Monica Enand Built a Successful Artificial Intelligence Company. Now She’s Worried About AI Aiding Bigotry.

Enand insists she has no interest in running for governor.

Monica Enand achieved the impossible once. Now she wants to do it again.

But, she insists, she has no interest in running for governor—despite rumors to the contrary. Instead, she is on a mission to splice equity into the DNA of the tech industry, and she takes the stage at TechfestNW in April to make her case.

The daughter of Indian immigrants, Enand is co-founder and CEO of Zapproved, a legal compliance software company that rocketed out of the ashes of the Great Recession to become one of Oregon's most successful tech startups, and one of very few founded by women of color.

A genuine pioneer—one of a handful of women who attended the computer engineering program at Carnegie Mellon University in the early '90s—Enand has long been outspoken about bias in the workplace.

"We are all neurologically designed to have bias," Enand has said, "and we all know that leadership is harder for women."

Enand, 48, worked at Intel and IBM before starting her company in Portland with co-founder Chris Bright in 2008. Her tale of poor timing—starting a software company in the teeth of the recession—and near business death, followed by Zapproved's eventual growth and successful sale in 2017 to Vista Equity Partners, is a revered narrative in startup circles.

"She was just relentless and creative and never afraid to ask for help and feedback," says Nitin Rai, an early investor in Zapproved who went on to create Elevate Inclusive Fund, which funds startups led by women and minorities. (Enand is a limited investor in the fund.)

And now, Rai says, "you cannot find anyone more generous with her time and money," or more committed to mentoring up-and-comers.

Quietly and firmly, Enand is moving into the next stage of her career by becoming a louder voice of disquiet about the unintended consequences of technology—and how it can exacerbate social injustice and undermine democracy.

Zapproved, which now employs 150 people and had revenues north of $20 million last year, has been using artificial intelligence to search discovery materials in court records since shortly after its inception.

But applying AI to legal matters has made Enand, who is 4-foot-10 but speaks with the confidence of a linebacker, aware of the consequences of relying too heavily on automation—from credit-scoring algorithms to AI-powered hiring filters and facial recognition software.

Earlier this month, a Dutch court ruled that an automated surveillance system for detecting welfare fraud violated recipients' human rights. The New York Times recently reported on AI software used to determine a parolee's risk profile. Parolees considered "high risk" are subject to more frequent police patrols and meetings with parole officers—and again, the method for determining who's more likely to re-offend is shrouded in secrecy.

"If there's bias in our culture and racism in our culture," Enand says, "then we're going to embed it into the algorithms that we create."

Enand's engagement with social justice issues is visible at the micro and macro levels. Zapproved regularly conducts trainings on intrinsic bias, and Enand has even invited neuroscientists to show her staff what happens to the brain when people encounter others who are different from them.

"You're never going to be done working toward an inclusive environment," she says. "I mean, maybe—I don't see it in my lifetime. Let's assume our children have that future. But it's a constant, constant journey to make sure we're not doing things that are creating difficulty for any group."

As to her political intentions, Enand is regularly encouraged to leave the private sector and make a historic bid to run for statewide office as a woman of color.

Enand balks at the notion of pivoting from business to government.

"I think about when Michael Jordan tried to play baseball. If you remember, he was an amazing basketball player and he sucked at baseball," Enand tells WW. "I just don't understand this idea that people who are really good at business are going to be good at government."

Besides, Enand says she already has plenty of work on her plate.

"Right now, I'm focused on building a great company for Oregon," she says, "trying to make sure we don't have unintended consequences of creating great, high-paying tech jobs here in Portland."

GO: TechfestNW is at Portland State University's Viking Pavilion, 930 SW Hall St., Thursday-Friday, April 2-3. Visit the website for tickets.

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