artificial intelligence

Disrupting Bias in Tech: Startups Compete to Solve Silicon Valley's Culture Problem

Kapor Capital awarded $100,000 to startups building software to do what humans can't: stomp out bias and toxic culture in the workplace

What to Know

  • The People Ops Tech pitch competition is in its fourth year
  • Early stage startups make a 5-minute pitch to a panel of judges
  • The startups are for-profit companies building technology to solve workplace bias

For young tech entrepreneurs, it's a rite of passage: Making a five-minute timed pitch in front of a panel of judges, explaining why their fledgeling companies are worthy of a venture capitalist's investment dollars.

They'll show off their latest innovations in artificial intelligence, and explain the problems their software will solve for consumers or enterprises. But in the case of one pitch contest, the customer is all of Silicon Valley — and the problem is an epidemic of workplace bias and toxic culture that makes it hard for tech companies to recruit and retain women and minorities.

The money behind the People Ops Tech pitch competition is Freada Kapor Klein, of Kapor Capital. She's held the competition for four years, giving out a total of $100,000 with virtually no strings attached, to companies that are fighting fire with fire — or, as she puts it, fixing tech with tech.

"We have seen all of the ways humans have failed at fixing these problems, so we say, 'Let's 'see if tech can do things in a systematic way that people have not been able to do,'" Kapor Klein said.

Jonathan Bloom/NBC Bay Area
Jasmine Shells, CEO of startup Five to Nine, took home the ,000 first place prize at this year's People Ops Tech pitch competition. Five to Nine is developing software for companies to manage their culture-building programs and get feedback from employees on how effective those events and activities are.

Of the ten entrepreneurs who competed, many have already built prototypes of AI-enabled platforms to detect and track bias, or to communicate with employees and stop it before it happens. Kapor Klein believes fixing workplace culture is every bit as important as recruiting diversely.

"If all we do is fix the hiring end, then what we've got is a bathtub problem," she said. "Meaning we are filling the bathtub with the drain still open."

The Kapor Center published its 2017 Tech Leavers Study, surveying employees who voluntarily left jobs at tech companies. Almost 40 percent of those surveyed said the reason they left was unfairness or mistreatment. Many of the entrepreneurs cited that study during their pitches.

The three award recipients at this year's competition were:

Five to Nine, a platform for companies to organize culture-building activities, and track whether they're successful using employee surveys. (1st place, $40,000)

Next Play, a bot that uses AI to match employees with mentors at their company, taking both career goals and demographics into account (2nd place, $25,000)

Forefront, an AI-enabled platform that delivers timely and relevant cultural sensitivity training to managers based on current events and the demographics of the people they manage (3rd place and audience choice, totaling $35,000)

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