Startup: Andrea Roberson of AI4US Seeks Diversity in AI, Tech Workforce

Students at Bambey University, Senegal, are being offered a virtual course in Data Science and Machine Learning next Spring from VenusAI4US. (Image from VenuisAI4US)

By AI Trends Staff

Andrea Roberson is CEO and founder of AI4US, which aims to address the lack of racial and gender diversity in high technology. She was previously a Machine Learning Researcher in the Economic Statistical Methods Division (ESMD) of the US Census Bureau, where she worked for over a decade. She is a graduate of Stony Brook College, where she is the first Black woman to earn a PhD in Applied Math and Statistics,  and of Spelman College, where she earned a degree in mathematics.

Andrea Roberson, Founder and CEO, VenusAI4US

The company in the fall of 2020 started a program called RAPIDS, which places students in virtual cohorts of 20 to 25 students to take Fundamentals of Accelerated Data Science from Nvidia’s Deep Learning Institute, as described in a recent account in VentureBeat. The course is given as a three semester-credit course and is the first to be taught by Black women instructors.

AI Trends asked Roberson to respond to queries we ask of selected startups. Here are her responses received via email:

Describe your team, the key people.

Outside of our Founder, Andrea Roberson, our team mostly consists of volunteers. We are pulling together Black Women who are professors and industry leaders in AI.

What business problem are you trying to solve?

Our program is trying to address some of the inequities in post secondary education, specifically for Women of Color (WOC). A lot of recent research, even post-Covid, shows that a new workforce education system & new workforce training models can lead to meaningful change. Our program is seeking to make both strong learning and career outcomes. It is a hybrid of all the new post secondary models that have started to spring up in the last few years.

Higher Ed has not been educating for the workplace; Higher Ed has largely focused on foundational skills. The pandemic is the ideal time to do things differently, give the workforce more agile options. The prohibitive costs of Higher Ed (especially in the age of Covid)  have impeded access to WOC.

The Higher Ed outcome would be to reverse the trend of declining computing degree recipients.  Initially it would be offering a Master’s degree alternative, showing that we can be more effective than Spelman, Howard, and other Historically Black Colleges and University’s (HBCUs). Demonstrating that we can outperform than the entire Higher Ed system. The mean number of Master’s Degree recipients in computing is 72 for Black women between 2007-16. Overall, the number of degree recipients has dropped by 40% over the past decade, to 4%, from 7%.

Spelman College produces about the same amount of Math graduates in 2020 as it did in 1999, but the price has tripled. Theoretical algebra is not required for a lot of available data science positions, but it is required for Spelman’s credential. And unfortunately, I think most people in the Black community hold up the Spelman pathway through Higher Ed as the best pathway and perhaps one of the few pathways. I think Covid will upend those assumptions (even my own thinking). The limitations of Spelman’s infrastructure will be painfully and clearly revealed in the coming months and years. I believe we are on the precipice of seeing those computing degree completion rates diminish even further.

VenusAI4US aims to address the racial and gender diversity in AI and high technology by training women of color in needed skills. (Image from VenusAI4US)

How does your solution address the problem?

Within two years, we plan to produce more Black Women with the equivalent to a master’s degree in Data Science/Machine Learning & AI, than the entire US Higher Ed system. And double the participation of Black women in the AI workforce at an equitable cost per student.  Our curriculum is currently tailored to teaching for Black Lives, specifically WOC.  That means affirming Black identity and the beauty of Blackness in the classroom. As self-care for Black students and to directly confront anti-Blackness. The ferocity of racism in the United States against Black minds and Bodies, it just demands a different pedagogy.

AI4US will also mitigate the costs of Higher Ed by alternatives to standard financing approaches. E.g. Income share agreements and an outsourcing approach that sees students do contracted project-based work as part of training.

How are you getting to the market? Is there competition?

We haven’t found a program that specifically looks to improve the numbers of WOC receiving computing degrees and participating in the AI workforce.

Do you have any users or customers?

NVIDIA was our first customer, we have helped them increase the number of WOC that receive training from their Deep Learning Institute.

Any anecdotes/stories?

We believe building confidence is an essential cornerstone of building a career in AI. Research shows, among those students who get Bs or below, men become more likely than women to advance. Researchers concluded, “We need to find a way to message that a lot of people find this hard, and you can still excel in computing with Bs.”  We make it clear that working hard in these subjects does not signal a lack of talent. American Association of University Women found that “women experts portrayed as ‘superstars’ who are unique and exceptional have little impact—and sometimes have a deflating effect—on young women’s views of themselves.”

I received plenty of Bs in college and graduate school; I do not have a reputation as a math prodigy. But I still became the first Black woman to receive the PhD in Applied Math and Statistics from Stony Brook University. AI4US is creating an automated world, and we are determined that the future be filled with other women who could fathom making this choice too.

How is the company funded?

The initial years will be financed by corporate partners.

Learn more at VenusAI4US.