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A group of young entrepreneurs are looking to empower workforce agencies and job seekers, harnessing the power of artificial intelligence.
When people talk about artificial intelligence and the future of work, the central discussion is often how many jobs intelligent machines will eliminate. That was, in fact, the main thrust of conversation at the World Economic Forum in Davos this year.
The young founders of the startup BLOC—all of whom are in college or recently entered this brave new workforce—are flipping that narrative to harness AI to help people secure jobs and tackle unemployment.
BLOC started about four and a half years ago with a broad mission of empowering communities of color who were being left out of the workforce at an alarming rate. While the initial effort started as conferences focused on empowering millennial college students, the founders wanted to do more.
“We definitely want to scale,” Amina Yamusah, CTO and co-founder of BLOC, told Black Enterprise back in 2016. “We’re national in our reach, but can only reach 300-500 at each event.”
BLOC’s founders saw through their own experiences, and these events, that highly qualified candidates of color were all too often passed over by top-tier companies. And generally, it came down to candidates not highlighting their expertise in the ways companies expected.
“It’s a soft-skills problem,” Riley Jones, CEO and co-founder told Route Fifty. “Having social capital to understand how to put that together.”
They understood that this was not just happening to students of color at some of the world’s most prestigious universities, but a problem in communities across the country. To solve it at scale, the team built a “career coaching portal”—a technology platform that supports career coaches at workforce development agencies, nonprofits, and universities.
BLOC realized there were few, if any, technology solutions that helped manage the scope and scale of the work career coaches do on a daily basis. Jones found that most coaches were “quite literally exchanging pieces of paper” and emails with hundreds of individuals seeking employment.
On the company website, they point out that while over one trillion dollars is invested in workforce training each year, prior to their entry into the marketplace, there was little (if any) complimentary technology out there to support the industry. Jones says the initial feedback BLOC has received from a community of workers that has been generally passed over by the technology community has been overwhelming.
“It’s been almost shocking to see… it’s a pain point,” Jones said. “They are managing client pools (or, in some cases, student pools) that are hundreds or even thousands of students or clients. What our software does is help them manage that pool better.”
One feature that makes the software somewhat unique is how it helps job seekers themselves build and save multiple versions of resumes customized to various roles—and this is where AI enters the picture.
The platform includes a “resume reviewer,” that provides the client with suggested changes to their resume and cover letters based on the specific job being applied for. It can review job listings and recommend keywords, as well as other industry-relevant information that should be brought to the fore to better help the candidate get noticed.
Jones explained that the resume and cover letter were a natural place to start as they are “ubiquitous across the employment process.” However, over time, they intend to expand the AI offerings on the platform to other areas that often require tailored advice and business acumen.
“We are thinking about how we automate interview prep, how do we automate tools to negotiate salary,” Jones said. “These things that folks from under-resourced communities, whether they went to college or not, typically don’t have.”
Jones also believes that over time connecting individuals with job training services that fit both individual interests and employment needs in their community may be another avenue for the organization.
One thing BLOC does not foresee is their platform replacing career coaches. Rather, they intend to empower them.
“We’re very intentional about not trying to replace a career coach, because in an under-resourced community, those people tend to be touch points where you can ask questions and learn about how to actually do these things rather than just have some software tell you what to do,” Jones explained.
In the span of a year and a half, BLOC’s platform has been picked up by a number of workforce development organizations, including the City University of New York, which is tasked with running the workforce and job placement programs for the Big Apple.
The founders’ work caught the eye of Forbes, who named them to their 30 under 30 list. It also is being noticed by Civic I/O, the mayors forum at SXSW, who announced the company as a finalist in it's annual pitch competition this week. The company stands to win $10,000, and (perhaps more importantly) show off their software to a room of innovation-inclined mayors from across the nation.
Mitch Herckis is the Senior Editor and Director of Strategic Initiatives for Route Fifty.