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Theresa Bercich on the Fantastic Impact of AI for Good

Theresa Bercich

ARTICLE SUMMARY

Theresa Bercich has lived, worked and studied in many countries around the world. Now, from Iceland - she shares her incredible, entrepreneurial career journey to her role now as Principle Data Scientist.

We caught up with Theresa to hear more about that exciting journey as a Principle Data Scientist and why she’s excited to be working in AI for Good.

When did you know you wanted to work in tech?  

I 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 amongst my family and friends. Over the years, this has grown more from a passion into eventually a job.  

I studied Business Management in London, because I come from an entrepreneurial background. Both my parents founded a company together and have been running it for over 27 years. Additionally, I also obtained the Chartered Financial Analyst Level 1 certification. This part of my education prepared me well to work with start-ups, as a contractor and eventually in FinTech because I have a good understanding of business principles and finance. 

I actually got a job at a renowned asset management firm straight after my bachelor’s degree.  Then 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.

So how did you gain the relevant tech experience or qualifications?  

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

So, where did the next phase of your career journey take you? 

In late 2018 I decided to move to Iceland. 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 for the last year and a half. I was among the first two employees. We have now flourished into a to 16-person team with a great culture. The team support and learn from each other and together strive towards the unifying purpose of protecting our clients from money laundering. We have also won several client contracts for our compliance SaaS product.  

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 where getting to where I wanted to be seemed impossible. Perseverance and the mindset of taking opportunities got me into the incredible position I am in today. I love being a data scientist and am grateful that I was able to take this journey.   

What attracted you to Lucinity in the first place?  

The main attraction to Lucinity was the fact that I would use my skills to help make the world a better place. by supporting financial institutions to better protect themselves from money laundering and fraud. Money laundering fuels horrendous crimes such as human, drug and arms trafficking. It also drives corruption and is a stain on our society as a whole. It is a big motivation to play a part in the process of making money in the financial markets and systems good again. Secondly, our founder and CEO, GK, is a fantastic leader with a great vision of where the company needs to go. Hence, the decision to join him as one of the first employees was comparatively easy.

You’ve studied, lived and worked in many countries! How has that influenced and impacted your career?  

I am originally from Austria. When I was 18, I left Vienna to go and study at Queen Mary University of London. This was a big cultural change from tranquil Vienna to fast-paced hyper multi-cultural London, but I cherished this change. It allowed me to broaden my horizons, to challenge assumptions and to engage with a very diverse set of people and perspectives.  

During my exchange semester at the University of Miami I also got a glimpse into America’s work culture and their business world. I found that they are very different to the European ways I was used to. I knew then that I would like to start my career in Europe and potentially move to the states as a more senior employee.  

Have there been professional challenges in particular places along the way?  

I personally feel that the extreme competition for certain jobs in London was a challenge compared to my home country but nothing that was unexpected. My perception was that tech in particular is a predominately male industry and that it can take a while to be heard as a (young) women. However, you need to be persistent and back yourself to make your voice heard. Keep speaking up because at some point you will be heard.   

When I moved to Iceland, I feared a bit of a challenge given that I do not speak Icelandic, but luckily, that was completely unfounded as all my great co-workers speak perfect English.  

Theresa Bercich, Principle Data Scientist in Iceland

Are there any commonalities in tech that enable you to essentially work anywhere?  

Absolutely. There are great benefits to working in tech. There are huge commonalities globally that allow most tech workers to work from anywhere in the world. Firstly, I want to highlight that tech workers use excellent standardized collaboration tools that greatly facilitate remote working. Examples include GitHub, Azure, DevOps, and more. Secondly, programming itself follows standardized practices, enabling skills to have a global application. Thirdly, while the application of technology might be influenced by a country’s culture, the underlying technology itself is mostly independent of location

What does career success look like to you? 

Career success means to be fulfilled with what you do most days of the week. Of course, it also means financial stability but at the forefront is the feeling of purpose. I consider my current position as Principal Data Scientist at Lucinity a tremendous career success. Working for a company that is doing good in this world by making Money Laundering harder, while at the same time employing cutting-edge technologies. I am given a lot of responsibility over the algorithms. The team and I also have the opportunity to research completely innovative ways of tackling problems. In the future I would define my career success along the same dimensions: am I doing something in which I find purpose – such as using technology for the greater benefit of society? Can I research interesting areas within AI, and can I use my business acumen and leadership skills to guide a team of data scientists? 

Tell us about AI for good, what it means to you and where the opportunity lies! 

AI for Good is a fantastic concept, which tries to counteract the fearmongering around the topic of AI. In its essence, it helps solve societal and global problems with the power of AI. We have recently pitched at a UN “AI for Good” event held by the International Telecommunication Union. The event shines a light on companies that 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. We can use technology and especially AI to solve problems from climate change and human trafficking to reduce hunger in the world. 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 a bit better than how we found it. Given the incredible advancements in AI there is a huge opportunity to build products that achieve exactly that. Thus, creating a win-win situation where we generate wealth by actively contributing to the betterment of the world.

ITU Events, AI For Good

Which women in tech should we be shining a light on? 

Milena Kauka: Data Scientist at BCG X 

Lena Pastor: Senior Consultant FSI – Service Designer at Deloitte 

Yolande Kaptein: Digital Analyst at Burberry 

Sanne Hylta: Deployment Strategist at Palantir Technologies

Ashleigh Bercich: IT Strategy Specialist at IAG & Founder / Entrepreneur

What would you tell your younger, more junior self – with hindsight? 

I would tell my younger self that no one knows everything and that is fine. You just have to keep an open mind and have the willingness to learn. Back yourself and your skills and do not try to diminish them simply because you do not know everything yet. And above all, follow your passion because then you will always find joy in what you are doing.  

Do you find that non-technical skills are ever helpful as a Data Scientist? If so, how? 

Non-technical skills are very important in my job. I need to be able to explain highly complex topics to people with zero or minimal technical background in data science or AI. I therefore need to be a good communicator. It is also important to understand the problems I am trying to alleviate from a human perspective, as they are the ultimate end-client.  

What advice do you have for women in tech, on tackling imposter syndrome? 

Tackling imposter syndrome is hard but not impossible. I think the realisation that everyone is just doing their best and that no one knows everything is very helpful. We need to realise that we do earn our places based on merit and that we can be proud of that. Always keep learning, yet recognize the distance you’ve covered and permit your accomplishments to shine as brightly as those of everyone else.

We should stop comparing ourselves and back ourselves up. We are in our respective positions because we fulfilled the criteria to be there and from there we can only grow.  

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