Andrea Sommer is the Founder & Business Lead at UvvaLabs, a female-founded technology company that uses AI to help companies make better decisions that create more diverse and accessible workforces.
Could you discuss how UvvaLabs uses AI to assist companies in creating more diverse and accessible workforces?
Our approach looks at offering structural solutions to the very structural problem of inequity in the workplace. Through our research and experience, we’ve built a model of what the ‘ideal’ organization looks like from a diversity and accessibility perspective. Our AI analyzes and evaluates data across an organization to create a version of that organization’s ‘current state’ from a diversity perspective. By comparing the two sides – the ideal to the current – we can offer recommendations on what structures to build and which to remove to bring the organization closer to that ideal state.
What was the inspiration for launching UvvaLabs?
My co-founder and I are childhood friends who have had a lifelong passion for dismantling the barriers to equity, but we’ve done so in very different ways. My co-founder Laura took the academic path, getting a PhD in Sociology from UC Berkeley. Her research and experience has been focused on building rigorous methodologies that work in low-quality data environments, especially studying racial bias. I went down the business path, first working as a strategist across global technology brands, getting an MBA from London Business School and then building my first business in the analytics space. Despite our divergent paths we have stayed in touch throughout the years. When I returned to the US after living in London for the last 11 years, the opportunity to collaborate on a project together presented itself and UvvaLabs was born.
One current issue with using AI to hire staff is that it can unintentionally reinforce societal biases such as racism and sexism. How big of an issue do you believe this to be?
This is a huge issue. Frequently decision makers believe that AI can solve all problems instead of understanding that it is a tool that requires a human counterpart to make smart decisions. Recruitment is no different – there are many products out there that claim to reduce or remove bias from the process. But AI is only as strong as the algorithm running it, and this is always built by people. Even the strongest AI system cannot be completely free of bias since all humans have biases.
For example, many AI recruitment tools are designed to offer or match candidates to a role in the most cost-effective way possible. This unintended focus on cost actually creates a huge inflection point for bias. In typical organizations, hiring diverse talent takes more time and effort because power structures tend to reproduce themselves and tend to be homogenous. However, the benefits of building a more diverse workforce far outweigh any initial costs.
How does UvvaLabs avoid having these biases into the AI system?
The best way to build any technology including AI that is free from bias is by having a team that is composed of both people who have been historically marginalized and who are experts in research methods designed to minimize bias. That’s the approach we take at UvvaLabs.
Uvvalabs uses a broad variety of data sources to understand an organization’s diversity environment. Could you touch on what some of these data sources are?
Organizations are low-quality data environments. Frequently there is little consistency between companies or even departments in terms of what is created and how. Our technology is designed to provide rigorous analysis in these types of environments by combining a mixture of quantitative and qualitative data sources. The key for us is that we only analyze what is readily available and easily shareable – so that the approach is as low-touch as possible.
Uvvalabs offers a dashboard showing various indicators for organizational health. Could you discuss what these indicators are and the type of actionable insight that is provided?
Every organization is different, so each organization will likely use Uvva in a slightly different way. This is because every organization is at a different stage in their diversity journey. There is no one size fits all formula – our approach flexes to each organization’s priorities, what is currently being measured and available, as well as where the organization wants to go. This exercise is what defines the recommendations our tool provides.
As a woman serial entrepreneur do you have any advice for women who are contemplating launching a new business?
Startups are a boy’s club and it is objectively harder for women, and even harder for women of color. We shouldn’t shy away from the reality that women and people of color have been systematically shut out of opportunities, capital, communities and networks of access. That said, this is slowly changing. For instance, more and more funds are opening up that specifically are geared towards women or BIPOC. Incubators and accelerators are thinking and acting more inclusively as they shape their programs and practices. Diverse entrepreneurial communities are emerging and growing.
My advice for anyone who aspires to be an entrepreneur is to take a stab. It won’t always be easy. And it might not work. But entrepreneurship is filled with people who break with convention and prove naysayers wrong. We need more women and minorities in this community. We need their dreams, their products and their stories.
You are also the founder of Hive Founders, a non-profit network that brings female founders together. Could you give us some details on this non-profit and how it can help women?
Hive Founders is a global network of support for women across the globe, no matter what stage they are in. Every business is unique but there are many lessons we can learn from each other. In addition to the community, Hive Founders hosts events, podcasts, and a newsletter – all designed to bring resources and knowledge to our community of founders.
Is there anything else that you would like to share about UvvaLabs?
Every organization has the potential to transform itself into a more productive, diverse and accessible workplace, regardless of what structures are in place today. There are competitive reasons for investing in diversity. For one, the customer landscape is changing – the United States for instance will be majority minority by 2044. In practice this means customer profiles are changing too. Every company wants to be as attractive as possible to their customers and as competitive as possible against similar offerings. Diversity is that competitive asset. Smart companies and their leaders understand this and will get ahead of the curve to ensure their workplaces and products serve and support as many different types of people as possible.
Thank you for the great interview, I really enjoyed learning about your views on diversity and AI bias. Readers who wish to learn more should visit UvvaLabs.
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