Technology and Empowerment to Change the World with Emily Kennedy

Emily Kennedy
Emily Kennedy

Ms. Emily Kennedy is a startup founder, human trafficking subject matter expert, Forbes 30 Under 30, a Mother of Invention, keynote speaker, and activist. She has been developing technology solutions to human trafficking since 2011 at the Carnegie Mellon University Robotics Institute. Her company Marinus Analytics uses the latest advancements in AI to turn big data into actionable intelligence for sex trafficking investigations.  As President and Co-Founder of Marinus Analytics, she leads development and deployment of these tools to law enforcement across the globe for use on criminal cases, with an emphasis on sex trafficking investigations. She routinely works alongside, advises, and teaches stakeholders—such as attorneys general, prosecutors, law enforcement agents, and non-profit victim services organizations—on micro and macro approaches to combating and measuring human trafficking in the United States and abroad.
Her work has been covered at the United Nations, Fast Company, NBC News, CBS News, Vice, Mashable, Teen Vogue, and Scientific American. A full list of press engagements is available here. Her projects have generously received funding from the National Science Foundation, the Bank of New York Mellon, and DARPA.
She continues to be intrigued by AI solutions to social problems, and enjoys figuring out how these tools can be deployed to have maximum impact across the world.
Connect with Emily on Twitter, LinkedIn, and Instagram. To follow more of her work check out her website and her EMpower podcast.

Around a year ago, amidst numerous desktop browsers, a LinkedIn notification blinked expectantly. The freshly minted digital magazine of Forbes unleashing its 30 Under 30’s. Intrigued, I hastily found the social entrepreneurship section. AI and law? Fighting sex trafficking with technology? This was definitely very special. An interesting combination of entrepreneurial passion from a very interdisciplinary approach. But it would take more than half a year since connecting with Emily on LinkedIn, to find the guts to actually reach out and hear more…because in reality, other than the recent Sciences Po course I took on algorithmic governance, I had underestimated how much potential AI had within law enforcement and justice. Emily’s work brought me to a different level of thinking. It was more than technology as a tool; it was looking at it as a force that could bring about positive societal change. So how can tech be used for good?

I am awestruck by the unique space Emily works in. As a female entrepreneur that uses technology to enable data-driven, proactive impact for the law enforcement community, she does more than elevate awareness and find solutions for human trafficking, she also creates a ripple effect by elevating more women with the tools they need to change the world through her EMpower podcast. Personally, she inspires me courageously to pursue any opportunity with purpose and I hope through our conversation, you not only feel motivated to embark on innovative problem solving but also to be inclined to try new things, things other have not dared to explore.

C: There’s quite a lot of literature out there on your human trafficking work which grew from your undergraduate thesis. But what is your why? What was the inspiration behind your work or interest? What motivates you each day within a field that tackles such a heavy issue like human trafficking?

E: At the time I was studying at Carnegie Mellon, the advent of the Internet resulted in a lot of human trafficking being moving online within the U.S. as well as many other countries. Because of this changing landscape, I decided to focus my senior honors thesis on human trafficking online. Essentially, the question I asked was: How can technology be used for good? Because we saw that the Internet changed the game, enabling criminals to effectively exploit more people, more easily.

My “why” really came from travelling in Eastern Europe when I was sixteen. Having grown up in a privileged bubble, I remember coming across children in a small town as we drove through some pretty rural areas; they were begging for money. I later learned that these kids were trafficked and forced to beg on the street by the Russian mob. The children would have to give them whatever money they made each day. That experience really spoke to me. It guided me in my mission because these children had no one to advocate for them.

Then during an internship in Washington DC, at The Protection Project, associated with the John Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies, we had the chance to meet the U.S. Ambassador-at-Large to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons, Luis CdeBaca. The internship exposed me to associations and people who were working in the space. That experience coupled with the past decade of learning what I could through the Internet or by talking with people, not only helped me develop my thesis but also to take it a step further into uncharted territory. Starting my company became an extension of that research and passion.

“Tech sounded interesting, so I went for it. As I began learning about the potential and importance of tech within the human trafficking space, it became a means to an end. I was committed to the mission of stopping human trafficking and at that point I thought, “If tech is going to help us solve this problem, then let’s go for it.”

C: Can you speak more to your journey of exploring the intersection between humanities and technology? What has your experience been like? I know you’ve discussed the importance of having people from diverse backgrounds within the tech space. How have you been able to leverage this particular balance between social issues such as human trafficking with AI?

E: It’s kind of funny. All my raw skills, interests, and passions were centered around the humanities. My undergraduate degree was in Ethics, History, and Public Policy. The only “technical” experience I had at that point, was from my high school web committee where I was managing websites for organizations and committees.

I attribute my journey into tech greatly to my Dad because he always empowered me to do things and continually inspired me to push through boundaries. Not a lot of girls were going into technology when I was growing up. But my Dad raised me to be fearless and so I was never really scared to try new things or pursue new opportunities that I was interested in. Tech sounded interesting, so I went for it. As I began learning about the potential and importance of tech within the human trafficking space, it became a means to an end. I was committed to the mission of stopping human trafficking and at that point I thought, “If tech is going to help us solve this problem, then let’s go for it.”

Also, being at Carnegie Melon was so special because it was very interdisciplinary. Throughout undergrad, I was in an environment that championed collaborations between various communities on campus. When I had pitched my thesis idea to my supervisor Jay Aronson, he suggested that I look for a technical advisor in the Robotics Department. He gave me a list of names and I began to reach out. Dr. Artur Dubrawski replied almost immediately. He was a research professor and head of the Auton Lab in the Robotics Institute. He is now one of my co-founders of Marinus Analytics and advises us around machine learning and artificial intelligence.

Dr. Dubrawski was someone who gave me a lot of support and guidance. After my thesis was complete, I joined the lab over the summer as a Research Analyst. There was a steep learning curve in acquiring the skills to work with technical data, but I saw it as just an opportunity to learn and absorb as much as I could. I felt very in-over-my-head at the time, but that’s also what made it amazing. I had found the edge of my comfort zone. Because I was so dedicated to the mission and problem solving, I felt the push to keep going.

I was very fortunate to get the chance to learn from others at the lab. I asked a lot of questions. Seeing myself as a lifelong learner meant being open to learning in any new situation. Further, being in the tech space “with a humanities background has shown me the extreme importance of having people who communicate well [about] what technology does…so I’m a huge advocate of people getting involved with tech even if you’re not a coder.” Personally, my strength has always been in communicating concepts and getting people to understand the purpose behind what we’re doing with tech.

People often feel like they have to have a specific—and very straightforward—career trajectory, but I would say to take that pressure off. In undergrad, on a suggestion from my Dad, I took a couple Calculus classes, which was completely unrelated to my degree, but taught me to remain open-minded. I also took a programming class, which didn’t relate to my degree, but gave me a foundation from which to think about building software later on.

C: What does the future look like for Marinus Analytics? What does the future look like for artificial intelligence on tackling social problems more specifically for human trafficking?

E:  We are continuing to develop our counter human trafficking software tools, like Traffic Jam, but more recently we have expanded into the social services space. We saw a new problem that needed to be solved, and had a lot of overlaps with our previous work. Social services departments within government agencies serve people in the community with family safety needs, drug addiction, adoption, foster care, etc. Social workers generate thousands of pages of case notes when they do this work. This huge amount of data makes it hard for those government agencies to track their progress, and highlight certain families or individuals that might have more urgent cases or need more support. We are working with the Allegheny County Department of Human Services in Pittsburgh to build a new software tool that will help them get insights out of thousands of pages of case notes, track their progress more easily, and help them work more efficiently and effectively with the communities they serve. We are really excited about it!

“It doesn’t hurt to shoot for the big opportunities. When you’re passionate and putting in your best work, you can be proud of that work and not afraid to tell people about it. Don’t forget to ask for what you need!”

C: I also would love to take some time to delve more deeply into your own journey of being a female entrepreneur who has founded her own company and has her own podcast called The EMpower Podcast that’s focused on women empowerment. What are some challenges that you’ve faced along the way and how have you addressed them? Whether this is being a woman in the tech/STEM space, etc.

E: For those interested in the women in tech space, I’d highly recommend the book Bro-topia by Emily Chang! It’s about women in tech within the context of Silicon Valley, the history of Silicon Valley, and the particular challenges women have faced in that space.

I’ve been surrounded by a lot of champions such as Dr. Dubrawski and my Dad, who both really helped me throughout my journey. Seeking out people to get help and support from is crucial. You don’t even necessarily need a formal mentor, but seek out those who can give great advice and answer questions.

As for challenges, I faced two kinds. The first were those outward barriers. I’ve felt the awkwardness of walking into a room of male police officers and them wondering why I’m there, until I walk to the front of the class and start teaching. I’ve found that looking different—and often being the only woman—does garner attention, but I see it as an opportunity to raise the bar. Usually I am underestimated, and so I love the chance to reframe the conversation and show them how much higher the bar for me needs to be.

The second type of limitation were those that I had placed on myself. When I started the company, I think back and there are many times where I could have shot for the highest goals, rather than tempering my perspective to limit myself to the “realistic ones.” I think I could have had even more confidence in my own abilities and putting myself and my company out there. Of course, you have to put in the hard work—that’s a requirement—but it doesn’t hurt to shoot for the big opportunities. When you’re passionate and putting in your best work, you can be proud of that work and not afraid to tell people about it. Don’t forget to ask for what you need!

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