AI Has A Diversity Problem — This Accelerator Gives People The Tools To Fix It


Coming up in the tech industry, Tony Effik was used to being “the only person in the room” — sometimes even the building. “There weren’t a lot of people like me around, and those that were were few and far in between,” Effik, who identifies as Black, recalls.

As a Managing Director at Google and an Adjunct Assistant Professor at Columbia University, Effik was committed to nurturing young people of color one-on-one in his own professional life.

In 2020, the death of George Floyd compelled Effik and his wife, Perky Noah-Effik, to found the Black and Brilliant Advocacy Network, a pipeline for Black talent aimed at diversifying the workforce.

In AI, for example, minority groups are severely underrepresented, with Black people comprising only 4% (or less) of the staff at companies like Google and Microsoft, according to a report from the research institute AI Now.

“There are careers with fences around them,” Effik says. “Like, you know there’s a career called AI and it’s hot. You can see it, but you can’t get over the fence — you need people on the other side to help you out.”

In 2021, Codecademy partnered with Black and Brilliant to launch an AI Accelerator to help combat this very issue. For 10 weeks, participants studied everything from programming and data science to user experience and the ethical and business sides of AI. Established professionals coached learners on soft skills that they’d need to excel in their careers.

It’s “deeply satisfying” to hear success stories about learners who went through the accelerator program, Effik says. “The people who came through the program were probably on their way there anyway, but we just gave them a nudge and a little support.”

This year we’re teaming up again, with a focus on providing opportunities for aspiring technologists in Africa, a region with a budding technological scene that’s getting attention from tech giants like Google, Microsoft, and Meta. By bringing more people into the field, we hope to help “close what we call the Black Data Gap,” Effik says in an interview with ZDNet.

The partnership will help empower African communities to use technology to “tackle issues in public health, good governance, agriculture, and help improve data transparency for both public policy and private sector,” he says. Applications are open now, so if you’re located in Africa and want to participate in the program, click here to apply.

Here, Effik explains the work Black and Brilliant is doing to diversify AI, how mentors can give you superpowers, and what people need to know to be part of AI’s “massive revolution.”

What initially interested you about tech?

“I grew up in a low-income household. My mother was a cleaner, but she bought some very early computers for me and my siblings just for fun. But then we got a Commodore 64. It was an insane thing for her to buy for us because, if you talk to people in my age group in Silicon Valley, that’s what they had — and I was living in social housing in the projects. No one else in our neighborhood had a computer.

After that, I quickly got into writing machine code and BASIC. I didn’t get great at it, but I got interested in the ecosystem and subculture around it. Then, my school got one of the first computer rooms in the district — a DEC Vax Minicomputer system with green monitors. I started writing in C, Fortran, and Pascal, and I never got really great at it, but I got very comfortable around computing.

Then, I started working at this publishing company. One day my boss came into the office and said, ‘There’s this new thing called the Internet — we’ve got to go big on the Internet.’ And I was like, if no one’s an expert on the Internet, I can be that expert, and that was kind of what really propelled me.

I always had a thirst for knowledge and understanding of new and innovative things.”

What piqued your interest in data science and machine learning?

“I believe every few years, there is an on-ramp where the normal rules change and you can jump levels. If it weren’t for the Internet, I’d still be at the grassroots. When social media happened, I saw a bunch of people come up, and that helped me jump a few levels.

I feel data science, including AI and other disciplines, is the next on-ramp. I saw a lack of people of color in that space, they were missing this on-ramp. I couldn’t just sit on the sidelines and watch this, so I asked myself, ‘How do we bring more people in?’

AI is going to be ubiquitous and pervasive — from checkout systems and ordering online to medical diagnostics, everything is going to have some type of AI in it. I want to make sure that our people are at the table and ensure that they’re future-proofing their careers, because it’s just a massive revolution.”

Have you ever had a mentor?

“There definitely have been people that have guided and advised me and that I’ve learned from, but I’ve never really had somebody who I called on regularly or who I looked at in that way.

That’s actually something our community suffers from. But what you’ll find in more privileged communities is that they might have an uncle, a grandparent, a friend of the family who will be like, ‘Hey, you’re doing that thing? Did you realize there’s this other thing you could do?’ Or, ‘Come and talk to me next week.’ We don’t have that.

What a mentor does is essentially teach you the soft skills and ‘cheat codes’ — the things that you should know but don’t.

I think frequently with our community, you’re just making these decisions by yourself, like an island in isolation. It impacts your confidence, your decision-making, your ability to feel motivated and inspired, even your sense of belonging and inclusion. Mentors kind of give you a superpower — like a boost of confidence.”

What inspired you to form Black and Brilliant?

“After George Floyd’s death, conversations we weren’t having a year ago, we were suddenly having in the office. It was my first time talking to my boss at the time about my ethnicity and what it meant to be a Black man.

But the other conversation that came off the back of that was the fact that most of my bosses have been white men. A lot of people would say, ‘I want more Black people on the team, but I just can’t find the talent.’ And then I’d say, ‘I’ve got a lot of Black friends who said they can’t find the opportunity.’ It just sounded like a classic matchmaking problem in engineering.

So, I started the Black and Brilliant hashtag with my wife. What would happen if people could just search LinkedIn for #BlackandBrilliant? Then they’d already have the pipeline. We tagged 30 or 40 people and asked them to tag more people. I woke up one morning and there were 10,000 people tagged.

We’d do panels and networking events, and we formed different communities and subgroups. But then I realized that I was much more interested in taking a cohort of people and meaningfully impacting them. ‘Near-ready’ people — those who already had some of the technical skills or potential — and just helping them get over the fence. That’s when the AI Accelerator was born.

The most powerful thing was that I had a network of amazing people — Black, white, and Asian — who were already on the other side of the fence and could act as coaches in teaching the soft skills. I got some amazing people to do one-on-ones, hangouts, things like that. It was an amazing experience, and the Codecademy Team just took it to the next level for us.”

What advancements in (or applications of) AI are you most excited about?

“Everything we’re doing through our phones with virtual assistants and conversational processing was a really massive breakthrough. We have seen AI manifest in ways that still seem like magic, even today. I’m interested in that, but I’m also interested in operational or enterprise AI: You can make forecasts and predictions, and use it to guide decision-making.

We’ve seen it become pervasive in areas like finance and law enforcement with fraud detection, and I think enterprise AI is going to be even more far-reaching than what we see today. I’m passionate about that, because that’s more day-to-day for me in terms of the work I do, and it’s also very important in terms of representation because AI can be used in hiring to decide whether you’re going to be on the shortlist or not. It’s not the AI we think about day-to-day, but it’s the AI that we need to be plugged into and aware of.”

What advice do you have for BIPOC individuals who want to get into AI?

“Be courageous. You’re frequently going to walk into rooms where you’re the only one. You’re frequently going to be challenged that you’re not as good as everyone else. You’re going to have moments where people around you will say things that don’t sit well with you. There are going to be moments where you want to say things that are authentic to you but may not fit in that room. So you’re constantly going to be challenged, and over time that can wear you down, or it might even prevent you from stepping into the arena in the first place.

Being able to stand confidently in that room, standing confident in who you are and having a true and deep belief about your capabilities is very important. Your belief comes from you just knowing your stuff — there’s no shortcut to that. Become really good at this thing, and benchmark yourself against the very best. Aim for the mountaintops not the foothills.”

Conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

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