Building a better world, one boot camp at a time

August 11, 2020, 10:03 PM UTC

I’ve been thinking a lot about proximity lately; specifically, the hazy promise of the good things that can happen when you invite people who are different from each other into a clean, well-lit space to learn, collaborate, build stuff, and have fun.

Sometimes the haze clears, and the promise becomes real.

Such was the case for three young women, Toshe Ayo-Ariyo, Danielle Ho, and Sonal Patel, whom I met recently via Zoom, and who recently completed the six-month USC Viterbi Data Analytics Boot Camp

All three are immigrants now based in southern California, and all wanted to develop their skills and grow their network. For Ho, 24, a native of Macau who currently works as a social media coordinator, it was the biggest leap. “I want to switch to data now,” she says. 

Then fate intervened when they were assigned to work together on a project still to be determined. Watch proximity work. “All the students were supposed to select a group to work with. We were the only members who didn’t select any group and we were placed together,” laughs Patel, 36, a parent and self-described homemaker. “That was the most interesting part… we were all on the same page and wanted a solution to the problem we had all experienced.”

The problem is representation in the workplace.  “I’ve never worked anywhere where I wasn’t the only one like me,” says Ayo-Ariyo, 24, a finance and strategy analyst for Disney. Ayo-Ariyo is a native of Nigeria who grew up mostly in Los Angeles. When it comes to corporate America, “everyone can and should do better,” she said to a Zoom array of nodding heads.

Their project started when they analyzed World Bank data to demonstrate that an increase in female workforce participation generates economic growth for countries. Then, they decided to think about what keeps women out of the workforce, which led them to the concept of bias in hiring. They ended up building a tool called Wonder Women Editor—now called UInclude —an editing application that eliminates gender-biased language from job applications and related workplace content in the hopes of encouraging more women to seek jobs and promotions.

Pressing ahead, the unlikely trio entered a pitch contest for graduates of boot camp programs, called The Next Level Contest, hosted by Trilogy Education, a brand of the ed tech company, 2U. And won. 

Yachica Gonzalez, a corporate recruiter at Microsoft, was one of judges. “I found the Wonder Women Editor was the most progressive,” she tells raceAhead. “Its value proposition-—removing bias in the hiring process—addresses one of the greatest challenges in society and corporate America.”

Based on the feedback they received during the pitch process, Ayo-Ariyo, Ho, and Patel now think they can make this a business. “I want to be able to go to one place, one platform, where I can find diversity stats and opportunities with companies I’m thinking of working for,” says Ayo-Ariyo, a Black woman with a disability. They plan on building it, along with an array of data-driven tools for employers to create more inclusive workplaces.

 Oh, and Y-Combinator? They’re headed your way.

I’d consider letting them in. Between them, they speak seven languages—Hindi, Gujarathi, Marathi, Cantonese, Mandarin, Yoruba and English—and share a sharp common vision of a world made better by tech.

They sure knew their way around a boot camp and pitch contest, things historically reserved for majority-culture folks. A more inclusive vision of tech helped a busy mom, a curious social media strategist, and a determined financial analyst find each other and start building.

As far as the business case for proximity goes, I think it’s a great one. More, please.

Ellen McGirt

On point

Black middle-class progress on the income gap is threatened by the pandemic  According to Stateline, an initiative of The Pew Charitable Trusts reporting on state policy, Black middle-class families have been slowly bridging the income gap compared to their white peers in several states. Progress is spotty—while Black family incomes trail those of white families by three points in states including California, Georgia, and Texas, that is as much as 23 points in Minnesota and 21 points in Wisconsin. The difference has been small-business ownership. But the pandemic threatens to stall any progress at all: Data show the number of Black-owned small businesses dropped 41% between February and April, twice the rate of closures for white ones. Black-owned businesses concentrated in “nonessential” industries are not rebounding. "What COVID has brought out is that they have less resources to keep their doors open and keep operating," says one expert. Black college grads have also lost jobs, in direct contrast to their white counterparts.

The lack of diversity in medicine is killing people of color  My colleague, Maria Aspan, digs deep into the growing field of health care equity. The shocking lack of diversity in medicine—only 5% of all active physicians are Black, 5.8% of doctors are Latinx, and Black and Latinx women hover around 2%—requires a full-throated reckoning, she says. “These statistics rival the breathtaking lack of diversity at large tech companies,” she writes. “Now, amid a pandemic that has disproportionately killed people from those same communities, and a national reckoning over racism, some doctors and public health experts are drawing new attention to the long-standing racial inequities that damage the health of people of color in America—and that are exacerbated by the low numbers of professionals from these communities who are able to reach the highest positions in medicine.”

Black professionals to America: Hey, we out  My colleague, Beth Kowitt, puts some facts to the nagging feeling I’d been having: If given the chance, Black professionals will take an overseas assignment and not look back. Black expats find the benefits of an overseas assignment far outweigh resume-building. You get to be human. “Working abroad, these executives say they left behind the fatigue that many described as routine for Black people in corporate America: the exhaustion brought about by being asked to solve your company’s diversity issues; living by the unwritten rules that dictate how you present yourself at work; having to prove every day that you deserve to be in your role.” And, you get to follow in the footsteps of James Baldwin and Josephine Baker. Sounds nice.

The inside scoop on Verzuz Naima Cochrane is one of my favorite music and culture experts and an enlightening presence on Twitter and beyond. (Her #MusicSermons will take you to church.) So, I was over the moon when I saw she took on the musical explainer of the pandemic era with her latest piece for Rolling Stone called The Verzuz Effect. The Instagram Live phenomenon, created by producers Swizz Beatz and Timbaland has a simple premise: Two legacy artists—big names, both—face off by alternating playing 90 seconds of their hits, often singing along or doing some big talk. Click through for the phenomenon it’s become—the online party a quarantined world didn’t know it needed. “That chance to root for your favorite producer or MC made it into a sporting competition at a time when there were no professional sports,” cultural critic Nelson George tells Cochrane. The idea was “born” on March 24 when Timbaland and Swizz showed up online for an unannounced battle. It lasted five hours, and Swizz played along from his friend’s rented BMW. Now that’s an origin story.
Rolling Stone

On background

Michael Harriot is going to the Apollo, y’all  There are few amateur competitions as iconic as the one held by Harlem’s Apollo Theater. It’s the stage that launched a thousand stars, including Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Sammy Davis Jr., Aretha Franklin, Stevie Wonder and, in spite of the complete and utter dragging from the audience, Lauryn Hill. So, encouraged by an online call to audition, Michael Harriot —The Root’s beloved wypipologist, author, and all-around national treasure — decided to throw his hat in the ring. Enjoy.
The Root

Can Black Lives still Matter when yours is falling apart? While protest, organizing and activism work can be energizing, burnout among activists has been an issue since forever; even non-professional activists are at risk. In a survey of nearly 500 Black Americans, many described being overwhelmed by the enormity of the task amplified by the pandemic. You can’t do your best work when you’re spent, but stepping back feels like abandonment. Then there’s the reality of life in your own skin. "There's not a day goes by that I don't have to think about what it means to be Black in America, or my experience, or how other people might perceive me as I exist in the world," Brooklyn-based Keshia Crosby-Williams says.

Anti-Asian racism is killing me  Nancy Wang Yuen is an author, pop-culture expert and sociologist who studies actors of color. She is also at the end of her rope. “These days I feel like I’m dealing with two pandemics: COVID-19 and anti-Asian racism,” she writes. The attacks on Asian people, the racist fear of disease, the shunning of Asian businesses, and being personally targeted has left her weary. She comes with specific tips for anyone dealing with any form of anti-Asian actions, including bystanders, and is loaded with detailed, self-care advice. “Make sure to do something healing after taking action against racism,” she says. But to get a handle on the problem, speak up. Anyone who has experienced discrimination, a microaggression, or an attack: Report it to Stop AAPI Hate. “Unless we have a collective voice,” says Russell Jeong, Ph.D., chair and professor of Asian American Studies at San Francisco State University, and co-founder of the site,“it’s going to happen again to someone else.”

This edition of raceAhead is edited by Karen Yuan.

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