Sarah Bell – Co-founder of AiRE Software and Mother of Robot Rita

By on , in Australia, Interviews

If more women worked in STEM, I think we would ask different questions. Important questions like, ‘How should it serve us in terms of being inclusive?’ and ‘How will we value work that is traditionally female dominated?’

Commentator, agitator, and innovator, Sarah Bell is a co-founder of the proptech startup Aire., Artificial Intelligence for Real Estate. She helps real estate businesses to solve the problems of cost and scale by upskilling existing resources as well as helping them transition to digital resources using Aire.’s digital employee, Rita.

With a decade of front-line experience as a real estate practitioner and agency owner, Sarah brings tactical insights, subject matter expertise and just enough street cred to create business solutions that are intelligent by design and Cx obsessed.

Furthermore Sarah is also author, analyst, researcher, strategist, project designer, and nerdtrepreneur, Mum to three human children and a clever little robot named Rita. In her spare time, Sarah volunteers her research skills to the Revive Project – a national wellness and wellbeing in real estate initiative. She has a strong preference for dogs over cats, if pushed on the subject. 

In a Nutshell: Tell us a bit about your job and what role technology plays in it?

I am the co-founder of AiRE, which stands for Artificial Intelligence in Real Estate and we make a digital employee for real estate agents and business owners named RiTA. Most people in our industry know me as RiTA’s Mum. Technology is such a suitcase term because it encapsulates all kinds of tools that people use in an attempt to be more efficient. I say attempt because in the front lines where our customers work, many of those tools don’t integrate and have fractured work and siloed data across businesses, which can have the impact of making people more efficient in narrow ways, but less effective overall. As creators of advanced software the uses automation technology and artificial intelligence, our goal is to make RiTA feel like someone you work with rather than a tool that you use. Humanising RiTA has gone a long way to helping us create a tool for how people actually behave and work, rather than how we think they work or how we would like them to.

Where did your professional journey start and how did you get to where you are now?

I began my career as an analyst and an investigator. I actually married an auctioneer and that is how I ended up in the real estate industry as we ran the family estate agency together for 12 years, while I did some post-graduate study in strategic planning and planning professional development. After that time, the business had tripled and so we decided to sell it and pursue different directions professionally within the same industry. He now works as a growth manager for a franchise group and is still an auctioneer. I did some consulting work as a planner and briefly worked in the media segment before joining Ian Campbell at AiRE.

What is the greatest transformation in technology you’ve witnessed in your career?

I think the advent of artificial intelligence, particularly unsupervised machine learning, represents the biggest technological breakthrough since the steam engine. For knowledge workers, this gives them access to true leverage, similar to the impact of machine power in industrial manufacturing.

History repeats itself all the time and so the opportunity exists now to supplement knowledge workers, like real estate agents, with machine intelligence to create the same kind of competitive advantage. 

Artificial intelligence has very much been touted as “the next big thing” in technology and yet, increasingly, we are seeing that this type of technology has much more to do with being human, and more importantly being humane.

The word “humane” feels like a strange word to use when describing a machine but good technology is about making the human experience easier.

What do I mean by humane? Feels like a strange word to use when describing a machine but good technology is about making the human experience easier. With the noise, stressors, and cognitive load that we are all under today – anything aimed as ‘easier’ can only really be described as humane.

So even though emergent technologies like artificial intelligence, automation and machine learning are transforming the way we interact with technology, I think we may look back and view this as a human revolution, more than a technological one.

When you think about ‘women’ and ‘technology’ what comes to your mind first?

Instantly I think about Ada Lovelace, the first computer engineer who programmed The Babbage Engine around 100 years before Alan Turing began his work at Bletchley Park. So, I guess my first thought is about the undersold HERstory in the history of the discipline.

According to a study released on Wednesday by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, Among the positions with more than a 90 percent chance of becoming automated were administrative assistant, office clerk, bookkeeper and cashier, all fields dominated by women. The same report said that for every 7 men that are in an automation-endangered role – there are 10 women. 

But here is the real kicker for me. The ‘winners’ from the female of the species in the robot-revolution are traditionally female occupations where human care and empathy are at the core. Nursing and teaching are prime examples of that. 

Both of those occupations pay salaries that would put a family of four below the poverty line and earn far less than technical professions dominated by men so we as we progress towards a technology enabled bias free system, we also need to index value to the quality of human work. 

We always hear there are not enough women working in Tech. What needs to happen to change that, which steps should be done to achieve gender equality in tech?

I do think that this is changing and the role of women is more than STEM. I also think that the greatest opportunity for the future of work is for Ai to emerge as an anti-discipline. It is not only gender bias – but also knowledge and perspective bias that might prevent Ai from reaching its potential. 

The solutions to the complex issues of the 21st century require a more context and knowledge rich environment than the hard edge disciplines of science and engineering.

The solutions to the complex issues of the 21st century require a more context and knowledge rich environment than the hard edge disciplines of science and engineering. We need input from the Arts and philosophy to find and create meaning for the human users of these systems and to connect data to behaviour. We need to marry design and engineering to create efficiencies in systems and to derive lifestyle from the future architectures we are imagining. From these deep specialists disciplines – the ethical questions need to be constantly examined and re-examined to ensure that the revolutionary wheel of artificial intelligence is driving us towards a future where we ALL want to live. 

How different would our world be if more women worked in STEM?

Ai is, fundamentally a human endeavour. I know the pure technologists are always going to strive towards singularity –  but since Homer first described Automatons in The Illiad around 3,000 years ago – we have always imagined a master-servant relationship with this technology. If more women worked in STEM, particularly in the design aspect of technology, I think we would ask different questions. Important questions like, ‘How should it serve us in terms of being inclusive?’ and ‘How will we value work that is traditionally female dominated?’

It is not a question of whether Ai OUGHT to be blind in terms of gender, race, sexuality, religion, ethnicity – but rather – HOW can Ai be as inclusive as possible. 

Which was the best decision in your career?

I walked away from an opportunity that had terrible leadership. The environment wasn’t safe, standards weren’t documented and the goals posts for ‘good’ and ‘bad’ work were subjective and arbitrary. I had been working 16 hour days for months in order to try to fulfill irresponsible promises that had been made by that company to customers, lost control of my personal calendar and was missing important things in my children’s lives, and I’d have to say I nearly completely burnt out.

I made the decision to walk away and not give them another second of my life but at the time I was concerned that this was a career ending move. In the end, there was an enormous amount of support from the industry and people I respected who knew the reputation of that organisation as exploitative. One of my best friends and mentors actually emerged in the wake of leaving that role as he had been through a similar experience and it is one of the most enduring and enriching friendships of my life.

I learned a lot about the importance of boundaries and how much people actually observe when you think no one is looking, so it is important to follow your internal compass not the expectations that you perceive other people have of you.

It is important to follow your internal compass not the expectations that you perceive other people have of you.

What advice would you give to women who want a tech career?

My advice would be that this is the most interesting and stimulating time to be in technology and that their approach to work should not be to ‘fit’ in. The world of work is being shaken up because we understand that so much is wrong and limiting about how the creation of boards, routines, products and services is not reflective of the community they are intended to represent. If you are a young woman, an older woman, a mother, married, single, divorced, or whatever, bring that perspective into work.

If you are a young woman, an older woman, a mother, married, single, divorced, or whatever, bring that perspective into work.

If they are not prepared to embrace that life and work is more complexed that pale, stale, male, take your talent somewhere else or back your own idea.

Sarah Bell, commentator, agitator, and innovator, is a co-founder of the proptech startup Aire., Artificial Intelligence for Real Estate. She helps real estate businesses to solve the problems of cost and scale by upskilling existing resources as well as helping them transition to digital resources using Aire.’s digital employee, Rita.

With a decade of front-line experience as a real estate practitioner and agency owner, Sarah brings tactical insights, subject matter expertise and just enough street cred to create business solutions that are intelligent by design and Cx obsessed.

Furthermore Sarah is also author, analyst, researcher, strategist, project designer, and nerdtrepreneur, Mum to three human children and a clever little robot named Rita. In her spare time, Sarah volunteers her research skills to the Revive Project – a national wellness and wellbeing in real estate initiative. She has a strong preference for dogs over cats, if pushed on the subject. 

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