focus more on driving women and girls to the studies and jobs that will best enable a career in this space.  This starts by implementing the right diversity policies early on in our education programmes, graduate schemes and careers fairs. For example, I will personally attend every OKRA recruiting event to personally talk to prospective graduates and walk them through my own personal journey and why OKRA is a fabulous place to work and more specifically why Tech needs the bright female minds of the future.  Ultimately, we need more of this activity taking place across the country, in schools, in universities etc and we need to move from talking to doing.

How do you feel about mentoring? Have you mentored anyone or are you someone’s mentee?

Mentoring is essential.  It is a way to impart knowledge and ensure an individual is given an environment in which to thrive.  I myself had superb mentors throughout my academic journey and now have a very successful investor who is helping to mentor me as we build OKRA in to a global business.  I myself am always trying to help and support the OKRA team and I believe that helping people to get outside of their comfort zone, especially at a young age will help scale their career. Outside of one’s comfort zone is where the great stuff happens.

What has been your biggest achievement to date?

There are many achievements to date that make me super proud.  To see how far OKRA has come in 3 years is truly amazing.  I am very proud that within a few months of starting OKRA I rolled out a first prototype of our software so that it could be tested on several pilot projects. As an engineer, this was very satisfying. Having started OKRA from nothing, I have made scientific knowledge, commercially viable and this is a huge achievement.   When setting up the company there were many things that I did not know and for which I had to ask people for help. Sometimes the reactions were not positive, but you are amazed at how often people want to help you. Very nice!

Finally, I’m mostly proud of our team at OKRA.  We have built a super team and it’s not an easy task. – Every day that I go in to the office and see the team it makes the tough times worth enduring.

What is your next challenge and what are you hoping to achieve in the future?

We aim to scale usage of our platform to be the most used and trusted AI platform in healthcare.  This requires validation and utilisation to take place at scale and in real time.  There must be trust and evidence in the output in order for Pharma execs, patients and providers to benefit from this technology.