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This blog post comes from Emily Kennedy, a U.S.-based entrepreneur. She co-founded Marinus Analytics, an AI-based startup that identifies victims of sex trafficking based on online movements. Marinus Analytics has gone on to win the World Economic Forum Technology Pioneer and was a semifinalist of IBM Watson AI XPRIZE. Emily has also been named Forbes’ 30 under 30. Hear how Emily’s using AI for good at the upcoming Women Rock-IT broadcast on April 22.

When I went to college as a humanities student, lover of writing, and pursuer of justice, I never imagined I’d found an Artificial Intelligence startup. How did I get here? Why did I choose to become an entrepreneur? And how did my company assist in the recovery of thousands of survivors of human trafficking? It’s been a long and winding journey.

Growing awareness leads to driving passion

Emily Kennedy, co-founder of Marinus Analytics

It started when I was traveling through Eastern Europe at the age of 16. I had gone there with my father on a mission trip to work with local nonprofit organizations. As a girl who grew up in a bubble, this trip opened my eyes to some of the injustices going on in the world. We drove through the Balkans, and I saw cities while it was being rebuilt from civil unrest with war bunkers blocking roads. One day, we came across a tiny, one-stoplight town where children rushed up to our car to wash our car windows while we waited at the stoplight. They desperately pressed up to our car in hopes of making a little bit of money.

I was shocked by what can only be described as desperation. And I looked around to see other children sitting next to surrounding buildings.

Shaken by what I saw, I asked my friend from that region where these children came from. He said they were likely orphans, trafficked by the mob to beg on the street and make money washing car windows. The poor children would have to bring back the money they made that day and give it to the mob, their traffickers. I had just witnessed human trafficking for the first time.

Learning and networking towards my goal

Those moments and the looks on the children’s faces stayed with me for years as I educated myself and learned more about human trafficking – how it presented itself internationally, as well as at home in the United States.

One of my friends went to work full-time for Agape International Missions after college, an organization that works in the red-light district of Svay Pak, Cambodia, to help the young girls escape the rampant child sex trade. This opened my eyes to the intense need for support.

Maybe fighting human trafficking could one day become my full-time work.

In the early 2010’s, online sex trafficking had become a popular topic in the United States. There were countless websites like Backpage, that made millions off of victims of sex traffic who were advertised on their website. I wondered whether the information on these websites could be used for good, to help with the identification and recovery of survivors, and the dismantling of the criminal networks exploiting them. I thought that finding patterns in online data to locate victims seemed like the perfect problem for AI to help solve.

What started as a project with a Robotics Institute lab became a summer job, and then turned into a full-time job as a Research Analyst. By 2013, we had a software prototype that could cull online sex ads and find patterns to help detectives recover victims sold on the websites. And soon, we received calls from detectives across the country inquiring how they could work with us on their sex trafficking cases.

Beyond my wildest dreams

In 2014, this project had already become bigger than I ever expected. With my two business partners, we decided to spin the technology—now a software platform with a name, Traffic Jam—out of the university environment and into a startup company. Our goal was to be fully productized and scaled to an international base of users.

The next couple of years were a blur, as we built our team, commercialized the technology, and scaled our impact throughout the U.S., and to new frontiers in Canada and the United Kingdom. Our company now provides AI solutions globally, not just to eliminate human trafficking, but to assist social workers and identify cyber fraud and other online exploitation.

When I look back, I realize that I didn’t really choose to be an entrepreneur, entrepreneurship chose me.

For the longest time—even after becoming CEO of my company—I didn’t consider myself an entrepreneur. I thought entrepreneurs had to make millions, or have always wanted to start a company, or have been that little kid selling baseball cards to their friends. What I know now is that entrepreneurship is about solving a problem, and it’s driven by the desire for autonomy to work on problems that you care about.

Dreams fully realized

Fast forward to today, Marinus Analytics has grown to a team of 12 – in addition to a great group of contractors. We’ve been a company for seven years, and our anti-trafficking work operates across two continents. We’ve identified thousands of survivors, and counting, through our work.

My biggest takeaways from my journey as an entrepreneur (so far) are:

  • Don’t let fear of failure keep you from taking the next step,
  • You’ll need to grow a great team who cares about your mission to maximize your impact.
  • And the crystallization of one final piece of advice my dad repeated often to me since I was a kid: “Emily, be a thermostat, not a thermometer.” He meant that a thermometer is someone who just followers others, someone who is persuaded only by what is going on around them, someone who is blown by the changing winds of others’ influence. When he encouraged me to instead be a thermostat, this meant that I had the power within me to be an influence on others, to inspire those around me to a greater purpose … that I had the power to change the world.

I encourage those who dream one day of changing the world to think the same way: you have the power within you to influence, you can affect one person’s life for the better, and you have the power to change the world.