Building a better world, one boot camp at a time

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I’ve been thinking a lot about proximity lately; specifically, the hazy promise of the good things that can happen when you invite people who are different from each other into a clean, well-lit space to learn, collaborate, build stuff, and have fun.

Sometimes the haze clears, and the promise becomes real.

Such was the case for three young women, Toshe Ayo-Ariyo, Danielle Ho, and Sonal Patel, whom I met recently via Zoom, and who recently completed the six-month USC Viterbi Data Analytics Boot Camp

All three are immigrants now based in southern California, and all wanted to develop their skills and grow their network. For Ho, 24, a native of Macau who currently works as a social media coordinator, it was the biggest leap. “I want to switch to data now,” she says. 

Then fate intervened when they were assigned to work together on a project still to be determined. Watch proximity work. “All the students were supposed to select a group to work with. We were the only members who didn’t select any group and we were placed together,” laughs Patel, 36, a parent and self-described homemaker. “That was the most interesting part… we were all on the same page and wanted a solution to the problem we had all experienced.”

The problem is representation in the workplace.  “I’ve never worked anywhere where I wasn’t the only one like me,” says Ayo-Ariyo, 24, a finance and strategy analyst for Disney. Ayo-Ariyo is a native of Nigeria who grew up mostly in Los Angeles. When it comes to corporate America, “everyone can and should do better,” she said to a Zoom array of nodding heads.

Their project started when they analyzed World Bank data to demonstrate that an increase in female workforce participation generates economic growth for countries. Then, they decided to think about what keeps women out of the workforce, which led them to the concept of bias in hiring. They ended up building a tool called Wonder Women Editor—now called UInclude —an editing application that eliminates gender-biased language from job applications and related workplace content in the hopes of encouraging more women to seek jobs and promotions.

Pressing ahead, the unlikely trio entered a pitch contest for graduates of boot camp programs, called The Next Level Contest, hosted by Trilogy Education, a brand of the ed tech company, 2U. And won. 

Yachica Gonzalez, a corporate recruiter at Microsoft, was one of judges. “I found the Wonder Women Editor was the most progressive,” she tells raceAhead. “Its value proposition-—removing bias in the hiring process—addresses one of the greatest challenges in society and corporate America.”

Based on the feedback they received during the pitch process, Ayo-Ariyo, Ho, and Patel now think they can make this a business. “I want to be able to go to one place, one platform, where I can find diversity stats and opportunities with companies I’m thinking of working for,” says Ayo-Ariyo, a Black woman with a disability. They plan on building it, along with an array of data-driven tools for employers to create more inclusive workplaces.

 Oh, and Y-Combinator? They’re headed your way.

I’d consider letting them in. Between them, they speak seven languages—Hindi, Gujarathi, Marathi, Cantonese, Mandarin, Yoruba and English—and share a sharp common vision of a world made better by tech.

They sure knew their way around a boot camp and pitch contest, things historically reserved for majority-culture folks. A more inclusive vision of tech helped a busy mom, a curious social media strategist, and a determined financial analyst find each other and start building.

As far as the business case for proximity goes, I think it’s a great one. More, please.

Ellen McGirt
@ellmcgirt
Ellen.McGirt@fortune.com

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