A machine-based learning platform called Alice is the first private company to benefit from Melinda Gates' three-year-old initiative to boost women in tech fields. 

Gates plowed $200,000 into the startup in February via her Pivotal Ventures organization. Alice seems a logical choice for Pivotal's first private-company investment, as it's run by two prominent female entrepreneurs--Elizabeth Gore and Carolyn Rodz--and was founded as a way to integrate more women into the startup ecosystem

"We can decide that structural inequity in tech ends with us--and that every technologist who is willing to contribute their talents and brainpower to our collective future should have the chance," says Gates, referring to her investment in Alice, which is structured as a so-called impact investment that doesn't need to be repaid.

While Alice is open to entrepreneurs of all stripes, it prioritizes resources for women and other underrepresented entrepreneurs. That includes a focus on communities of color, the military community, LGBTQ, people with disabilities and those in small towns and cities.

Alice bills itself as an artificial intelligence-powered platform for founders. While the technology is still learning about its users, it eventually will "push" resources--say, information on government-buying programs for women-owned business--rather than people aimlessly searching for them. The platform currently pulls from education partners like the Kauffman Foundation and the Small Business Administration.

The founders say they came up with the idea while discussing the social and economic opportunity that women present to the world. Gore, the former entrepreneur-in-residence at Dell, is a fixture at women-entrepreneur focused events and conferences. Rodz, meanwhile, launched Houston-based women-focused business accelerator Circular Board.

"Alice is the answer to what I wish I would have had when I started my very first company," says Rodz, referring to the luxury gift line she created and sold in more than 400 stores worldwide. "As I learned more and got successful, I saw all of these resources open up to me. There was so much at my fingertips that I really needed on Day One." The aim of Alice is to "aggregate the entire ecosystem of opportunity, put it in a single place, and then parse it out so you're only seeing what is relevant to you."

Indeed, the real beauty of the machine-learning platform will come in time, suggests Gore, who became Alice's president and chairwoman in December. As Alice gets smarter--that is, it learns even more about its users--it can eventually predict each member's needs and wants. The founders expect the platform will become predictive in the second half of this year.

At that point, Alice might point you in the direction of, say, networks and communities for entrepreneurs in your industry. Or if you're looking to raise a seed round of funding to hire more employees, Alice might then suggest options you perhaps haven't thought of but might need: finding a payroll company, buying your IT in bulk, or searching for a mentor.

"We're young and Alice is getting smarter and learning," says Gore. "We're really excited about the second half of the year, when our AI starts doing a lot of this for us."

Beyond becoming a trusted resource, Alice also wants to be a voice for entrepreneurs. The platform, which is free to use and currently touches more than 60,000 users a week online, will eventually offer discounts to its members for things like insurance and business services. It also aims to serve as an advocate for businesses on Capitol Hill.

"We really believe that we need to insert ourselves with policymakers," says Gore. "It's massively exciting and a big opportunity, but we have to put the new ecosystem in place for the new entrepreneur, and we want Alice to be that bridge."

The founders are thrilled that Gates has invested in Alice. "More than financial support, what we're most excited about is the voice she can bring to this mission," Rodz says. "It allows us to scale much faster and reach more entrepreneurs."

As for Gates, whether she will invest in more AI startups like Alice remains to be seen. She has made it clear she wants to support women in tech. "The data tells us that a lack of diversity in tech limits innovation," she says. "If we choose to accept the status quo, we're also accepting the constraints it imposes on human progress." 

 

From the May 2018 issue of Inc. Magazine