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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🏰 Disney's Epic Investment Stands Out Amidst Gaming Industry Layoffs

Christian Hetrick

Christian Hetrick is dot.LA's Entertainment Tech Reporter. He was formerly a business reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer and reported on New Jersey politics for the Observer and the Press of Atlantic City.

🔦 Spotlight

In the midst of widespread gaming industry layoffs, a glimmer of positive news emerges as Disney announces a significant move: a $1.5 billion investment in Epic Games. 🏰💰🐭

Image Source: Disney

Disney's $1.5 billion investment in Epic Games, disclosed late Wednesday, signals a strategic alignment aimed at expanding the success of "Fortnite." The deal enhances Epic's growth prospects after financial setbacks, including layoffs, and strengthens the partnership between the two companies. With Disney gaining a larger equity stake in Epic, the collaboration will broaden the integration of beloved Disney franchises like Marvel, Star Wars, Pixar, and Avatar into the game, potentially boosting its appeal and longevity. This significant investment underscores Disney's commitment to interactive entertainment and signifies a shift towards games as a primary revenue stream, aligning with the growing trend of digital engagement among younger demographics. Moreover, the potential for crossover sales of physical Disney products within "Fortnite" and the exploration of new content distribution channels are just some of the opportunities arising from this partnership.

For LA tech, the Disney-Epic Games partnership represents a validation of the region's burgeoning tech and gaming ecosystem. The substantial investment in Epic, who maintains a large Los Angeles office with 1,000+ employees (according to LinkedIn), reflects confidence in the LA’s talent pool and innovation potential. Additionally, this partnership between two industry giants fosters an environment for further collaboration, investment, and growth within LA's tech sector. As Disney and Epic Games deepen their ties and explore new avenues for content integration and distribution, it not only elevates the prominence of LA as a tech hub but also stimulates economic growth and job creation in the region. This partnership highlights LA's unique position as a hub where technology and entertainment converge. With its ability to integrate diverse industries, LA is driving innovation and expansion in digital entertainment. 🚀💸🎮

🤝 Venture Deals

LA Companies

  • ProducePay, a financing and marketplace platform for the fresh produce market, raised a $38M Series D led by Syngenta Group Ventures joined by Commonfund, Highgate Private Equity, G2 Venture Partners, Anterra Capital, Astanor Ventures, Endeavor8, Avenue Venture Opportunities, Avenue Sustainable Solutions, and Red Bear Angels. - learn more
  • Blush, an invite-only dating app that drives users to local businesses on dates, raised a $7M Seed Round from individuals like Naval Ravikant. - learn more
  • Mogul, a startup founded last year that provides an overview of an artist's royalty earnings and identifies areas where money is owed but has not yet been collected, raised a $1.9 million seed round from Wonder Ventures, United Talent Agency, AmplifyLA, and Creator Partners. - learn more
  • Avnos, a hybrid direct air capture startup, raised a $36M Series A led by NextEra Energy and joined by Safran Corporate Ventures, Shell Ventures, Envisioning Partners, and Rusheen Capital Management. - learn more
  • AI.fashion, startup whose mission is to help retailers enhance the online shopping experience by providing consumers with virtual try-ons and personalized fashion recommendations, raised a $3.6M Seed Round led by Neo. - learn more
  • Suma Wealth, startup that aims to demystify financial topics and provide culturally relevant content, virtual experiences, and resources to help Latino users navigate financial challenges and opportunities, raised a $2.2M Seed Round . Radicle Impact led, and was joined by Vamos Ventures, OVO fund and the American Heart Association Impact Fund. - learn more
  • 222, a startup that helps users discover their city and meet new people through unique social experiences, raised a $2.5M Seed Round. Investors included 1517 Fund, General Catalyst, Best Nights VC, Scrum Ventures, and Upfront Ventures. - learn more
  • LimaCharlie, a security operations cloud platform, raised a $10.2M Series A led by Sands Capital. - learn more
  • Polycam, an app that uses a smartphone’s sensors to capture 3D scans of objects, raised an $18M Series A co-led by Left Lane Capital and Adjacent, and joined by Adobe Ventures and individuals like Chad Hurley and Shaun Maguire. -learn more.

LA Venture Funds

Actively Raising

  • ReelCall, Inc., an entertainment technology company focused on powerful apps and platforms that help build and maintain the professional network of connections vital to career growth, is raising a $850K Pre-Seed Round. - learn more
  • CZero, a startup building software to decarbonize logistics for logistics businesses and goods business through a vetted marketplace and optimization software. - learn more
  • Couri, a technology startup addressing last-mile delivery issues, is raising a $450K Pre-Seed Round at a $2.2M post money valuation. - learn more
  • Sweetie, a marketplace to help people plan date nights, is raising a $1.5M Pre Seed Round. - learn more
  • StartupStarter, an investment platform that provides real-time data and analytics on startups, is raising an $850K Angel Round. - learn more

If you’re a founder raising money in Los Angeles, give us a shout, and we’d love to include you in the newsletter!

Venture Waves, Climate Tech Wins, and Silicon Beach's Ongoing Evolution

Christian Hetrick

Christian Hetrick is dot.LA's Entertainment Tech Reporter. He was formerly a business reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer and reported on New Jersey politics for the Observer and the Press of Atlantic City.

Anduril Seeks $1.5B in VC Funds

Defense company Anduril Industries Inc., based in Costa Mesa and founded by Palmer Luckey, is seeking to raise $1.5 billion in fresh funds to boost its valuation to $12.5 billion or more, according to sources quoted by The Information. This fundraising effort, if successful, would mark one of the largest venture capital rounds of the year.

Image Source: Anduril

Anduril recently secured a contract to develop and test small unmanned fighter jet prototypes under the Air Force’s Collaborative Combat Aircraft (CCA) program, beating out major defense companies like Boeing, Lockheed Martin, and Northrop Grumman. Alongside General Atomics, Anduril will design, manufacture, and test these aircraft, with a final multibillion-dollar production decision expected in fiscal year 2026. This program aims to deliver at least 1,000 combat aircraft to fly in concert with manned platforms and is part of the Air Force’s Next Generation Air Dominance initiative. Central to Anduril’s success in this contract is the Fury autonomous air vehicle, acquired through the purchase of Blue Force Technologies. This victory underscores Anduril's rapid advancement in the defense sector, aligning with Luckey's vision of building faster and more cost-effective defense assets. - learn more

Los Angeles Ranks Number 1 in Emerging Climate Tech Hub

The 2024 Emerging Climate Tech Hubs Report by Revolution highlights Los Angeles as a burgeoning center for climate tech innovation. LA's growth in this sector is driven by its diverse talent pool, strong research institutions, and a culture of environmental consciousness. The city's unique mix of legacy industries, such as entertainment and aerospace, alongside emerging tech companies, positions it as a pivotal player in the climate tech landscape. This shift reflects a broader trend of decentralized climate tech funding across the U.S., reducing the historical dominance of California's traditional hubs. - learn more

Silicon Beach: Looking Back, Moving Forward

Assessing the overall health of the startup market is challenging, especially as venture capital funding has decreased by an average of 61% from 2021 to 2023 across the top VC markets in the US. Markets with robust ecosystems in AI, SaaS, Biotech, Healthtech, and Fintech appear to be weathering the downturn better than those focused on Consumer and Gaming industries, areas where Los Angeles traditionally excels.

Percent Change In VC Funding By Region

CB Insights

LA Times paints a rather bleak outlook on the Los Angeles tech scene noting venture capital funding in Greater Los Angeles plummeted 73% from 2021 to 2022. Silicon Beach, once a vibrant tech corridor, currently faces high vacancy rates and lacks late-stage financiers, especially in the AI sector. However, there are positive signs, including growth in aerospace startups and increased venture capital investment in early 2024, suggesting a potential rebound for LA's tech ecosystem.

While LA may not be exceeding expectations during this period, its tech ecosystem warrants a nuanced evaluation, given the broader market dynamics and its strong performance in specific sectors. Reach out to us with your thoughts.

🚀 SpaceX gears up for another stellar year, active raises, and more

Christian Hetrick

Christian Hetrick is dot.LA's Entertainment Tech Reporter. He was formerly a business reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer and reported on New Jersey politics for the Observer and the Press of Atlantic City.

Happy Friday Los Angeles! You made it through the first week of 2024!

🔦 Spotlight

Elon Musk may be a divisive (albeit entertaining) figure, but the continued success of SpaceX is pivotal for the aerospace industry in Los Angeles and more broadly around the world.

Image Source: SpaceX webcast

What happened with SpaceX in 2023?

  • Elon Musk challenged Facebook founder, Mark Zuckerberg to a cage fight.
  • SpaceX launched 96 successful missions with its Falcon series of rockets, a 57% increase over its previous annual record.
  • SpaceX conducted two test flights of the largest and most powerful rocket ever built, Starship.
  • Roughly two-thirds of SpaceX's launches in 2023 were devoted to building out Starlink, the company's satellite-internet megaconstellation.
  • Isaacson’s Elon Musk biography was published in September including everything from Musk’s tumultuous relationship with his father to his work ethic and “demon mode”.

Moving forward what can we expect from SpaceX and its controversial founder? Continued innovation pushing the aerospace industry to new limits? Yes. More drama? Without a doubt.

Here is some of what is to come in 2024:

🤝 Venture Deals

Just Announced

Check back next week!

LA Exits

  • CG Oncology, an Irvine, CA-based developer of immunotherapies for bladder cancer, filed for a $100M IPO. It plans to list on the Nasdaq (CGON) with Morgan Stanley as left lead underwriter, and has raised around $317m in VC funding. - learn more
  • McNally Capital agreed to sell Advanced Micro Instruments, a Costa Mesa, CA-based maker of gas analyzers and sensing technologies, to Enpro (NYSE: NPO). - learn more

Actively Raising

  • ReelCall, Inc., an entertainment technology company focused on powerful apps and platforms that help build and maintain the professional network of connections vital to career growth, is raising a $850K Pre-Seed Round. - learn more
  • CZero, a hard-tech startup that is developing a technology for decarbonizing natural gas, is raising a $1.5M Seed Round. - learn more
  • Couri, a technology startup addressing last-mile delivery issues, is raising a $450K Pre-Seed Round at a $2.2M post money valuation. - learn more
  • Sweetie, a marketplace to help people plan date nights, is raising a $250K Angel Round. - learn more
  • StartupStarter, an investment platform that provides real-time data and analytics on startups, is raising an $850K Angel Round. - learn more

If you’re a founder raising money in Los Angeles, give us a shout, and we’d love to include you in the newsletter!

📅 LA Tech Calendar

Sunday, January 7th

Wednesday, January 10th

  • Startup Cafe: Networking with a Kick - Entrepreneurs, Startups, and Tech Enthusiasts join together to meet and connect with like-minded people, industry professionals and investors, while enjoying a nice cup of coffee in Venice at The KINN. This week’s interactive discussion about AI’s evolution in entertainment will feature Dr. Sam Khoze and Rachel Joy Victor.
  • Venice Tech Happy Hour- Join Startup Coil and FoundrHaus Wednesday evening and enjoy the sunset from the rooftop, grab a bite overlooking Abbot Kinney, and mingle with other tech enthusiasts and entrepreneurs by the bar on the patio.

Have an awesome event coming up? Reach out to be featured on next week’s Newsletter!

📙 What We’re Reading

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