Seven women behind Alexa
Whenever she can, Milkana Brace steps onto a water taxi, breathes in the crisp air, and makes her way to her small family cabin on a tiny island in the San Juan Islands, a few hours outside of Seattle.
When she’s not recharging by the Salish Sea, she’s tackling some of the most complex challenges in technology: how to voice-enable the world around us.
Brace is the founder and CEO of Jargon and an Alexa Fund entrepreneur. She’s one of many women working to enhance the voice experience, building out Alexa’s skills, knowledge, and abilities.
First launched on the Echo in November 2014, there are now tens of millions of households interacting with Alexa and thousands of people working on Alexa at Amazon globally. There are more than 80,000 Alexa skills available, allowing customers to listen to music, control their smart home devices, set timers, ask for information, and more – all with their voice.
From Amazon leaders to founders of voice-forward startups and Alexa Fund entrepreneurs, meet seven women working to deliver the best voice experience possible.
Charting her own journey
In her role as VP of product management for Alexa devices, Miriam Daniel often feels like “a kid in a toy factory.” She’s had the unique opportunity to build an entirely new way of interacting with machines and that challenge motivates her every day.
To solve those complex problems, she spends a lot of time thinking about customers and what they want out of voice-driven devices.
“The biggest reward is when a customer tells me that they love the products we are building and that voice technology has changed their lives for the better. We hear anecdotes from parents, grandparents, teachers, distance family members, and customers with disabilities all the time and their stories are heart-warming,” said Daniel.
She also infuses her work with inspiration she takes from her friends, family, and other female leaders in technology. For example, Daniel looks to Aicha Evans, the CEO of autonomous mobility developer Zoox, for “leading with her heart.”
“As a woman leader, Aicha pushes herself to think bigger and never hesitates to take on a big challenge. As a role model for other women in tech, she inspires each one of us to stand up, speak up, and chart our own individual journeys.”
If there’s one thing that Daniel has learned along her own journey, it’s the importance of a supportive, strong network. She credits her mentors for helping her discover her superpowers and overcome her gaps.
“This is the same advice I give to students in high school and at university: it’s never too early to grow your network and seek experienced professionals who can help you navigate your career.”
Combining passion and success
Daniela Braga is a woman of many interests. At work, she approaches challenges with open arms. In life, she zeroes in on people.
“I really have a passion for people: meeting new people, working with people, and deepening relationships. By absorbing different opinions, beliefs, and personalities, I can enrich my own life,” she said.
Braga is the founder and CEO of DefinedCrowd, a fast-growing AI startup that is also an Alexa Fund portfolio company. With 18 years of experience working in speech technology, both in academia and industry worldwide, Braga built DefinedCrowd to help data scientists collect, refine, and structure training data for AI and machine learning applications.
“The Enterprise Portal we built for DefinedCrowd still makes me so incredibly elated. To take a PowerPoint concept and make it a reality – and watch some of the biggest technology names in the world use it – is simply amazing.”
Braga’s success comes, in part, from advice she received from her mother.
“She always told me to do what you like the most and everything else will fall into place. If you’re happy and you love what you do, your career will thrive. That has been defining my career direction and ensured that every job I have taken, I loved. As a result, I saw great success from them.”
Braga is aware of the success she’s had as a woman in the technology space and wants to use her experience as a way to inspire others, especially her daughter.
“Personally, it was difficult to pursue a career in technology without a lot of female role models to look up to. I want to make sure my daughter has all the inspiration and encouragement she needs to pursue whatever she wants.”
Innovating on behalf of customers
When she came to Amazon, Sarah Caplener never imagined she would be leading the Alexa for Everyone team, focused on making Alexa an indispensable part of the lives of customers with disabilities, older customers, and family caregivers.
“I am proud of the team we have built and the first features we have released: Tap to Alexa, an accessibility setting on Echo Show and Echo Spot that enables customers to interact with Alexa through touch or text input, and Alexa Captioning, which allows customers to see text on-screen for Alexa responses.
“Together these features represented the first steps toward making smart speakers accessible to people who are deaf, hard of hearing, and have speech impairments,” she said.
In many ways, working on Alexa was like coming full circle for Caplener. She graduated with a degree in linguistics and started her career at a speech technology startup. She worked in voice user interface design before transitioning to product management.
“Years later, I’m back working in this space that Amazon and Alexa have made such a key part of customers’ daily lives.”
In her free time, Caplener focuses her energy on a different kind of innovation: transforming Amazon boxes into whatever shape her kids requested.
“We’ve made everything from spacecraft to suits of armor to puppet theaters with Amazon-supplied building materials!”
I think it’s helpful for any professional to take stock of the mentors, advisors, and peers that they can seek out when making important decisions and cultivate those relationships over time. Just like a company board, it’s key to have a balanced mix of experiences, personalities, and perspectives. The most important characteristic, however, is to be surrounded by people who genuinely care.
Taking the plunge
A few years ago, Milkana Brace left the corporate world, despite being on a fast career track and having many opportunities ahead.
“I left because I wanted to have a shot at building a different kind of company. I had no specific idea, no co-founders, and no plans. But, I took the plunge and never looked back,” she said.
That company became Jargon, which enables voice applications on services like Alexa to structure, manage, and optimize their content. Brace founded Jargon in December 2017 and almost a year later, it completed the Alexa Accelerator, powered by TechStars, successfully pitching and demo-ing the product to investors. And, in March 2019, Jargon raised a $1.8 million seed round, which included participation from the Alexa Fund.
“My passions drive what I do all day long, whether I’m in or out of the office. I’m deeply passionate about people coming together to create something meaningful. Even when I’m not directly working on Jargon, you’re likely to find me talking to other entrepreneurs, builders, or creators to learn from their experiences or help them with a perspective that I can share.”
Along the way, Brace has learned about the importance of having a personal board of directors – a small group of trusted advisors who know her well and want her to succeed.
“I think it’s helpful for any professional to take stock of the mentors, advisors, and peers that they can seek out when making important decisions and cultivate those relationships over time. Just like a company board, it’s key to have a balanced mix of experiences, personalities, and perspectives. The most important characteristic, however, is to be surrounded by people who genuinely care.”
Michelle Lalljie’s current role leading the operations and product launch organization for the Alexa Voice Services (AVS) team at Amazon marks the sixth time she’s built something from the ground up.
“I stepped into AVS with a broadly defined role, assessed gaps, grew a team, and associated processes to add value to the organization,” she said. “It’s especially fun when it’s something we’ve never done before and it requires scoping, planning, and driving the solution across the finish line amidst ambiguity. What can I say, I’m a typical operations person.”
Over her career, Lalljie has reinvented herself many times “in the spirit of career growth.” From construction to the semiconductor industry, she’s worn a variety of hats (including hardhats!).
“I love the phrase ‘fake it until you make it.’ It examplifies my definition of confidence, rising above self-doubt to accomplish things.”
Whether she’s solving large, complex problems at work or skiing in her free time, Lalljie isn’t afraid to push herself outside of her comfort zone.
“One of the most impactful career growth statements I’ve heard came from Elaine Chang, president of Amazon China. She said that when looking for a new role, it should make you uncomfortable. Her advice was to ‘get comfortable with being uncomfortable.’ I coach people with this simple saying all the time.”
Facing her fears
No matter the weather, Kate Stone loves winter camping. After a cold and sometimes scary night, she usually wakes up in her hammock to a beautiful sunrise between the trees.
“I like to go on adventures that push me beyond my boundaries. I tend to face some of my fears in a way that gives me confidence during the rest of the week. I have found that most of the learnings from one moment are transferable to another moment, even though they often seem quite different,” she said.
Stone tapped into all her learnings to start Novalia, which develops interactive paper surfaces that connect to Alexa. Using a Bluetooth platform and touch sensors, users can capture data through touch and view interactions in real time. Novalia, an Alexa Fund portfolio company, received an investment through the 2018 Alexa Accelerator class.
“I love to create product experiences that surprise and bring wonder to people on their journeys, hopefully with what feels like a little magic or fun.”
Novalia and these magical experiences are a result of Stone’s grit and perseverance, starting from her days as student.
“I remember a school assembly where the headmaster came on stage and told us to never give up. He repeated this again and again and again, and when he finally left the stage, it stuck with me. I do not possess the ability to give up—it is both a super power and a curse! The power to never give up has enabled me to find a way from my darkest moments into what have been the brightest experiences of my life.”
Tackling new challenges
Since her childhood, Priya Abani’s parents have always inspired her.
“They encouraged me and my sister to take up new challenges, be fearless even in tough situations, and face our weaknesses with a mindset of learning,” she said.
Abani is the director of Alexa Voice Services (AVS) device enablement, working with the community of device manufacturers to integrate Alexa into new and existing experiences.
“The learnings from new segments, like speakers, PCs, smart TVs and displays, and hearables, keep us on our toes. Over the past three years, the team has successfully engaged and innovated with hundreds of brands, earning the trust of our device manufacture community and end-customers.”
When she’s not “delighting customers with daily Alexa interactions,” Abani likes to play with her dog, Brie, or pick up a paint brush.
“I find painting very relaxing. It’s a place to escape to.”
In whatever she does, Abani seeks learning opportunities that also offer a little bit of fun.
“The best advice I have received from my mentors is to keep an open mind and to take responsibilities where I have fun learning. This advice has allowed me to move between roles and industries with ease of mind.”
We celebrate these seven women, and all women, on International Women’s Day (March 8), a global day honoring the social, economic, cultural, and political achievements of women.