Anna Maria Brunnhofer-Pedemonte
Growing up in Linz in a family inclined to the arts, it came naturally for Anna Maria to start out on the same path. After some time in fashion design however, she pivoted towards philosophy, and then to computer science and AI technology. What initially felt like the erratic journey of a misfit who didn’t quite belong anywhere turned into an amazing set of skills. Among them is Anna Maria’s unique sensitivity for connecting the dots between disparate fields and seeing the interrelations between them.
Tell me about how you ended up creating AI tools.
My family does not have a background in tech at all. My mum is an opera singer and my dad was a rather successful entrepreneur in screen printing and arts. I had a different upbringing than many. Imagine a family that is very into the arts, and along comes this daughter who loves tech and computers and AI. Though I always loved the arts too, which got me into fashion design and science of arts. At uni I studied philosophy and got really into economics and ethics. Then I started to take some theoretical classes in computer science, too. For a long time I didn’t know my place, as I was curious and driven in many different ways.
Where do you think your motivation originates from?
I’m more of a maker and doer. I love envisioning things, and doing my research. But eventually I want to move on from the proxy version, the world of ideas, and onto implementation and application. I deeply believe in technology and the good it can do if we learn how to use it right and put it into action. My true North Star is to bridge the divide between technology and society. My little brother is disabled. Already when I was young I realized how much technology could improve his life and the surrounding environment. The same goes for my grandma, but really for you and me and everyone. Technology needs to understand humans way better, so that it can serve and help us. I am devoted to contributing to that.
What about AI is it that tickles your fancy?
We use AI all the time but most people are not aware how much our lives are interwoven with it by now. I’ll give you a personal example. I can have a hard time phrasing and writing, some would say I’m dyslexic. Grammarly is one of the handiest tools for this condition and I’ve been using it for seven years now. If you arrive at the constraints of your own life, AI can be a lifesaver. Mine is a mild example, but when you think about elderly people and the disabled, it becomes crucial. Society isn’t designed for a whole lot of people with certain constraints. Tech can even out these disadvantages, it can augment you, help you to perform, to live, to some extent even to be happy. Another example: I’m really bad at meditating on my own although it is very good for me and makes me a more content person. As soon as an app guides me in my individual meditation, I am ready and happy to comply and meditate.
How does Impact AI, your company, contribute to the improvement of people’s relationships to AI?
Humans are rather complex to understand because we are all very different. But then there are certain things we can systemize and these are the ones we try to tackle. Early on in my career, I started to work with companies, museums and startups that wanted to apply more digital strategies into their products and work operations. They wanted to know what tools were out there to understand their customers and learn what is good for them but also for business. Impact AI is applying a human centered approach to AI and creates an easily usable governance software for our customers. We help companies to build valuable AI while being compliant. The feedback that is generated with our tool is quantitative feedback from real people and from AI models. This is a pretty unique approach. Other tools are focused on risk modeling, while we focus on opportunities and help with ethical questions. Right now, as a society, our stance towards AI is somewhat extreme: some are mostly concerned about the risks of AI, while others are only thinking about the optimization and automation of businesses. Impact AI tries to find a healthy balance and to create value for businesses and the users.
Can you share some of the bumps on the way and how you overcame them?
Because I was a solo founder at the very beginning and female and a non-tech person, founding an AI tech company was tough. Somewhat less than 2 percent of funding goes to female founders, and even teams of founders with different genders get way less funding. This is a reality and many people don’t seem to be aware of their unconscious biases towards women. A lot happens below surface level. No one tells you to your face, “We don’t fund you because you're a female solo entrepreneur.” The people who turn down your application don’t think of themselves as acting in a biased way. Two things definitely helped me: First, I have a bit of a I-will-show-you personality that comes in handy when you need to go against all odds. If someone says “No” to me I see it as their borders, not mine. Being a solo-founder, everyone tells you it is impossible. Which makes it kind of impossible. But I started solo because I knew I had to go for this, now is the right time. And I had faith that the right people would come along the way. Something else that really helped was that I became part of the Female Founders accelerator Grow F and the tech2b incubator. Having access to their networks, the exchange between fellow founders and mentorship has proven immensely helpful when you start out.
Imagine a family that is very into the arts, and along comes this daughter who loves tech and computers and AI.
Would you like to share a piece of advice for other women in the field?
Talk to as many people as possible and find the ones that say “Yes” to your ideas. Find your network and active helpers. Find mentors and advisers who are rooting for you and want you to succeed. And try to understand and implement their feedback. I always have several mentors who can be helpful in different aspects. Among them my dad and people from the startup field, for instance Alfred Luger, one of the founders of Runtastic. I simply approached him asking, “Do you want to be my mentor?” Don’t be shy, just ask people. Very often, they’ll say yes. That's what I also do very actively, connecting with female role models.
Are you happy to have set up your company in Linz?
Two of the reasons to base our company in Linz were the good funding opportunities and the excellent infrastructure. Becoming part of tech2b and having an office there was very useful. Linz is great for startups especially in early stages. The market is big enough to not get into each other’s ways, and you get a good network of people really quickly. Everyone knows everyone. Still, it was important to branch out from the beginning. Linz, Austria, is at our core, but I am constantly expanding the international networks as well and checking what other countries could be of value for the company additionally.
At what age did you found your company?
Gmail, Notion and Slack are essentials for in-house communication.
What’s the most valuable advice you have been given?
Get a coach. That was great advice.
What is your best skill?
I’m fast at connecting dots and impatient (laughs).
How do you like spending your downtime?
I spend every free minute with my kid and family.
Main Photo by: Antje Wolm