On Founding Accel.AI and Finding Product Market Fit

Founders Intro

For those who do not already know me, I am Laura Montoya, the founder of Accel.AI. At Accel.AI, we are on a mission to reduce barriers to entry in engineering Artificial Intelligence while fostering inclusion.

It has been over a year since sharing my views on “The Merits of Diversity versus Culture Fit” featured in The Compiler Publication by /dev/color and a year into the development of our company. I realized I could do a better job of publicly documenting our progress and sharing the narrative and growth of our organization with the wider community.

Many changes happen in the first year of a tech startup as the company and vision evolve, teammates come and go, you may pivot the product, refine your target audience, hone your brand, and through trial and error test your hypothesis in hopes of finding problem solution fit while validating your market.

The risk of building a company from scratch, of investing thousands of dollars of your own and others money, and of trading a steady paying gig with guaranteed benefits and vacation time, for the dream of creating change in others lives, the drive to pursue an innovative challenge, and the hopes of making it big can be incredibly thrilling. 20% of startups don’t make it beyond the first year and within 3 years, 92% of startups fail — as detailed in a project coauthored by Berkeley & Stanford faculty members with Steve Blank and 10 startup accelerators as contributors. To make it as an entrepreneur, you must maintain the enthusiasm for this work in the lowest moments and find strange comfort in the uncertainty of the process.

As happens with new founders and young entrepreneurs, I have already been challenged and asked to defend choices for every aspect of the company. The most commonly asked questions thus far include:

Why are you the right person to be doing this work?
What is your story?
Why is this important to you?
How will you develop a viable business model?
How are you fostering more access and inclusion?
Why is building a global network important?

Answering these questions in a succinct and comprehensive way is complex, especially for a first time entrepreneur. So much emotion and personal narrative is tied into creating a company and learning to separate your wants and needs from those of the community you are serving.

The aim of this post is to answer these questions, shed light on our progress, our plans for the future, and empower those interested in joining our movement to get involved in the community.

My Story

I am considered new to tech and entrepreneurship, having only been working in this industry for the past two years. I earned a Bachelors of Science in Biology, Physical Science, and Human Development with the intention of doing research long term. I found the structure of research institutions, graduate school, grant writing, and traditional education programs in general to be stifling in creativity, hierarchical in nature, and limiting in pace of advancement for a young upstart such as myself.

In a different post, I’ll be sharing more personal details focused on my upbringing and professional experience including a talk on “Redefining equality, and striving for equity in AI”, which I was grateful to share with Creative Mornings hosted at the Kapor Center for Social Impact in Oakland last month.

I jumpstarted my career in software engineering at Intuit helping to revamp their Quickbooks online platform, after completing an intensive bootcamp training program. Quickly realizing that front end engineering did not feed my soul, I started searching for a fitting way to apply these newly acquired technical skills. The field of computer science allows for endless areas of specialization and as technology progresses exponentially, it has become more uniquely tied to every other industry.

After much research and soul searching I came to find that Artificial Intelligence combines the concepts that interest me most. With a love of biological processes, physical science, and an innate curiosity of psychology, it seemed I’d found my niche. Many Artificial Intelligence algorithms are modeled after the human brain and other biological systems.

When I embarked on my journey, there was no program developed for accelerated training in advanced artificial intelligence techniques such as deep learning. The data science bootcamp model being offered at the time (over a year ago), stopped at broader concepts in Machine Learning and the makeup of their attendees mirror that of the average population of most tech companies (young white men with PhDs).

I yearned for a place where someone like me could feel at home to learn, to work, and to grow while exploring advances in this technology. I wanted an institution that would recognize that bias and ethics in AI should be taken seriously and should be taught alongside the technical aspects of engineering. This led me to founding Accel.AI.

Our Vision and Values

Due to automation and advances in Artificial Intelligence, 47% of Jobs Will Disappear in the next 25 Years, According to Oxford University. AI allows for the replacement of 1000’s of people in every industry and those affected most will be low-skilled, low-wage workers. A high demand for AI engineers, coupled with massive job losses due to automation — means we must find a way to retrain and upskill our workforce.

Andrew Ng, a renowned researcher in Artificial Intelligence has recognized this problem stating, “The most scarce resource in AI today is talent”. According to a study from Paysa, in 2017, U.S. companies are planning to allocate more than $650 million to fuel the AI talent race.

Demand is so high for AI, large tech companies are competing to poach talent from Universities all over the country. Many in academia are making the switch to the corporate sector.

Startups who need to incorporate AI into their platform just to be competitive in the market are vying for anyone who understands what AI even means today.

That is why we have been developing an AI Career Accelerator with a Global franchise model and a roadmap to expand internationally within one year.

In planning for the company, I decided to follow Peter Thiel’s approach, outlined in his book Zero to One: Notes on Startups, or How to Build the Future.

The Thiel Approach:

What is valuable (to the world), and going to remain valuable over the next 10+ years?
What can I do (well), and maintain/improve my ability to perform at over the coming years?
What are other people not doing, and not going to start doing very soon?

Retraining our workforce for jobs of the future creates indefinite value and is something I am passionate about dedicating myself to. I know we are moving in the right direction and I feel the value of our mission, while improving our skills in engineering and entrepreneurship will reap dividends for years to come.

Since initiating this a year ago, the AI industry has virtually exploded. New methods to teaching AI and opportunities for learning these skills have seemingly sprung up overnight. MOOC’s, Nano Degrees, and University extension programs focusing on Deep Learning have been created to try and solve this problem for the industry.

While others are trying, none of those institutions are addressing the concern that just training for technical skills isn’t enough. There are many factors to be considered in sustainable AI development — ethics, design, user experience, and long term effects on our society have to be part of the conversation.

Our mission is creating not just the next wave of engineers that will tackle the massive demand for machine learning in nearly every industry, but to also help underrepresented people break into this crucial field of technology. In this critical moment of preparing machines to take on many of the responsibilities we have formerly entrusted to other human beings, we must look at ourselves, at our companies, at our societies, and ask;

Who are we? Who represents us? And who do we represent?

We must have more than a single voice, a uniform experience, a typical approach, we must work harder to have technology represent every one among us.

Accel.AI is answering this call. We have opened the gates of this industry and we will change not only the field but the world as we train those that will shape our future through AI engineering.

We know first hand that you can take people from all walks of life, arm them with the right mindset, tools, environment, and full control of their learning experience and they will create things you couldn’t imagine possible.

Building a Global Community

The AI & Deep Learning Enthusiasts meetup group became the platform from which our community and voice developed. We first hosted study sessions reviewing Stanford’s CS231n course on Computer Vision. We’ve experimented with courses in Deep Reinforcement Learning and are three quarters of the way through the Deep Learning Book covering each chapter by in person and online discussion and presentation sessions. The group has grown to over 3,000 members, and through social media marketing we have 1000’s of followers on facebook, youtube, twitter, and instagram.

We launched our MVP — Quarterly Demystifying AI events November of 2016 in the Bay Area with an average of over 120 attendees, 70% of which are non caucasian and over 50% non male identifying.

Our first steps in global expansion began with hosting two workshops in Oslo, Norway with a partner vocational school called Noroff. Next we’ll be going to Taipei, Taiwan — bringing us one step closer to launching partner programs on all 5 continents and developing a comprehensive global AI engineering and mentoring exchange network.

Hosting these events internationally facilitates a broader network of engineers and mentors — creating the opportunity for our community to foster an understanding of the implications of AI engineering on a global scale and opportunities for travel and employment in other areas of the world they may not have exposure to otherwise.

To date we’ve successfully “Demystified AI” for over 600 attendees with these events, and our next event is planned for October 19th and 20th, in partnership with Google Launchpad in downtown San Francisco.

AI Fellowship

For the past year, Accel.AI has also been developing a 7 month Fellowship program aimed to train individuals with no prior experience and upskill them to transition into a new career in AI Engineering.

This fellowship follows a blended in person and online hybrid model, which research has proven is the most effective for tracking individuals progress and driving completion rates.

Ideally, hybrid classes combine the best attributes of both face-to-face and online formats into a course delivery method that is both flexible and accessible while providing an interpersonal experience with mentors and a physical connection to the organization.

Recent studies such as a 2010 U.S. Department of Education meta-analysis suggest that hybrid courses result in superior student learning outcomes, not necessarily due to the format itself, but because students often spend extra time reviewing course material. Students in hybrid courses also gain skills in communicating effectively in multiple modes.

By design, we lower the barriers to entry in engineering artificial intelligence by offering mentoring as a service through a state of the art AI learning management system. Fostering inclusion through community outreach and partnerships with organizations and foundations that focus on diversity in tech.

You can request a full copy of the syllabus for our 7 month Fellowship program by emailing us at fellowship@accel.ai or visiting our website.

Sustainable Business Models

Knowing when to pivot and realign with the needs of your community, target audience, and team members is a valuable learning experience and natural progression for every young startup.

Running a long term training program is costly and inefficient, coding bootcamps are shutting down as the industry condenses and companies are questioning whether these alternative education programs are a viable model despite their huge demand and claims of successful placement rates. Combining high overhead with a mission to offer flexible payment options and scholarships for underrepresented groups in tech could be interpreted as a fool’s errand for a young startup.

As noted in a recent New York Times post:

“The successful schools, analysts say, will increasingly be ones that expand their programs to suit the changing needs of employers. Some have already added courses like data science, artificial intelligence, digital marketing and project management. Other steps include tailoring courses for corporations, which need to update the skills of their workers, or develop online courses.”

All this to say, we have decided to postpone the pilot of our 7 month immersive program in exchange for condensed versions of the key learning milestones to be taught in affordable weekend, weeklong, and online workshops. This allows for us to iterate, test, and do market research on our curriculum content while still meeting the needs of our community and producing revenue towards sustainability.

Our Personal Development curriculum that focuses on “Ethical AI”, “Working with Diverse Teams”, and “Engineering Growth Mindset” will be marketed to Corporations to improve their diversity initiatives, reduce bias in AI, and strengthen our network with tech companies, in order to carry forward our mission to foster inclusion in AI through education and establish career paths for nontraditional AI engineers.

We’ll also continue offering and honing the brand of our Demystifying AI events, which:

  1. Provide attendees with exposure to the most current software tools, algorithms, concepts, theory, and practical applications for Artificial Intelligence engineering.
  2. Inspire attendees in continued self study and development of their AI engineering skills.
  3. Reinforce the mission to use Artificial Intelligence as a tool to solve problems in their communities while creating a positive impact in the world.
  4. Foster a community of Artificial Intelligence engineers and enthusiasts.
  5. Diversify the AI engineering space by lowering barriers to attending for women, people of color, lgbtq, those with disabilities, and low income individuals.

We pride ourselves in bringing the best and brightest engineers & entrepreneurs to present and mentor at our workshops. If you are passionate about sharing your knowledge and experience in Artificial Intelligence, Data Science, Data Engineering, Data Analytics, Data Visualization, Big Data, Robotics, or Gaming with the community — Apply to be a speaker!

Not an engineer or researcher but you’d still like to be involved? We need volunteers to help make these events amazing. Contact us about volunteering for the opportunity to receive free entry!

We are proud to continue offering discounts for underrepresented groups in tech and extending the Women in Artificial Intelligence Scholarship Fund. Recipients of this scholarship receive free entry for workshops, and if they are traveling from abroad, travel and hotel accommodations will be provided for them. Apply for the scholarship!

To Growth, Wisdom, and Community Engagement

I am incredibly grateful for the experiences, professional growth, endurance, and insight gained over this past year. I have pushed my own limits and stretched my comfort zone in accepting help from others, networking, public speaking, and negotiation.

Most first time entrepreneurs I have met, myself included, start out with the idea and intention of being your own boss while having full control of your work and life balance. Balance doesn’t exist at a startup as it becomes evident that instead of answering to just one boss, you are now responsible for creating value for your teammates, your customers, your investors, your family, and hopefully yourself.

As a founder and entrepreneur, your confidence and perseverance is tried daily, as you are solely responsible for inspiring others with your vision and maintaining moral in your organization while time passes, the light at the end of the tunnel seems dimmer, and a huge payoff which was once just around the corner now seems much further away.

In the grand scheme of things, a year is only a drop in the bucket when you are playing the long game. Holding steadfast in our mission we’ll continue iterating and exploring new strategies for solving this complex problem.

So if you find yourself lacking in the technical skills or awareness of the effects of automation and AI on our future — I challenge you to step out of your comfort zone, get involved in a diverse community, and upskill ahead of the fourth industrial revolution.

You can stay up to date on our progress, workshops, and plans going forward through our mailing list, meetup group, and facebook page.

Join us in shaping the next generation of AI engineers and enthusiasts around the world.

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