Sunday, May 20
5 states, 689 miles, 10.25 hours, 3 tanks of gasoline, 6 “Genius Dialogues” podcast episodes, and $32.60 in tolls (looking at you, Pennsylvania and Ohio turnpikes!) after leaving my hometown of Richmond, Virginia, I arrived at long last at the Motor City on the evening of Sunday, May 20. I, along with nine other college students and recent graduates, was entering into a week of bootcamp training with Hacker Fellows in advance of a summer spent coding for Michigan startups. We would call Wayne State University’s campus home and Invest Detroit Ventures’ office space our workplace for the coming week, but so much more was in store for the seven days ahead than I ever could have imagined. Technical preparation was on the itinerary, certainly, but the truly defining moments of the coming week were comprised of deep dives into entrepreneurship, Detroit’s culture, and engaging in personal development. It is these moments I would like to write about!
Monday, May 21
The week kicked off with a tour of downtown Detroit through Bedrock Detroit. Bruce Schwartz led the tour; I affectionately termed him “Detroit’s Hype Man” because of his overwhelming enthusiasm for the growth and business development popping up all over downtown. He guided us through some of the most prominent pieces of local street art (including the Kaws statue, which had been unveiled outside of One Campus Martius that very morning), walked us through the offices of Quicken Loans plus a handful of the other ~120 businesses owned by Dan Gilbert, and provided some context around Gilbert’s history and present-day activity in the city. In Schwartz’s words, "Money follows, it does not lead. If you do good, you will do well." As someone interested in urban justice, development, and planning, I appreciated the opportunity to ask hard questions about the role of business in city infrastructure (e.g. more comprehensive public transit options, assistance with low income housing provision, etc.) and security (e.g. regarding the private partnership between Gilbert and local law enforcement).
Tuesday, May 22
After work on Tuesday, our group took a tour of Recycle Here!’s interior facilities and exterior art gardens. One of the most prominent features of the building was a large piece of graffiti reading “wasteD land”. Perhaps it serves as a tongue-in-cheek commentary on American proclivity to discard what are actually valuable art supplies; to be “waste”-ful in our handling of resources that can actually be recycled or repurposed -- a spin on the age-old phrase that “one man’s trash is another man’s treasure.” If a beautiful undulating standing bar carefully crafted from reclaimed wooden strips, or a dangling display of multi-colored glass bottles were not enough to prove this point, certainly the massive, shadowy form of a dragon sculpture hanging from the ceiling certainly impressed upon us how much potential lies in materials that could otherwise go to landfills.
Then again, the turn of phrase also draws attention to the manner in which outsiders often think of Detroit as a throwaway city, a doomed “wasteland” of abandoned car factories. The recycling center -- which actually used to be a Ford automotive manufacturing factory in a former life -- proclaims the vitality of Detroit, but in a manner entirely unlike the burgeoning sleek downtown scene. Room after room in the recycling center has been repurposed for everything from an electrician’s workbench to a motorcycle repair shop to an indoor BMX ramp, all of which coexist alongside artists’ maker spaces and the recycling facilities themselves. Dim interiors, leaky ceilings letting in the odd ray of sunlight, discarded pieces of PVC and materials all contribute to the sensation of grittiness. It is the unapologetic coexistence of creativity and scrappiness manifested in Recycle Here! that collectively proclaim on behalf of the city, “We are here! We have value! You cannot erase us!”
Wednesday, May 23
Our intern cohort heard on Wednesday from Cayse Llorens, a Senior Associate at Invest Detroit Ventures, in response to the question “What is a venture-backable business?” Many of the concepts he introduced were new to me as a Computer Science and Environmental Sciences double major with little exposure to economics or business, much less entrepreneurship or business development. He walked us through some of the major steps of business ideation through seeking various stages of funding. One of the most poignant parts of his talk, in my opinion, was when he spoke about entrepreneurs as individuals with “risk affinity” who say “No matter what you tell me, I’m going to make it work.”
Our team spent the evening together at ima, a restaurant featuring delicious Japanese cuisine in the Corktown neighborhood. The steamed edamame were unlike anything I had tasted before! Covered in chilis, lemon, olive oil, and sea salt, they were topped only by the golden curry I had for my main course. I greatly enjoyed both the food and the conversation shared with other interns over it. Moments such as these helped cement friendships with the other Hacker Fellows and motivated deeper, more meaningful in-class partnerships.
Thursday, May 24
The highlight of Thursday was a deep dive into the Business Model Canvas, a critical framework for fast-paced startups dealing the ever-changing daily realities and plans. As Patti Glaza, SVP and Managing Director at Invest Detroit Ventures, put it: the intent of the model is that an entrepreneur would start with what they conjecture to be the case in each of a number of categories (e.g. customer segments, value proposition, channels, cost structure, etc.), before following through with actual testing of the model. We learned that failure to talk to potential consumers of a product or service can result in entrepreneurs coming to venture capitalists with great ideas, but no guarantee that the market actually wants them. Glaza put it this way: “we [tend to] build things, as technologists, that we think the markets want.” Of course, startups have neither the time nor the financial resources to sustain constant back-pedaling. One of the major themes of the entrepreneurial side of the week, therefore, was the imperative nature of thinking critically about needs -- and doing research into them -- of the consumer segments before deciding upon what building something for them should or could look like.
Friday, May 25
In response to an open invitation by Hacker Fellows Program Manager, Sam Ging, to give a “lightning talk” on any subject in tech, I presented for five minutes on algorithmic bias during the last day of bootcamp. Cathy O’Neil, mathematician and author of “Weapons of Math Destruction” says this on the subject: “Algorithms are opinions, embedded in code… They repeat our past practices, our patterns. They automate the status quo.” Algorithmic bias, then, is the insidious reality of human bias becoming entrenched in the automated decision making of today.
Take, for example, the use of machine-generated risk scores utilized in the determination of the number of years an individual will spend in prison. One such algorithm was being used in Florida to score individuals from 1 to 10, with ten being the highest risk. Both Bernard (a black man) and Dylan (a white man) were arrested for drug possession, and both had records. Even though Dylan had a felony on his record, while Bernard did not, Dylan was scored a 3 out of 10 and Bernard was scored a 10 out of 10 by what was supposed to be an “unbiased” algorithm. Other compelling examples include: algorithmic determination of which applicants will receive credit cards or loans, who gets hired out of an applicant pool, or how AI systems are taught to understand gender roles, and so on. Anyone interested in learning more about the impact of algorithmic bias, or how to fight it, should check out the Algorithmic Justice League!
I chose to give a talk because it was an opportunity to start dialogue about a subject that my Algorithms professor considers to be likely “the biggest ethical imperative in CS right now.” I wanted to invite my peers into thinking about a hard subject and simultaneously push myself to present it. More directly, I believe that the greatest opportunity for growth can be found in moments of discomfort and took the opportunity to present the talk as one such growing moment.
Our cohort had a lunch meeting with prior interns and fellows on Friday; it was an open dialogue and one of the major themes I took away was that our time as interns this summer will ultimately be what we make of it. I deeply appreciate their pushing us to boldly ask questions, learn from our mistakes, and relentlessly seek opportunities to grow. With the technical tools, social experiences, and relationships cultivated throughout the Hacker Fellows bootcamp -- as well as a healthy dose of grit -- I feel equipped to make all of their encouragements a reality as I continue to seek discomfort, learning opportunities, and growth this summer.
In conclusion, I’d like to send a huge “thank you” to everyone who helped and is continuing to help make this experience possible!