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 pandemic, I was making enough money to retire my mom from her job as a janitor, which suddenly had a new risk attached to it. I was also one of the less 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 seeing what going into work at the height of the pandemic meant for the people around me.

At the time, I was working as a senior program manager for the Latino Donor Collaborative, a nonprofit think-tank funded by the nation’s top Latino leaders, with the mission to change the U.S. Latino narrative through evidence-based research. Seeing, for the first time in my life, Latinos in decision-making roles allowed me to dream bigger for myself, and I wanted to expose as many kids as possible to these hard-to-find role models. So, I expanded our internship program and was inspired to meet so many remarkable Latino college students.

Most of my interns attended 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 inevitably contract COVID-19 due to exposure in the low-income essential jobs as janitors, construction workers and food distribution workers and 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

If I had been born a few years later, as my college students were, 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 support 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 the US, when the pandemic hit, Los Angeles could not move fast enough to address the digital divide disproportionately affecting its Latino and Black students, who represent almost 3 out of the county’s 4 K-12 students. An LAUSD study found that only 50% of Hispanic and Black middle school students participated in at least 7 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 the minority 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.

Tech Must Represent Our Communities

One possible reason for this botch is that the resource allocators who had the power to address the distance-learning gap were not from the most-affected communities. That’s why we also need to address the other part of the digital inclusion equation: technical training.

After witnessing the amplified disparity in my community and recognizing the 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. Of those 1,000 fellows, only the work of about 24 was presented in Grand Finale which was judged by top technology leaders.

What’s Possible: The Internet Expansion Program

I was awe-struck 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 silver bullet project L.A. County: Internet Expansion Program detected which L.A. communities were 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 that would benefit from it 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 Everyone On, 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 [minorities] 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.

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.

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