Column: COVID Showed Me Why LA Needs a More Diverse Tech Workforce. These Students Showed Us How to Change It.

Jessica Medrano
Jessica Medrano’s background is in immigration law and think tank research. In her most recent position as a Senior Program Manager at the Latino Donor Collaborative, she contributed to a new U.S. Latino narrative by conducting demographic and consumer research that helped F500 companies increase their bottom line & empowered non-profits with compelling talking points. She is currently an Anaplan for All Fellow at Correlation One and a volunteer with LA Tech 4 Good.
Column: COVID Showed Me Why LA Needs a More Diverse Tech Workforce. These Students Showed Us How to Change It.

This week is national Digital Inclusion Week, but to be honest, I —like a lot of people— didn't understand the significance of this issue until COVID-19 hit. To me, the pandemic felt like a narrowly escaped disaster that I was only spared from because of my computer.

Luckily, by the onset of the pandemic, I was making enough money to retire my mom from her job as a janitor, a job which suddenly had a new risk attached to it. I was also among the fewer than 17% of all Latinos who could work remotely and protect my household in ways that were simply out of reach for most members of my community.

I felt an unshakeable sense of survivor's guilt to see the choices Latinos had to make — either physically go into work and risk it all or stay home and run out of money, fast. This ultimatum may seem dramatic but it's important to note that Latinos are significantly less likely to benefit from the social safety net (unemployment, health insurance, economic relief programs) afforded to other communities because of either the individual's or a family member's immigration status.

Roadblocks to Upward Mobility

At the time, I was working as a senior program manager at the Latino Donor Collaborative, where I had the opportunity to mentor many remarkable Latino college students. Most of our interns were attending top-tier universities on full-ride scholarships and were "seemingly normal" college students before the pandemic hit. Yet, COVID-19 reminded my first-generation college students that they were not the same as their middle- and upper-class peers.

For some, this meant moving back into crowded homes and struggling to find quiet places to study. For most, it meant that their parents would almost inevitably contract COVID-19 due to exposure via low-income essential jobs as janitors, construction workers and food distribution workers and then spread the illness to their families. On top of familial health concerns, many of my students were stepping up to make sure that their younger siblings didn't fall behind in school because their parents didn't have the technical literacy to provide support. So, it's no surprise that a national 2020 Public Viewpoint survey found that half of all Latino students canceled or changed their higher education plans, compared to 26% of their white counterparts.

If I had been born a few years later, as my interns, I wouldn't have been able to protect my family from coronavirus. It was hard to watch COVID-19 spread so predictably, based on the parents' occupations, and it reminded me of the impotence I felt as a teen, watching my stepdad be deported and losing our house during the 2008 financial crisis.

If I had been born 20 years later, I would have been one of the kids who didn't have the means or guidance to participate in virtual learning. Would I still have "made it" if I faced the exponential obstacles of COVID-era students? Probably not; it was already a by-the-skin-of-my-teeth journey as the first person in my family to attend school. How many kids won't "make it" because of the COVID-induced hurdles they are facing today?

LA Faltered

Despite being home to the fifth-largest tech market in North America, Los Angeles could not move fast enough to address the digital divide when the pandemic hit. It disproportionately affected (and continues to affect) our Latino and Black students, who are almost three out of four K-12 students in Los Angeles County. An LAUSD study found that only 50% of Hispanic and Black middle school students participated in at least seven weeks of online learning during school facilities closures — at least 30 percentage points behind their white and Asian counterparts.

The fact that distance learning was unattainable for students in 2020, in the third-richest city in the world, is inexcusable. The irony is that there is probably a significant overlap between L.A. essential workers, who risked or gave their lives to keep our basic needs met, and those whose children fell through the cracks during the remote learning overhaul.

My Pivot to Data

One reason for this unacceptable situation is that the resource allocators who had the power to address the distance-learning gap were not from our most-affected communities. That's why we also need to address another part of the digital inclusion equation: tech training for a more representative tech workforce.

After witnessing the amplified disparity in my community and recognizing the life-or-death importance of financial security, I was motivated to pivot into data and technology. In August 2021, I graduated with honors from the Data Science for All Fellowship by Correlation One. The company's mission is to provide free data analytics training to 10,000 people in the next three years and provide new pathways to economic opportunity through access to in-demand technical careers.

As part of this life-changing opportunity, we completed capstone projects using our newly gained coding and analytics skills. Over 100 teams delivered creative and impactful projects, but only the four top teams presented at graduation. To put the caliber of talent into perspective, only 1,000 of over 26,000 applicants were accepted into the program. Of those 1,000 fellows, only the work of about 24 students was presented in Grand Finale which was judged by top technology leaders.

What's Possible: The Internet Expansion Program

I was awestruck by a group of all Latino and Black students who applied sophisticated data science techniques to produce a cost-effective and actionable solution to L.A.'s internet gap. Team 104's project L.A. County: Internet Expansion Program identified which L.A. communities are struggling the most with internet connectivity and proposed that the local government leverage existing digitally-enabled infrastructure at bus stops (since commonly used indoor spaces like libraries and cafes were off-limits during quarantine) to provide internet access points to the people who would benefit most.

Team 104's solution targeted the East Central, Silver Lake, Echo Park and West Lakes regions because those neighborhoods have the highest rates of internet disparity by income bracket. They proposed that Wi-Fi be installed at 10 strategically selected bus stops (shown below) to increase internet accessibility by 26% in low-income, non-high school graduate households in L.A. County.

Team 104's elegantly simple solution ended up taking home second place in the DS4A Grand Finale and a $2,000 award that they donated to EveryoneOn, a nonprofit that works to democratize internet access.

Marlene Plasencia, of Team 104, poignantly reflects:

"If you look at the headlines regarding Wi-Fi and education, people are looking to the schools to solve the problem of lack of internet access for children. I think we've proven that when we have access to knowledge and tools like data science, we can take these issues into our own hands and present solutions to important social issues affecting our communities."

Mind you, they upskilled and developed this proposal in only 13 weeks. This is just an example of the innovation we're missing out on with anemic levels of diversity in the tech sector. In fact, CBRE's Scoring Tech Talent Report found that the L.A. tech workforce is currently the second-least diverse in the nation, although the city is one of the most diverse places in the country. To learn more about Team 104 and their project, click here.

Diverse Tech Training is a Competitive Advantage, Not Just a Social Responsibility

DEI arguments aside, a homogenous workforce produces less innovation. In a market that is driven by novelty and product-market fit, our tech industry's demographic makeup suggests that teams will struggle to pioneer new technology and, more importantly, even understand the needs of the increasingly diverse mainstream consumer. The gap between those building the digital landscape and engaging with it represents an opportunity loss for L.A. tech companies to understand their end-users more intimately and create better products and experiences.

Many industry-leading companies, who recognize the competitive advantage that a diverse tech workforce represents, partner with Correlation One to create fellowships so that Black, Latinx, LGBTQ+, female, and veteran talent can participate in world-class data and analytics training. These companies benefit by getting first dibs at recruiting directly from the rigorous and business-case-focused program.

Take steps today to ensure the long-term prosperity of L.A.'s tech community by connecting to organizations like Correlation One to learn how you can maximize the human capital potential of our local talent and workforce pipeline.

If you're interested in joining the Data Science for All mission to recruit "Data Science for All" fellows or to become a mentor, you can get in touch with the Correlation One team here.

This column was published in conjunction with L.A. Tech 4 Good.

This story has been updated.

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Creandum’s Carl Fritjofsson on the Differences Between the Startup Ecosystem in Europe and the U.S.

Decerry Donato

Decerry Donato is a reporter at dot.LA. Prior to that, she was an editorial fellow at the company. Decerry received her bachelor's degree in literary journalism from the University of California, Irvine. She continues to write stories to inform the community about issues or events that take place in the L.A. area. On the weekends, she can be found hiking in the Angeles National forest or sifting through racks at your local thrift store.

Carl Fritjofsson
Carl Fritjofsson

On this episode of the LA Venture podcast, Creandum General Partner Carl Fritjofsson talks about his venture journey, why Generative-AI represents an opportunity to rethink products from the ground up, and why Q4 2023 and Q1 2024 could be "pretty bloody" for startups.

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AI Is Undergoing Some Growing Pains at a Pivotal Moment in Its Development

Lon Harris
Lon Harris is a contributor to dot.LA. His work has also appeared on ScreenJunkies, RottenTomatoes and Inside Streaming.
AI Is Undergoing Some Growing Pains at a Pivotal Moment in Its Development
Evan Xie

One way to measure just how white-hot AI development has become: the world is running out of the advanced graphics chips necessary to power AI programs. While Intel central processing units were once the most sought-after industry leaders, advanced graphics chips like Nvidia’s are designed to run multiple computations simultaneously, a baseline necessity for many AI models.

An early version of ChatGPT required around 10,000 graphics chips to run. By some estimates, newer updates require 3-5 times that amount of processing power. As a result of this skyrocketing demand, shares of Nvidia have jumped 165% so far this year.

Building on this momentum, this week, Nvidia revealed a line-up of new AI-related projects including an Israeli supercomputer project and a platform utilizing AI to help video game developers. For smaller companies and startups, however, getting access to the vital underlying technology that powers AI development is already becoming less about meritocracy and more about “who you know.” According to the Wall Street Journal, Elon Musk scooped up a valuable share of server space from Oracle this year before anyone else got a crack at it for his new OpenAI rival, X.AI.

The massive demand for Nvidia-style chips has also created a lucrative secondary market, where smaller companies and startups are often outbid by larger and more established rivals. One startup founder compares the fevered crush of the current chip marketplace to toilet paper in the early days of the pandemic. For those companies that don’t get access to the most powerful chips or enough server space in the cloud, often the only remaining option is to simplify their AI models, so they can run more efficiently.

Beyond just the design of new AI products, we’re also at a key moment for users and consumers, who are still figuring out what sorts of applications are ideal for AI and which ones are less effective, or potentially even unethical or dangerous. There’s now mounting evidence that the hype around some of these AI tools is reaching a lot further than the warnings about its drawbacks.

JP Morgan Chase is training a new AI chatbot to help customers choose financial securities and stocks, known as IndexGPT. For now, they insist that it’s purely supplemental, designed to advise and not replace money managers, but it may just be a matter of time before job losses begin to hit financial planners along with everyone else.

A lawyer in New York just this week was busted by a judge for using ChatGPT as part of his background research. When questioned by the judge, lawyer Peter LoDuco revealed that he’d farmed out some research to a colleague, Steven A. Schwartz, who had consulted with ChatGPT on the case. Schwartz was apparently unaware that the AI chatbot was able to lie – transcripts even show him questioning ChatGPT’s responses and the bot assuring him that these were, in fact, real cases and citations.

New research by Marucie Jakesch, a doctoral student from Cornell University, suggests that even users who are more aware than Schwartz about how AI works and its limitations may still be impacted in subtle and subconscious ways by its output.

Not to mention, according to data from, high school and college students already – on the whole – prefer utilizing ChatGPT for help with schoolwork over a human tutor. The survey also notes that advanced students tend to report getting more out of using ChatGPT-type programs than beginners, likely because they have more baseline knowledge and can construct better and more informative prompts.

But therein lies the big drawback to using ChatGPT and other AI tools for education. At least so far, they’re reliant on the end user writing good prompts and having some sense about how to organize a lesson plan for themselves. Human tutors, on the other hand, have a lot of personal experience in these kinds of areas. Someone who instructs others in foreign languages professionally probably has a good inherent sense of when you need to focus on expanding your vocabulary vs. drilling certain kinds of verb and tense conjugations. They’ve helped many other students prepare for tests, quizzes, and real-world challenges, while computer software can only guess at what kinds of scenarios its proteges will face.

A recent Forbes editorial by academic Thomas Davenport suggests that, while AI is getting all the hype right now, other forms of computing or machine learning are still going to be more effective for a lot of basic tasks. From a marketing perspective in 2023, it’s helpful for a tech company to throw the “AI” brand around, but it’s not magically going to be the answer for every problem.

Davenport points to a similar (if smaller) whirlwind of excitement around IBM’s “Watson” in the early 2010s, when it was famously able to take out human “Jeopardy!’ champions. It turns out, Watson was a general knowledge engine, really best suited for jobs like playing “Jeopardy.” But after the software gained celebrity status, people tried to use it for all sorts of advanced applications, like designing cancer drugs or providing investment advice. Today, few people turn to Watson for these kinds of solutions. It’s just the wrong tool for the job. In that same way, Davenport suggests that generative AI is in danger of being misapplied.

While the industry and end users both race to solve the AI puzzle in real time, governments are also feeling pressure to step in and potentially regulate the AI industry. This is much easier said than done, though, as politicians face the same kinds of questions and uncertainty as everyone else.

OpenAI CEO Sam Altman has been calling for governments to begin regulating AI, but just this week, he suggested that the company might pull out of the European Union entirely if the regulations were too onerous. Specifically, Altman worries that attempts to narrow what kinds of data can be used to train AI systems – specifically blocking copyrighted material – might well prove impossible. “If we can comply, we will, and if we can’t, we’ll cease operating,” Altman told Time. “We will try, but there are technical limits to what’s possible.” (Altman has already started walking this threat back, suggesting he has no immediate plans to exit the EU.)

In the US, The White House has been working on a “Blueprint for an AI Bill of Rights,” but it’s non-binding, just a collection of largely vague suggestions. It’s one thing to agree “consumers shouldn’t face discrimination from an algorithm” and “everyone should be protected from abusive data practices and have agency over how their data is used.” But enforcement is an entirely different animal. A lot of these issues already exist in tech, and are much larger than AI, and the US government already doesn’t do much about them.

Additionally, it’s possible AI regulations won’t work well at all if they aren’t global. Even if you set some policies and get an entire nation’s government to agree, how to set similar worldwide protocols? What if US and Europe agree but India doesn’t? Everyone around the world accesses roughly the same internet, so without any kind of international standard, it’s going to be much harder for individual nations to enforce specific rules. As with so many other AI developments, there’s inherent danger in patchwork regulations; it could allow some companies, or regions, or players to move forward while others are unfairly or ineffectively stymied or held back.

The same kinds of socio-economic concerns around AI that we have nationally – some sectors of the work force left behind, the wealthiest and most established players coming in to the new market with massive advantages, the rapid spread of misinformation – are all, in actuality, global concerns. Just as the hegemony of Microsoft and Google threaten the ability of new players to enter the AI space, the West’s early dominance of AI tech threatens to push out companies and innovations from emerging markets like Southeast Asia, Subsaharan Africa, and Central America. Left unfettered, AI could potentially deepen social, economic, and digital divisions both within and between all of these societies.

Undaunted, some governments aren’t waiting around for these tools to develop any further before they start attempting to regulate them. New York City has already set up some rules about how AI can be used during the hiring process while will take effect in July. The law requires any company using AI software in hiring to notify candidates that it’s being used, and to have independent auditors check the system annually for bias.

This sort of piecemeal figure-it-out-as-we-go approach is probably what’s going to be necessary, at least short-term, as AI development shows zero signs of slowing down or stopping any time soon. Though there’s some disagreement among experts, most analysts agree with Wharton professor and economist Jeremy Siegel, who told CNBC this week that AI is not yet a bubble. He pointed to the Nvidia earnings as a sign the market remains healthy and not overly frothy. So, at least for now, the feverish excitement around AI is not going to burst like a late ‘90s startup stock. The world needs to prepare as if this technology is going to be with us for a while.

What the Future of Rivian Looks Like According to CEO RJ Scaringe

David Shultz

David Shultz reports on clean technology and electric vehicles, among other industries, for dot.LA. His writing has appeared in The Atlantic, Outside, Nautilus and many other publications.

What the Future of Rivian Looks Like According to CEO RJ Scaringe

Rivian CEO RJ Scaringe took to Instagram last weekend to answer questions from the public about his company and its future. Topics covered included new colors, sustainability, production ramp, new products and features. Speaking of which, viewers also got a first look at the company’s much-anticipated R2 platform, albeit made of clay and covered by a sheet, but hey, that’s…something. If you don’t want to watch the whole 33 minute video, which is now also on Youtube, we’ve got the highlights for you.

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