Q&A with Simon Iyamu Perisanidis, Co-Founder of Lumia

Allies Who Inspire Us

We believe the tech industry is not only lacking female role models, but also allies who are outspoken about driving efforts around diversity. Therefore we will occasionally feature an ally who is an inspiring advocate for diversity in tech and can serve as a role model for other allies – or for those who want to become allies.

The Allies Who Inspire Us series continues with  Simon Iyamu Perisanidis, data scientist and co-founder of the Swiss startup Lumia. Lumia offers an AI tool that helps recruiters make better hiring decisions by detecting unconscious biases. As someone who’s always been a bit different in many ways, Simon’s mission is to build products that reduce inequalities.

Tell us a bit about yourself and your background.

I was born and raised in Greece to a Greek mom and a Nigerian dad. I always liked building things and being creative. This passion led me to enjoy mobile development, which I taught myself as a student. The fact that I can program something on my screen and then have the whole world access this new functionality on their phones by simply downloading it, really excited me. To me, it feels like the closest thing to magic that we have. That was also the reason why I pursued my bachelor’s degree in computer science at the University of Athens. During my first year there, I built the simplest app that I could make, and to this day, I’m still surprised by how well it performed. It was an app that simply showed one quote a day. To my suprise, it quickly rose to become one of the top-grossing apps in its category, attracting thousands of users for years. Following this initial success, I attempted to develop more complex mobile applications, including ones with AI and Computer Vision, yet these projects did not achieve the same level of traction.

During my time at university, I developed a passion for machine learning and AI, which ultimately led to me receiving a scholarship to pursue my master’s degree in data science at ETH Zurich in Switzerland. While studying data science and delving deeper into AI, I also became fascinated by sociology which had nothing to do with my studies. I took some online courses to learn more about the subject. Simultaneously, I discovered a passion for entrepreneurship, which evolved from my experience in mobile development. I wanted to build something bigger than just mobile apps. So this is how all came together and led me to build a social impact startup in the diversity and inclusion field.

When was the first time you were exposed to the topic of diversity in tech? What does it mean to you personally?

I’ve been exposed to this topic simply by being born as a black person in Greece. Greece is, by all means, a great place, full of beaches, sun, delicious food, and very hospitable people. At the same time, I grew up in a very homogeneous and quite conservative environment. So I always felt different and a little out of place.

However, being black is not the only way I’m different. I’m different in many other ways, and this realization made me understand how individuals from various backgrounds might face different challenges. It became clear to me that society cannot work like that. It’s unacceptable that certain groups of people are disadvantaged solely based on predefined characteristics like their gender, nationality, sexuality, or other factors.

This realization prompted me to start questioning things early on, seeking to understand the underlying biases and uncover the truth. I believe everyone benefits when we embrace all sorts of talents and ideas. This curiosity led me to questions like: Why is the world the way it is? Why do some people hold certain beliefs and opinions? These questions gradually drew me into studying sociology and social norms in my free time. I wanted to gain a better understanding and find solutions to address these challenges.

I am an ally because I want to reduce inequalities and ensure that everyone has equal opportunities, regardless of who they are.

– Simon Iyamu Perisanidis

Why do you think being an ally for more gender equality in tech is important? 

I am an ally because I want to reduce inequalities and ensure that everyone has equal opportunities, regardless of who they are.

For me, this makes sense not only from a moral standpoint but also from a business perspective. By embracing diversity and inclusion you get access to way more people, talents, and ideas. On the other hand, by not being diverse, you are missing out on all these benefits. If you want to stay competitive as a business, you have to invest in diversity and inclusion. If not, then others will and you’ll be left behind.

With your startup Lumia, you developed an AI tool that detects bias to enable fairer hiring choices. What are your key takeaways from your work there?

One challenge we identified while building Lumia was that the companies that would benefit the most from a solution like ours are often those who either don’t understand or don’t prioritize diversity and inclusion. On the other hand, the companies that showed interest in our solution were those already committed to diversifying their talent pool and fostering inclusivity. It’s unfortunate that those who could have the most significant impact often show the least interest in investing in diversity, equity, and inclusion. That’s why raising awareness is so important.

Which aspects of your work are you the proudest of?

What I’m proudest of is how I spend my time. The fact that I was able to turn my passion into something I can make a living from, dedicating all my energy to building something truly impactful. That I can work on something that I genuinely love doing.

By embracing diversity and inclusion you get access to way more people, talents, and ideas.

– Simon Iyamu Perisanidis

Do you have any strong female role models in your life? What did you learn from them?

My biggest role model has been my older sister, who is five years older than me. From day one, she has shown me unconditional love. But beyond that, she was always the first to accomplish things, demonstrating through her actions that I, too, can achieve anything I set my mind to. She instilled in me the belief that anything is possible.

As a child, whenever I returned home from school or an afternoon activity, I would always see her studying hard. Our room was full of stacks of notes and books. Seeing her succeed really inspired me. She graduated with top grades in her department and earned a scholarship to pursue her master’s degree in the UK. She left Greece to study and live in the UK all by herself. Today, she still lives there, having secured a job. The funny thing is that despite studying statistics, she ended up becoming a data scientist, just like me.

What has been your toughest challenge you faced while working in tech? What did you learn from it?

One of the biggest challenges for me has been being an engineer and an entrepreneur at the same time. As an engineer, you’re constantly solving problems, so you’re focusing on solutions. However, as an entrepreneur, you have to shift your mindset completely. You have to focus on the problem first and really understand what you’re trying to solve. You have to understand the user’s needs, what creates value, and what doesn’t. These are quite contrasting points of view. It took me quite some time to shift my focus to think more entrepreneurially. An app won’t succeed just because it uses some cool AI. If it doesn’t solve a real problem, then it won’t be successful. I had to build many apps that failed to learn this lesson.

What in particular helped you learn this?

Failing. Spending time building something that didn’t succeed. One app that I built, in particular, has been a very valuable lesson: The app was designed to improve people’s sitting posture using computer vision, giving a small ping as a reminder to straighten up when sitting in a bad position for an extended period.

I developed it as a mobile app, since I knew how to do this best. And since I also knew how to use AI, I wanted to build something complex. I thought it was a highly useful solution that many people would use. I built it, made it look beautiful, fixed all the bugs, made it battery efficient, and so on. It took me a long time to publish it and test my assumptions. But when I published it, I realized that I should have developed it as a web app or in a less invasive manner. No one wanted an app that monitored them with their phone cameras to improve their sitting posture.

I learned a great deal from this project. Even though it failed, it was a great success for me as it taught me some important lessons on entrepreneurship. After that, I discovered the book ‘Lean Startup’ (by Eric Ries) and everything suddenly made so much more sense. It was really eye-opening. I could relate to what I read and understand better what I did wrong.

As we have many (future) founders in our community: Do you have any practical tips on starting and leading a startup?

Being an entrepreneur is quite complex. For engineers, I recommend forgetting about the solution completely and first falling in love with a problem. Also, try to solve it in the simplest way possible, so you can ship the MVP fast and gather feedback as early as possible. Try to validate the problem before you spend too much time on the solution. Your problem validation can be super simple, just a slide or a blog post; it doesn’t have to be a complex AI-driven SaaS platform.

It’s unfortunate that those companies who could have the most significant impact often show the least interest in investing in diversity, equity, and inclusion.

– Simon Iyamu Perisanidis

What’s your advice for allies who want to contribute to more equal opportunities for all in tech?

First of all, I think it starts small. It starts with what you do in your everyday life to include the people around you. For me, communication is crucial. I want to encourage people not to be afraid to ask questions and be curious about others. Even though political correctness is good, it sometimes also hinders people from connecting with others as they’re afraid of making mistakes. And it usually affects people who really care about others, rather than the ones who would benefit from more self-reflection on what they say. It can silence people, not feeling comfortable expressing their thoughts and questions to understand their peers better. So I encourage everyone to communicate more and not be afraid. Most people will perceive your interest in them as something positive.

This is something that I also remind myself to do more often. I always try to talk openly and not to overthink things. It’s better to make mistakes and learn than not communicate at all. If there’s no communication between people, it’s very difficult to create a connection and make people feel like this is a safe space for everyone.

It’s okay to feel uncomfortable talking openly and being curious. But this shouldn’t discourage you from speaking with people. If you are silent, then there’s the risk that someone else will step in and be more vocal; and more often than not, those are the people who aren’t really interested in learning from and helping others. So if you feel insecure about asking a question, just express it. Ask if this is the right way to ask. Ask how the other person feels and what you can do to make them feel more included.

Of course, there are also questions that can be irritating and make people feel excluded. For example, in Greece I get asked all the time where I’m really from when I say I’m Greek. There’s a thin line between what can be asked and what shouldn’t. Start trying to put yourself in the shoes of the other person and how they might feel when you ask certain questions. The more you show interest and are open to learning from others, the more you’ll understand this line.

What is your next challenge and what are you hoping to achieve in the future?

My biggest aspiration is to create something that has a real impact. Building a startup is already hard. Only one out of ten startups succeed, and succeeding with a mission-driven startup is even harder. I’m currently exploring new ideas, and I’m not limiting myself to the field of HR. My current challenge is finding the right people who are equally motivated by social impact. I’m always open for a casual chat — whether it’s to bounce around innovative ideas, discuss potential collaborations, or share insights on social entrepreneurship.

Thank you Simon for being an Ally who inspires us! 💛

Author: Fabienne Lorenz

Allies Who Inspire Us

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