Artificial Intelligence for the Greater Good: an Interview with Vidya Munde-Mueller

by Sophie Renhuldt

Throughout history, popular culture has routinely demonised artificial intelligence. In recent years public concerns have continued to grow, with academics by the likes of Yuval Noah Harari labelling technological disruption ‘one of humanity’s biggest challenges for the 21st century’. But companies like Givetastic want to change that: with a focus on promoting philanthropy and bringing about social change, the venture aims to increase donations to charitable causes with the help of AI. We sat down with Co-Founder Vidya Munde-Mueller to find out more about this atypical startup.

So Vidya, tell us a bit about Givetastic’s mission.

Our team is focused on making the giving experience easy and attractive using AI, allowing people to contribute to causes they care about any time, anywhere. In short, we are a matchmaking platform for social impact. We are in the process of building a collaborative platform that connects NGO’s with the public, matching people with charities that speak to their values based on the content they consume.

You only made Givetastic a full-time focus of yours this April. What prompted you to finally bite the bullet?

Well, I’d had the idea for a while, but you can’t possibly push something you are only half-heartedly pursuing. Until last year I was working at Deutsche Telecom as a product manager, and I was just too busy to dedicate enough time and attention towards it. We started this year with a fully formed, motivated team, delivering on an ad hoc basis, but there was still too much irregularity. I was in India for a period of time, working on my other social projects and when I returned, I realised that we weren’t fully functioning. The vision was so big and complex, both in terms of the technical requirements and the support required from NGOs, and our relaxed approach was simply not going to cut it: If we were going to take this seriously, it needed to be full-time. So that’s what we did: we joined TechQuartier in April, started building our company and within a matter of weeks were invited to Google’s Mentoring Day, already proving that our full commitment was paying off. You need to just take the risk and put all your eggs in one basket — I can think of many people who started their own companies as a ‘side-project’ and it never seems to work.

What does the Givetastic team look like?

We are a team of 6, 5 of which are women, located in Hamburg, Munich, India and the United States. It wasn’t necessarily my intention to have such an internationally dispersed team, but these were the people I wanted on board. It’s a great team, and I’d much rather have valuable players that are displaced, than a less qualified, local group. We have a lot of Skype calls and try to meet at least once a month face to face, and I’m sure we’ll be seeing a lot more of each other once we have secured some funding. One thing I have learned it is you can’t do it alone — together, we have come so far in just a few weeks, and we are getter closer and closer to our minimum viable product.

You mentioned you were working on other social projects in India — do tell us more!

I was born and brought up in India and come from a very poor background. My parents are from villages where women simply did not get any formal education, and my mother cannot read or write. I always did well at school, and was heavily supported by my teachers, so I decided at an early age that if we were to have enough income, I would want to give back by building a library in my home village. At present, the children there are lucky to get some second-hand textbooks, and although it will take some time to see the project through, it could make a huge impact on their lives, especially for the young girls. Secondly, I have always wanted to help women get into employment, because I find that if you empower a woman, you empower the whole family. There are very few employment opportunities for women in those villages. My brother and I want to change this, so we are in the process buying of machines that will allow women to produce paper teacups and earn a living.

So are you starting your own foundation?

Yes, I’d like to create a foundation in the name of my mother-in-law Rosa Müller. She accepted me into the family so whole-heartedly and had a huge impact on my life. Being very concerned with philanthropical issues in developing countries, she has such a big heart for women and children. I want to pass on some of the love shown me. While Givetastic speaks to the entrepreneur in me, the Rosa Müller foundation, which I hope to get started towards the end of the year, will speak to my heart. I am keen to do more social work, and I will be able to dedicate more time towards it once Givetastic gains some traction. I would also like that the foundation has a strong tech focus, helping underprivileged children learn how to program and teaching them not to be afraid of AI.

As a female founder, can you identify some of the challenges for female entrepreneurs?

Wow, that’s a big topic. I do think that a lot of the main issues come down to mindset. Entrepreneurship requires taking risks, making investments and not knowing exactly what the future will hold. Society has discouraged women from moving into riskier businesses and many women still seem to lack the necessary confidence. They will miss out on certain opportunities due to the uncertainties involved. You have to learn that yes is in the land of no to serve entrepreneurship.

What’s the next milestone for Givetastic?

Well, there’s still a lot of work to do. In the beginning, building Givetastic felt like trying to construct a castle without any foundations in place. Now that we have the team, it feels like we are laying down the first bricks. The next big milestone would definitely be the minimum viable product. We also need to work on the business model, figuring out how can we make profit. That has been one the biggest challenges thus far: because our work is so focused on social impact, we initially thought we would be a non-profit, but more and more I’m discovering the core of what we are doing, and fundamentally, Givetastic is a tech company. We are social-driven tech entrepreneurs, but entrepreneurs none the less.

Thank you for your time Vidya. We can’t wait to see what 2019 has in store for you.