Update: e27 has corrected the duration of the Hequals’ platform development and the funding that Questo has received.
One of the most pressing issues faced by women in tech industry is the problem of gender bias, haunting their everyday work and often preventing them from moving their career forward.
In 2016, The Guardian wrote about a research which revealed that women developers on Github who posted their works under anonymity tend to receive better approval by their peers. But when their gender identity is revealed, their approval rate dropped, indicating a strong bias against women developers.
To solve this issue, a group of high school students from the United World College of South East Asia in Singapore built an artificial intelligence (AI) platform called Hequals.
Used to ensure fair work distribution among men and women, the app automatically allocates tasks based on each team member’s skills and work history, regardless of their gender and other potentially discriminatory factors.
“We were basically done with the process of developing Hequals within one night but that is just the first version. Since then we have been improving it with bug fixes and such,” Vohra says.
In building the platform, one of the team’s source of inspiration was Vohra’s sister, a university student who had done an internship with e-commerce giant Amazon. She had told Vohra about the issues faced by women in the US tech industry in general.
“All three of us have female siblings … Being in a gender-neutral environment when we grew up has helped give us an understanding of this issue,” Vohra says.
The platform is currently being used in a coding club at the students’ school to manage task allocation in various projects.
Prior to building the platform, together with his friends Khush Jammu and Taichi Kato, Vohra has founded an AI company called Questo in 2016.
Backed with sponsorship from Google and IBM, the company builds an app that will allow students to take photos of a page in their textbooks and instantly generate revision questions based on the part that they are currently studying.
The team has been building the platform in the past two years and is looking forward to launch it in the summer. It has also participated in various hackathons and had even won a prize at Startup Weekend Singapore.
“Questo is a very student-focussed app, and we are all students, so we know very well the problems that we are facing,” Vohra notes.
The Hequals platform was built as part of the team’s participation in the #Codeathon 2017 event, and Questo was awarded the first prize at the concluding summit on Tuesday.
The event itself was a “learning-intensive” hackathon where coders, designers, and managers of various age and skill levels gather to design solutions for various social issues, with this year’s theme being gender equality.
It was organised by Code for Asia Society Ltd and sponsored by Youth Southeast Asian Leaders Initiative, US-ASEAN Business Council Inc, National Youth Council and Devpost.
In addition to Hequals, the hackathon also named NetDoc+ (an SMS-enabled chatbot and page that caters to queries related to HIV/AIDS and sexual health) and TheFriendZone (a gaming app that aims to break gender stereotypes by allowing anonymity) as winners.
Founding members of Code for Asia Society, Wu Jiayi and Chen “Ernie” Enjiao, explained that the winners were chosen based on several criteria including the innovation, the entrepreneurship skills, storytelling ability, and even the diversity of the team make-up and the solution.
In promoting the ideas of gender equality to future tech industry players, the team believes that it should begin with creating a safe space for people to “follow their curiosity” and build solutions.
“Rather than waiting … for gender equality to happen [by itself] in the future, we believe that anyone can actually take action by start thinking about these issues, and by learning to make prototypes [of the solution] now,” Chen said.
Towards the future
When asked about whether the team has any plan to commercialise the project, Vohra said that Hequals started off as a side project and will continue to be for the time being.
“Perhaps sometime in the future we will launch [it] … and maybe offer a commercialised solution as well, but for now it will just be a free solution. Because if you are trying to solve a social problem, you won’t charge it for,” Vohra explains.
Interestingly, Questo had been offered investment opportunities from both venture capital firm and private investor –but the team decided to decline it.
“We will be very distracted trying to manage the financials, development, ideation, all at the same time … So we thought let’s just take advantage of the opportunities that we have. We won a hackathon in 2016 that has helped us get in touch with IBM, and they followed through with some fantastic sponsorship deals … and shortly after the #Codeathon we got some sponsorship from Google,” Vohra says.
“That’s why we decided to not take the VC funding because we want to do something with our user base … before we go for a follow-on funding,” he continues.
In the future, Vohra says that he will “definitely” pursue an entrepreneurial career within the tech industry.
“To build something which I know helps people,” he says.
Image Credit: Code for Asia Society