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Diversity in AI leads to better AI - why Sage is doubling down on Atlanta, and community-based partnerships

Jon Reed Profile picture for user jreed July 3, 2024
When it comes to diversity in AI, it's hard to move past lip service. But at the Sage analyst event in Atlanta, I was in for a surprise. Sage's partnerships with Morehouse College and The BOSS Network took center stage - and changed our AI discussion.

The BOSS Network in action
(via Sage partner, The BOSS Network)

Are you sitting down? I'm about to give credit to enterprise vendors. Yes, there was a boatload of AI hype from the keynote stage this spring, but behind the scenes, more often than not, I heard specifics about how to get to a more responsible (and effective) AI. 

On the downside, I didn't hear enough about the problem of bias - bias in training data, bias in the output, and bias in the humans developing the AI. Granted, bias is an ultra-thorny problem - and one you never fully solve.

I also didn't hear enough about diversity in AI teams. To date, my research indicates that more diverse teams just create better AI. And: they tend to pick up on bias earlier and faster. We can define "diversity" in many ways beyond just legally protected (and typically underrepresented) groups. Here's the exciting part: diverse teams tend to ask different AI questions - and push AI projects into new and fruitful directions. As Sage CTO Aaron Harris said to me:

It's super-obvious that if you're training AI to make decisions like a human, you need to represent the spectrum of humanity in that process. What we don't often think about is the decision around: what problems are you going to solve? When you've got a more diverse set of people who are leading the development of AI, you're going to get a different set of problems that you're using AI to solve. It's more expansive. And I think that's equally important to just getting the bias problems tackled.

Better AI needs diverse talent - how Sage's community partnerships fit in

At Sage's analyst event in Atlanta last week, the unexpected happened: diversity in AI took center stage. Not in a heavy-handed fashion, but in a community way, grounded in Sage's deeper investment in Atlanta itself (Sage is moving its North American headquarters into the Ponce City Market area). Our discussion was sparked by Sage's continued partnerships with the BOSS Network and Morehouse College. Harris told the assembled analysts:

If we're really committed to building a sizable organization in Atlanta, we need to have a multi-generational commitment to the community, where people know who Sage is, where students of these great universities consider us as a place to work, where we're visible to the civic activities in the city... It's two things: it's the commitment to Atlanta for the long term. But it's also a real recognition that as technology progresses, especially with AI, we have to have a more diverse pool of talent.

Worthy goals, but it's all in the follow-through - and that's where brands tend to stumble. Because the follow-through is the nitty gritty. The follow-through is where you might take a bit of heat; then, we find out what a brand is really made of. Amy Cosgrove, Sage's VP People, North America, kicked off the day with details on notable partnerships in Atlanta and beyond, including two programs with Morehouse College. One of those programs is the Morehouse-Sage AI partnership. Cosgrove: 

Morehouse College is a historically Black college. It's part of the Atlanta University Center Consortium [AUCC], which is the world's largest consortium of historically Black colleges and universities... In 2023, we started this first one, which is our AI program. We initiated this so that we can work with Morehouse to address the low representation of black employees in computing and technology. 

It's a comprehensive program that is designed to help students understand the foundations of generative AI. It's a 15 week course; we had 20-plus students from the AUCC go through it in the first year... We currently have four of the program participants who are Sage interns this summer; they are working in an AI Copilot and CloudOps for us.

Then, Harris made a fiery comment about how a homogeneous AI will not get us to the right AI. I thought that comment framed the whole day. As he told me later:

I'm continually pleasantly surprised at how much people care about that... They do care that we're working with Morehouse and the BOSS Network. The other one that we're working with, that I've been working with longer than either of those is Teens in AI. Teens in AI emerged from a UN mandate. The sole purpose of Teens in AI is to encourage girls to pursue a career in AI. They're prioritizing countries where girls have the hardest problem. It might be infrastructure, but it might also be culture - wherever it's the hardest for a girl to to get a career in AI, and they do hackathons all over the world.

Want to get outside the box of bland AI ideas? These Teens in AI hackathons are a good start:

I often get to judge these hackathons, and it's so impressive. Where their minds are; what they're thinking that they want to solve them.

The BOSS Network - Black female entrepreneurs overcoming odds

Speaking of The BOSS Network, they were on-site also. A couple years ago, Madeline Bennett authored a piece on The BOSS Network's Sage partnership for diginomica, with an update this week: Diversity backlash is making it even harder for Black women entrepreneurs to get funding). While in Atlanta, BOSS Network Founder and CEO Dr. Cameka Smith was at a celebration for a BOSS Network member, whose company was recently acquired by Proctor and Gamble for $800 million. 

That's a great story, but it's not the whole story. I asked Smith about the stats from Bennett's article. Perhaps the most disconcerting? While Black women start more businesses than anyone else across the US, they only received .34% of VC funding in 2021. Smith responded:

The funding is not there; the support is not there, so we've decided that we're going to invest in ourselves... To see the numbers, less than 1% of Black women actually get VC funding. I probably know half of those founders myself. I think for us, as a community, we've always understood that there's systematic racism. And so we have just taken it upon ourselves to say, 'Hey, we don't want to focus what's not available, we're going to take with what we have, and move forward.' That is the spirit of an entrepreneur: you get very little - and you make something of that - and that is the success story of many entrepreneurs.

Can Sage's deeper investment into Atlanta be part of that success story? That will be something to watch. As Harris said to me:

In those cities where we had our flagship offices, we wanted to be deeply connected and integrated into the community. And those two are Newcastle [UK] and Atlanta. In Newcastle, we have way more people than we have in Atlanta... Newcastle is a much smaller city. So we deliberately chose to build our office in Ponce City Market, because it's central to historic Atlanta. And we're choosing to work with these organizations that are directly reflective of our purpose as a company.

Martin Phelps, Director of Global Analyst Relations at Sage, called out the lip service we sometimes hear on these issues. A shuffle in the speaker lineup inspired Phelps to say: 

Actually it worked really well, because the points I was going to make, Amy made far more powerfully than I would have been able to. Those points were around our purpose, which is to 'Break down barriers, so everyone can thrive.' Usually, that is around the democratization of systems that allow small businesses the same sort of access that large enterprises have access to. But it also includes our purpose in terms of how we get involved with organizations like Morehouse and BOSS Network. There's real skin in the game. It isn't just writing a check.

I've worked at other organizations where everyone has a corporate social responsibility program. But some of those are really kind of writing checks. I think there is a difference here. We really are embedded in these sorts of activities and organizations.

My take

The only way for Sage to prove the difference is to see it through. But I will say this: it's unusual to begin an enterprise analyst day with community speakers. It's rare to see diversity investments at the core of AI discussions. Phelps is right: to make this work, companies really do need to embed themselves. As Smith told us: 

Every month, Sage has a mentor from the executive team come in, and they're honestly the shining stars in this program, because they come in as a mentor; they coach these women, and they feel so connected that this brand actually believes in them, and is going a step further, to actively support them with actual insights and tactics.

Of course, diversity is hardly the only AI challenge. For those who want a deeper dive into Sage's AI strategy, check my Sage Transform piece, "AI software development is completely different" - how Sage plans to deliver enterprise AI with thousands of customer-specific finance models. During our Atlanta sit-down, I asked Harris to elaborate on his statement that 'Customers need bespoke AI models, which is a much bigger challenge than multi tenancy.' He responded: 

Building AI solutions is so fundamentally different from building traditional software. The best way I can describe it is that you're building a factory that automates the process of doing the training, the deployment, the operation... Coding the infrastructure is the job. Then you've got your data scientists; they figure out what are the best algorithms, what are the best approaches to curating the data, but then fundamentally, what you have to do is build a factory that automates all of that, and manages all of that, and that is the bulk of the work. 

Connecting AI infrastructure coding to AI team diversity is beyond our scope today, but here's the short version: if you want to build better AI, curating the data and tuning the algorithm is a good place to start. Democraticizing those skills is a worthy mission indeed. When I met with Dan Miller, Sage EVP Financials and ERP Division, I told him that at this event, Sage's 'Break down barriers' mantra sounded like the real thing. Miller says 'Break down barriers, so everyone can thrive' has evolved, and gelled. 

It's something that has stuck. Pretty much every time I get up in front of a group of people, I will say it - not because I feel like I have to say what our purpose statement is, rather it's core to who we are, and what we're doing for the people we're trying to serve. 

You could also view the statement as a challenge, or a high bar - and it's a good one to have.

Image credit - Photo of The Boss Network, Sage partner via The Boss Network's Instagram account.

Disclosure - Sage Intacct is a diginomica premier partner; Sage paid the bulk of my travel expenses to attend Sage analyst day in Atlanta. Dr. Cameka Smith, quoted in this piece, is pictured second from left.

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