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Interview with CG Chen – CEO of Ample Labs on Social Entrepreneurism and Artificial Intelligence

CG Chen CEO and Founder of Ample Labs and Chalmers App
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Welcome CG and thank you for meeting with The Big Data Life to talk about your insights and experiences founding an AI-enabled startup in the heart of downtown Toronto. Firstly, I’d like to acknowledge for our readers that what you and your team have created is truly impactful and helping others in some of their most difficult times! How would you describe your experience founding Ample Labs so far?


It’s hard. The fact that it is really hard founding Ample Labs is probably what I would start with. I say this for a couple of reasons. Firstly, we are structured as a non-profit and so for us to generate real revenue we have to do this ourselves or get donations and become a charity.

 

Ample Labs finds itself uniquely in the space of being a charity and a non-profit that is building technology to empower others facing homeless. That is our mission. And so this is very, very new; being a non-profit using emerging technology and doing R&D. What we’ve experienced is that when we’re talking to people about what we do, they don’t understand. The reason I say that this is difficult is because if we were a for-profit tech startup, we could go to angel investors and venture capitalists and get quite a lot of funding.

 

For example, I’m a women of colour and I’m a female entrepreneur. This is probably the best and the easiest time to raise money. Instead, we’ve intentionally decided to be a non-profit so that we can always stay on mission and always remain impact driven. For every dollar we raise we’re really thinking long and hard about how we’re using that money. Alternatively, if we were given a lot of money we could do many things and get distracted.

 

Another thing I would add is that in some ways, it has been easy. Especially in recruiting talent. I’ll explain why. I feel like there has been some backlash in tech wherein a lot of the people that I went into work with – for example two of the people I know recently quit there jobs to also do something that is impact-oriented and socially-driven – are somewhat questioning their purpose in working a cool tech job and writing lines of code for people.

 

These tech professionals may be questioning “who is the end-user?” and “what is the ultimate benefit?” I really observe this type of backlash happening right now. For these people, they are really wanting to use their skills for something greater or more meaningful and so we find a lot of these individuals coming to Ample Labs or being interested in what we do.

Ample Labs has recently partnered with ADA Inc., a chatbot startup in Toronto to develop Chalmers, an artificial intelligence that helps its users tackle their experience with homelessness. This is an innovative approach to a social issue and hopefully inspires similar innovations. From your initial goal of tackling homelessness to now deploying an AI chatbot, how did Ample Labs arrive at Chalmers as the solution to help those in need?


This is a really good question. There are a few things to share here.  Firstly, why a chatbot? At its core, when you think about the experience of a chatbot, it is conversational just like texting or talking with someone. The pain points that we were hearing from people facing challenges with homelessness or who fell into homelessness for the first time is that they really didn’t know what to do, where to go, and where to start to help themselves through the problem.

 

A challenge that people face becomes “where do I look for information?”  What we discovered was that 90% of people in similar situations actually used Google at this step. However, with Google what you get is search results and not all search results (or top results) are relevant, personalized, or can speak to the uniqueness of the situation that the person was dealing with.

Next, if you’re lucky and get further you may end up on government websites or directories scrolling through lists and lists of information.

 

What we’ve heard from people first hand is that it’s very hard to find the information that is specific to them because falling into homelessness happens in so many different ways: domestic violence, losing your home, migration.  When a person is in this state and has to do the work of finding information, finding the stuff that is really relevant to them, it’s very taxing. So we thought about how a chatbot could do this heavy lifting and that’s why it’s the technology we created to do this.  Our users only need to ask a question.

 

But as we were building Chalmers a few other things surfaced. First, according to research, 20% of people were more inclined to share personal information with an AI than a real person. Okay. So here’s the thing about homelessness: when people fall into it usually there’s a lot of guilt and shame. People don’t actually tell the people closest to them.  Ultimately, this idea of asking something that is anonymous without judgment was appealing.

 

For example, we heard from people that when they call for help the other person on the phone who is supposed to recommend resources often times judged them.  If you think about it, it’s already hard enough for me to admit that I need help, and if I’m asking a person and am then going to get judged, this creates more of a backlash and so I become resistant to ask for help.

 

Secondly, when we were designing Chalmers, we thought about optimizing for speed. We heard horror stories of young girls during the winter time in Canada, where its -20 or -30 degrees outside and they’re unable to find shelter and so are having to walk out into the freezing cold for hours and hours.  So we asked: “what is the easiest and fastest way for someone to find something closest to them based on their needs, right now?”

 

So we certainly needed to optimize for speed. We also heard horror stories of eviction, of people not knowing what to do when they got handed that letter and were losing their home.  With a chatbot, again, we’re able to optimize for speed to help the person.

 

So why isn’t Ample Labs creating a directory?  Why isn’t it a website? Why isn’t it a blog? Everything I mentioned earlier is information we collected and iterated on by going out and user testing so that in the end, a chatbot just seemed to resonate with people the most.

Does Ample Labs identify first as a technology company or a non-profit social impact organization harnessing technology? And how has this influenced the culture of Ample Labs?


If I have to be completely honest, I think we think of ourselves as a technology company.  What’s really interesting is in the way we’ve branded ourselves. Due to this we’ve been able to get a lot of people that work in tech to volunteer with us and that’s really great.  But it also means that when we do go speak with cities about Ample Labs, people think we’re a dev-ops shop. For example, we’ve experienced working with social services groups who are not too familiar with technology asking us to build this thing or that thing as the solution. So yeah, I would position ourselves as more of a tech company.

Your founder’s story includes an experience with your friend Simon who as an IT employee at a Fortune 500 company suddenly found himself on the verge of homelessness. You experienced first hand the core challenge through his perspective. What’s been the timeline from that experience learning about Simon’s situation, to starting Ample Labs and deploying Chalmers for its users?

So Simon happened last summer (August 2018). Prior to that we were already getting together, like friends, thinking about what we can do with our skills in tech. We were exploring a bunch of ideas and doing some ground research. But I think everything really started happening around this time. It was actually last summer that we began playing with Ada and that’s why we named it a partnership.  We were building our chatbot on Ada and it was free and it was better than some of the other stuff out there.  After we launched our beta in November of 2018 we tested all the way until June 2019 and we just launched version 1 in July 2019.

As founder and CEO its your responsibility to guide the company forward in its mission to empower people facing homelessness using technology. It takes skill and perspective to create something like Ample Labs. Where did this exposure come from do you think?


So I worked at two different tech startups before starting Ample Labs.  I mean, I think everything I am doing at Ample probably draws from those experiences and insights.  At the first tech startup we were a B2B building apps for luxury retailers. The second tech startup was a B2C. It was more so IOT and mobile, so I learned a lot there.

 

The first company I worked for, when I joined we were 50, and when I left we tripled. We got Silicon Valley venture capital and the company grew really fast. Both of those experiences really influenced my understanding of how a company or product could scale.  Also it taught me how to build good products. I spent a lot of time on the ground doing UX research, going onsite to the stores, talking to the users, and iterating really quickly. So I think if I didn’t have that experience, to be honest, I wouldn’t know what I’m doing.

A lot of people don’t have that startup experience and it is a completely different type of education. It makes me nervous for people who really want to thrive in the tech space but may not have those opportunities to succeed. Yet you acknowledge how critical that experience has been for you in leading a startup.


Oh yea, 100%. One hundred percent.
Can you pinpoint some of the skills that you think people really need to have to thrive in tech and also at a startup?


Probably openness and adaptability to move fast I (I would say) are the biggest.  I think whether you’re in a position at a tech company, or you’re leading one, things change very, very quickly.  So you have to adjust and you have to be open. I think you have to be really open to criticism and feedback. I was in a feedback session today, and I said to people very frankly, number one, you are not going to hurt my feelings, number two my favourite questions to ask are “what do you find most frustrating about using our app, and what do you think could be better?”

 

I think unless you are really, really open to criticism, you probably can’t grow, or you’re going to make something that people don’t actually want to use.

 

Also, get people who are really seasoned, who are experts to tell you what you should do.   I think every time we ran into a roadblock, we would go out and try to talk to somebody, or a company that may have done it before, or that we know has way more knowledge than we do, and then kind of figure it out.

How have you built the team that was able to execute on that vision? It’s so important given your mission and value system to build your team that shares in that mission statement, and has the compassion and empathy to deliver on that. Can you speak to harnessing talent?


It’s great and it’s tricky. So how did we build a team? We started off in the right communities. We started off in the civic tech communities. Civic tech is this place where people go to once a week where mostly people that work in tech want to contribute to social and civic issues.  We found our founding team there – we were in the right places because we were already in the places where people wanted to give their time to.

 

How we continue to build that team? I speak with our director of operations and I always tell her “When we look for and screen for people we’re not going to ask questions if they don’t answer the first one “ Why are you interested in Ample and why do you care?” And usually if the individual is like “I’m really moved by the mission and I’m doing this out of complete altruisim” what you usually see in the lifetime of the volunteers is that they tend to stay longer. So we look at attrition. We look at the average time of a volunteer and we look at factors that influence that because we are mostly volunteer-driven. That’s the thing we look for the most.

How are you able to support your team and its vision and what are your key responsibilities in the role? How would you describe your day-to-day?


Mentally and emotionally it’s really exhausting, to be completely honest. I remember there was a period of time where I was thinking  “every article I’ve ever read about entrepreneurism is a complete lie.” I think it’s tougher than the toughest thing you’ve ever thought of. Because when you start something it literally feels like in the beginning you’re trying to push against everything. But eventually once it rolls it sort of picks up.

 

To answer the question, I think with the mindset, you need balance. What I find is the more you can give yourself time to take a step back and to stop and breathe, the better decisions you’ll actually make because sometimes when you’re too close to something you just don’t see it.

I’d like to share a little bit more about you, CG. Fundamentally, each of us is unique and our differences in experiences, identity, and perspective add to our strength. How have you connected with your own identity and strengths in your work?


Something I don’t talk about a lot and I’d actually like to talk about more is my faith. A bit part of my identity is my faith and my belief. I’m a Christian and I believe in God and I study the Bible a lot. I spend time in prayer and that’s played a big part in why I do Ample. Not a lot of people – and Tech is a really good example – I found that people are very self-motivated right? So “I am here because I can get the next job, or my goal is to go from this job to the other job so I get a 30% increase in my salary, or X, Y and Z.” There are so many examples like this you know? Very rarely you find people who are willing to go down so that others can get lifted up. So this idea of lowering yourself so others can be lifted up is something that is very rooted in my faith.

 

Even my brother joked that he couldn’t believe that I quit such a high-paying job to make less than $1000 a month. And I guess that’s true. But I think that my faith and who I am plays a big reason as to why I do this. I think if I didn’t have the faith, would I do this? Would I continue? Would I want to? Or, would I think it’s worth it? Such as the sacrifice or what I’m willing to give up, I don’t know.

Do you think advancements in technology are doing enough to tackle marginalized communities, vulnerable individuals, and social issues?


No. No. When we first started people would always ask us “Why are you doing this? There is no money in this.” That’s the thing we would hear over and over again. And if you think about it, emerging technology, especially the ones in its nascency, are in industries where there is a lot of money to be made.

 

We want to do the reverse. We want to take what’s emerging and we want to apply it to the market or the industry that potentially has no ROI. And why would anyone do that? So yeah, I think it’s a big ‘no’ to answer your question, I think it’s a resounding ‘no” and I think big companies should be thinking about this more and more.

You’ve previously spoken with Startup Here Toronto about the kind-heartedness, resilience and strength of people who have gone through different episodes and lengths of homelessness. How has this impacted your own resilience and strength in working with Ample Labs?


I find that people who have gone through a lot of trauma just have this amazing ability to be resilient. I probably said this, but when you start something, at the start of something, you’re going to need a lot of resilience because there is going to be so many things that go wrong. So many “no’s”. We’ve been told by people that they think it’s a stupid idea what we are trying to do at Ample Labs. And so you on behalf of your team have to be the one to push against that. I think thats resilience. Or if things go wrong all the time, how do you get up and keep going at it?

 

I think its really interesting and I’d like to study this: what makes certain people more resilient or have more grit, versus others who give up? Because with homelessness you’re on a very thin line between wanting to continue and not giving up, versus, completely giving up and potentially committing suicide.

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CG Chen CEO and Founder of Ample Labs and Chalmers App

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