One of my favorite things about Dwolla is that we back up our words with actions. One way we live that is through community engagement.

Community engagement is an important part of the equation for any successful company. More often than not you realize that you indirectly get more value than you put in.

That statement is true for both companies and individuals. And every year my favorite community engagement is taking VTO to participate in Pride Camp.

Not Your Typical Gay Camp…. Pride Camp is an epic, life changing program for LGBTQ and allied youth ages 14-18 to learn, grow, and connect with each other.
Pride Camp Website

The Message

pride camp demonstration

This is me right before I pick up a plastic knife by the wrong end and start stabbing an open jar of sunbutter. You’re probably wondering what kind of person would do that?

And the only acceptable answer is a person who is pretending to be a robot. In order to teach a large group of 14-18 year olds something that they will remember, sometimes you have to be a bit extreme.

Our main message was that computers are very literal. This can be a huge problem because if we aren’t careful with what we tell computers to do then there will be real consequences that can be both dangerous and unethical.

The Activity

Can a robot make a sandwich? That was the question we wanted to answer. We did this by splitting the camp participants into two groups. One group instructed Shea, a fellow Dwolla employee, how to make a sandwich and the other instructed me.

pride camp demonstrationWhat made it challenging was that we took the instructions more literally than a person would. If the campers told me to open the bread without being specific regarding how, I ripped the bag instead of opening the twist tie. If they told me to lift up the knife I grabbed the wrong end. If they told me to scoop out some jelly, I did it with my hands. You get the picture.

The amount of yelling, laughing, frustration and joy that was expressed during this activity was a lot of fun. And, more importantly, because the campers were a part of an activity that forced them to think and be hands on, the message resonated more.

The Consequences

So then we had a group of teenagers who had just learned how literal computers are. The next step was to show them that the implications of this can be much worse than having a messed up sandwich for lunch.

We decided this was best achieved by going over some real life examples. We first showcased how a coding error could lead to injuries. We talked about how misprogrammed welding robots caused many cars to be produced without spot welding. This lead to a recall of those vehicles, which not only cost the company money, but also put consumers in harm’s way.

Our next example dug into how bad data, when fed into an algorithm, can lead to unintentional biases. For this example we dug into how Amazon created (and then abandoned) a tool for rating candidates based on their resumes. The issue was that the tool learned to identify female candidates based on the resume and to use that as a negative factor. This can be a real ethical issue when you consider that the data this algorithm relied on was full of unintentional biases that sunk into the algorithm.

Our final example referenced a study that suggests autonomous driving systems may have a harder time identifying people with dark skin than those with light skin. The researchers think this is caused by there not being enough images of dark-skinned pedestrians in the training set the algorithm studied from.

Is there a way to minimize these types of mistakes?

The Solution

I know I told you the message was to make them understand that computers are literal. But there was a more important message that needed to be said to these LGBTQ and allied youths.

Diverse teams outperform. 

Diversity isn’t only a moral imperative, but a strategic advantage. A lack of representation leads to more error-prone software and hardware. This is why companies need to be deliberate about not only building diverse teams, but also listening to everyone on those diverse teams.

Diverse teams have fewer blind spots, challenge each others’ assumptions and come up with better ideas when provided a safe environment to share. These all lead to diverse and supportive teams creating better products and experiences.

Why This Matters to Pride Campers

Iowa Safe Schools, the organization putting on Pride Camp, is an incredible organization engaged in impactful work. Bringing these 14- to 18-year-old LGBTQ and allied youths together is an amazing experience for them. It creates an environment where they can make lifelong friends while feeling accepted, welcomed and heard.

We were at Pride Camp this year to let the campers know that there are companies out there that are striving for that kind of environment. And it is not only because we think it is right, but also because we need them.

At Dwolla, we have a saying: “We Are Never Done”. It resonates with me because it shows that we are comfortable saying we aren’t perfect. But as our Director of Human Resources, Jenna Hogan, said at Pride Camp, “What we are is a company that tries every day to be a better company than yesterday.”

Final Takeaway

Every year I leave Pride Camp, I am happier than when I first arrived. The joy these campers have is infectious and I feel like I get more value than I can possibly be bringing.

If these campers only remember one thing, I hope it is that their diversity is valuable and they should take pride in that.

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