The Private Group Pushing Black Tech Talent into AI Jobs

Employers are in stiff competition for talent that can build the future of artificial intelligence. Globally, the pool for domain expertise in data science, machine learning, and other tangential fields that shape AI, is severely limited with jobs outpacing steadily outpacing the number of trained experts to fill them. In the United States, the talent shortage is even bleaker.Black tech talent in the AI-field is even more scarce, fueled by a national shortage of African-Americans within computer science-related industries. A study by the Computing Research Association revealed that African Americans represent only 2.4% and 1.5% of Master’s and Ph.D. recipients respectively in computer science and related fields.A quick search on for firms hiring AI talent, jobs can start off in the high six-figures, reaching up to a starting salary of over $140,000. With the enormous wealth-building opportunities in the field, Black technologists with appropriate experience and credentials aiming to enter the field face no shortage of options.In the crevices of the digital world, the Black in AI community has emerged as a response to the shortage of Black people being represented within the space of AI. In addition to its existence within private digital rooms, the community boasts one of few AI conferences where Black talent is centered at the forefront of research and innovation.

Pathway Toward Opportunity

Timnit Gebru, a research scientist at Google in the Ethical AI team and a Stanford-trained electrical engineer, launched the group with a few colleagues working at other large tech companies in 2016 following a rant on Facebook where she called out the lack of diversity in AI.Her frustration with being in majority-white rooms where technology was being developed absent of thinking around how socio-technical systems affect Black people, helped to evolve a discussion on what could be done to better connect, inspire, and advance Black technologists within the space of AI. The conversation went from the confines of an open Facebook group to a private Google Group and has thus grown into an online treasure-trove of knowledge bases, discussions, and sharing of information on fellowships, funding for Ph.D. research, internships, and digital mentorship for those looking to land in top-tier programs.In 2017, Black in AI launched its first conference as a complimentary workshop series hosted during the Neural Information Processing Systems in Long Beach, California. The following year, Black in AI was presented as part of NIPS in Montreal, Canada. With its third conference slated for December 13 in Vancouver, Canada, Black in AI is one of very few conferences specifically targeting Black people across the African Diaspora that emphasizes community, connection, and has proven to onboard Black technical talent into high-paying jobs.At the annual conference, and within its digital communities, participants are connected to AI research teams at Facebook, Amazon, Google, and other tech giants recruiting for both much-needed AI talent and Black employees. By the NumbersToday, the Black in AI Facebook group boasts over 800 members and its Google Group subscribers have reached past 1,200 members from around the world. Members have landed coveted fellowships and internships and placements within computer science Ph.D. programs at top institutions training AI talent like Cornell University where they had a record number of Black students apply and get accepted.

Annual number of attendees at Black in AI

Forward Movement

Each year, Black in AI and its leading sponsors have successfully sponsored travel grants for researchers who otherwise are unable to cover travel, visa fees, and room accommodations, to attend the conference and present their research among their colleagues.Globally, programs in Africa are also serving as community hubs. Data Science Africa has made its way to several countries across the continent, including Nigeria, Kenya, Tanzania, and recent conferences in Ethiopia and Ghana this year. The Deep Learning Indaba conference hosted at Kenyatta University for the first time this year aimed to bring together the African machine learning community.Gebru says that Black in AI will be developing a nonprofit arm to their work soon to take on additional support and funding, including full-time staff to further drive engagement and support of Black engineers, researchers, and AI practitioners.

Sherrell Dorsey

She is the founder and CEO of The Plug—a distinctive, Black tech news and insights platform covering Black innovators in tech, venture capital, future of work policy, and more. Follow Sherrell on Twitter @Sherrell_Dorsey.