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?
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.
We live in a golden age for Los Angeles tech companies and startups.
Transformative organizations are emerging and blossoming here. And there's a world-class talent pool in their backyard. From ecommerce to biotech to social media to aerospace and beyond, the future is being built in L.A.
Since our launch in January 2020, our goal at dot.LA has been to empower the L.A. startup ecosystem - by shining a light on great companies through our journalism, convening luminaries at our events (register for the upcoming dot.LA Summit here!) and hosting discussions via our pandemic-born online community wfh.LA.
An ecosystem as unique as ours deserves a dedicated, boutique platform to connect top talent with top startups. Matchmaking people to great companies isn't easy on overly broad platforms like Linkedin that's more akin to a traffic clogged freeway, where the sheer volume makes it tough for top candidates to stand out amid congestion. Our site is tailored to L.A. and its unique ecosystem that boasts some of the top, most diverse technical talent in the country.
We're here to change that; dot.LA is proud to introduce a solution to this gridlock: Interchange.LA.
With the re-launch of Interchange.LA, we are taking over stewardship of a project that has been a long time coming. The original incarnation of Interchange.LA was borne of a desire from stalwarts of the L.A. tech scene - Crosscut Ventures, AnnenbergTech, the Mayor's Office - to help fuel the community's growth. We are beyond thankful for the hard work put in by these organizations and others to help get this platform where it is today, and are excited to take it to the next level.
So what makes Interchange.LA unique?
LA DNA. In the year and a half since launch, dot.LA has established itself as the premier source for news and community for the Los Angeles tech ecosystem. Our journalists tell important stories that move the needle. Our events bring together the community and foster connection. We have boots on the ground in a way that no other recruiting platform does, and we'll use that to hone the product to be as useful as possible.
Equity focus. We also believe that Los Angeles has the potential to become the most inclusive and equitable startup hub in the country and in the world. Because L.A. is blossoming as an innovation hub later than first-generation locales like the Bay Area, we have the opportunity to learn from the mistakes of those places. Rather than a tech and startup community that exists insulated from the rest of the city, we want to promote the growth throughout the city in a way that benefits everyone.
Universal access. Our goal is to lower barriers to entry for tech on all sides, and creating an accessible platform for all is crucial to that mission. Our platform is free to candidates and will always offer a free option for companies.
Bespoke recruiting. For those high-growth companies that need top talent to keep fueling the rocketship, we are thrilled to be able to offer a white-glove option through which our team can build and execute tailored recruiting. If you're responsible for recruiting at a hot startup in L.A., please do yourself a favor and reach out to Interchange.LA's General Manager Sharmineh Lewis at sharmineh@dot.LA.
Interchange.LA is the premier avenue for connecting top talent with top startups in LA. It is an on-ramp for non-traditional candidates to join the vibrant L.A. startup community. It is an engine to help LA become the most diverse, equitable, and inclusive hub for innovation in the world.
It's the best time in the world to found or join a world-changing organization. At dot.LA we want to help you do it all.
Column: The Post-Label Music Industry Is Here. Here's How Artists, Businesses and Investors Can Prosper
For decades, artists have had to rely on a music industry plagued with nepotism to reach their audiences.
Since it has not always been necessary to possess real talent in order to become a well-known artist, the industry is fundamentally unequal. Gifted artists looking to pave their way often lose opportunities because they don't know "the right person." The opportunities that allow artists to thrive — including shows, music licensing and selling music-related services — aren't easy to find and are usually shared through word of mouth. Many artists are forced to focus less on music and more on tapping networks of friends, family, and their label to help get their careers started.
But a new day is coming. A myriad of new platforms have been working to level the playing field. Networks have become more accessible in the last 10 years, and the domination of the mediocre but well-connected is coming to an end.
This new milieu has shifted the power away from the seemingly impenetrable record label network and changed how artists create music, connect, find opportunities, promote, release songs and conduct business together.
In the past few years, marketplaces have capitalized on creative disorganization and emerged as a leading force. Publicly-owned companies like Fiverr and Etsy collectively generate billions of dollars per year for their creators and provide opportunity in an otherwise chaotic and zero-sum market. Similar marketplaces are now connecting artists with niche audiences in the music industry.
These platforms offer the exact services record labels used to have a monopoly on: licensing, distribution, production, and more.
This year alone, Splice and Epidemic Sound — two B2B marketplaces for artists to sell snippets of sound and finished songs to other musicians, businesses, and video content creators — have collectively raised $500 million to provide a new way for artists to reach and monetize audiences.
Music marketplaces like these provide a healthy competitive ecosystem that can provide musicians with access to whole new revenue streams and give businesses more options at a lower cost. It's a win-win scenario in most situations.
This democratization of services enables artists to access new growth levers without the binds of record labels. They can find their own audiences and clients through marketplaces geared towards facilitating business between buyers and sellers.
In other words, instead of traditional cold emailing and reaching out on social media to connect with new people, sellers choose a marketplace that finds a lot of leads for them. They are able to track their clients, find new customers, communicate, deal with disputes, and charge all on a platform for usually a small percentage of each sale.
For instance, music industry service companies — including Melody Nest, which I founded — are emerging with a focus on connecting artists, marketing businesses, and video content creators looking to create custom music and license songs from a selection of vetted professionals.
New Opportunities for Artists
Musicians persevere in the industry because they want a life that's not attached to a "normal" 9-5 job, and the new spate of marketplaces have helped make this a reality by giving artists the freedom to work independently, as well as access to professional organizational tools and business leads.
These platforms have changed how connections are made, giving talented musicians access to millions of potential leads and real opportunity as soon as they sign up. Artists can now grow their own network.
Camilo Silva, professional audio engineer and Melody Nest member says these freelance marketplaces "not only help people like me generate new leads and access new, interesting markets but they also bring us different music styles from all over the world, keeping the fun factor high."
The current rise of B2B marketplaces is just beginning, and the next decade will shape the music industry... whether it's ready or not.
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