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B.C. consortium drops $1m into AI training for women, immigrants

Athena Pathways offering workshops, wage subsidies
Credit: gorodenkoff/Getty Images

B.C.’s tech sector is not diverse.

A recent report from CBRE Group Inc. revealed Vancouver's tech sector is composed of 27% women vs. 73% men — a far cry from B.C.’s general workforce, which is composed of 48% women vs. 52% men.

And those in the tech sector identified as white make up 54% of workers, while those of Asian descent make up 42%, leaving Black, Hispanic and those identified as “other” to make up the remaining 4%.

But a B.C. consortium consisting of a mix of academic and industry players has designs on making the province’s tech sector better reflect the province itself.

The Athena Pathways Consortium announced Tuesday it will be tapping $1 million in funding from its partners to launch a new program aimed at providing women and new immigrants with training and sponsored work placements in artificial intelligence, machine learning and data science.

“It's our belief that the future economy is digital and companies will do exceptionally well to invest in AI and data science initiatives that can help grow the company and make them more competitive globally,” AInBC executive director Steve Lowry told BIV.

His industry association is spearheading the initiative.

The new Athena Digital Leaders program is open to a broad array of organizations, including those not traditionally linked to the tech sector, as part of an effort to ease some of B.C.’s more traditional sectors into advances within AI and machine learning.

Wage subsidies are being made available to cover 43% of participants’ salaries up to $17,000 for up to 18 weeks. Qualified applicants — masters and PhD students, as well as self-taught equivalents — will then be placed into projects for that duration.

The program is also recruiting mid-career managers within product management, software management and project management looking to gain knowledge about AI and machine learning.

Successful mid-career applicants will be able to attend courses at the University of British Columbia, Simon Fraser University and Northeastern University’s Vancouver campus under a full scholarship.

As part of the Digital Leaders Program, professional services firm KPMG is also offering workshops to companies interested in pursuing AI, machine learning and data sciences but don’t yet have the expertise in place.

Half the funding is coming from industry while the remaining $500,000 is coming through the Vancouver-based Digital Technology Supercluster.

Meanwhile, Ottawa is set to bring in more than one million immigrants in the next three years to boost the economy.

“It’s one thing to bring in immigrants but it’s another thing to ensure that you are optimizing their talent,” Lowry said.

“If we can then highlight those people through a program like this and put them in front of employers, they'll be open to hopefully a new channel of top talent, which will make for more diverse organizations as a result.”

Athena’s latest initiative is open both to women as well as new immigrants based in B.C., no matter their gender.

The Digital Leaders program comes after Athena Pathways launched last year with the goal of advancing at least 500 women in the fields of artificial intelligence, machine learning and data science over 18 months.

The initiative has included everything from delivering scholarships for related workshops and classes at post-secondary institutes to matching mentors and mentees within the industry.

Lowry said COVID-19 dealt the program some logistical setbacks, but Athena Pathways has so far been able to train more than 400 women.

“We've really gotten into our stride,” he said.

“Now that everything’s more stabilized and we know where students are coming and going to, they've [academic partners] been able to really crank up that machine and put out a good number of $500 scholarships to these women.”

A May 2020 McKinsey & Company report bolstered findings from 2015 regarding the financial success of businesses that are gender and ethnically diverse.

Companies with more than 30% female executives were 25% more likely to be more profitable than the national industry median, and ethnically diverse companies were 36% more likely to be profitable than the national industry median. (McKinsey’s survey was based on a broad range of nations.)

Athena Pathways sees the University of B.C., Simon Fraser University, the B.C. Institute of Technology and Northeastern University’s Vancouver campus developing courses and workshops for women at high school and post-secondary levels as well as those already in the workforce.

The consortium also receives support from the Digital Technology Supercluster, D-Wave Systems Inc., Metaoptima Technology Inc. and Teck Resources Inc. (TSX:TECK.B), among others.

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