The age of Artificial Intelligence (AI) is here. The question now is: how do we wield it to our benefit and not our demise? Bloc helps answer that question while bridging the gap between a shrinking job pool (due to automation) and the individuals fearful of becoming unemployed. They are leveraging this technology to better serve employees in expanding their skill sets and moving forward in their career paths.
This week I interviewed CEO Riley Jones (Law ‘20) and CTO Amina Yamusah, co-founders of Bloc. The two met at “Breaking It Down”, a Princeton University networking conference organized by Amina that connects Black college students to professionals.
Who is Bloc? What do you do?
Bloc helps upskilling organizations improve their job placement rates using digital tools such as resume creation and review.
What are upskilling organizations?
Upskilling organizations help expand employable skill sets. If you think of your career as a ladder, upskilling is the process of climbing the ladder. And upskilling organizations help you climb (i.e. coding bootcamps, universities).
Simply, explain what Artificial Intelligence (AI) is for someone who may not know.
Artificial Intelligence is the idea that computers can process patterns and analyze trends to make procedures more efficient. The procedure can be as simple as writing an email. If there’s an AI setup to auto-complete email messages, the more emails the AI has access to, the more accurately it will be able to auto-complete sentences in the tone and style of the sender. It "learns" from patterns to be able to create on its own.
How did the idea for Bloc come about?
The team came together to throw a bigger version of Amina’s “Breaking It Down” conference in 2015 at NYU Law. Following the conference, in which we helped students write resumes and cover letters, we noticed two things:
- There needs to be a way to provide this service to more people
- Such an expansion can only be done using technology
Amina used her background in software engineering to come up with the concept for a product that became what Bloc is today.
Talk about your audience. Who is Bloc for?
Bloc’s audience is twofold - upskilling organization directors and individuals seeking career preparation.
Amina, I watched your 2019 NYC Media Lab Demo Day talk. In it you touched on the idea of shifting fear of automation into hope for it to serve a future workforce. Talk about how Bloc uses automation to serve.
Bloc uses natural language processing to improve recommendations for resumes based on job descriptions. Whereas most forms of AI and machine learning are about automating people out of their jobs, we believe that you can develop human-centered technology to prepare people for the jobs of tomorrow. Bloc is committed to revolutionizing the way people, particularly minorities, prepare for their futures. This is what makes this work so meaningful to us.
What is the trickiest part of your business or your industry?
The trickiest part of the industry is that it’s so fragmented. Because customers tend to be hyper local, there aren’t many unifying places for them to congregate. Bloc is working through sizing the market in a way that helps our business scale.
Amina, you are a data engineer. Talk about how that background informs your current startup.
My background as a software engineer has helped Bloc build quickly and influenced its being responsive to customer needs. My knowledge and experience aid in working through hurdles regarding algorithmic justice and bias mitigation.
Riley, you are an NYU Law student. How does that inform your work as Bloc CEO.
My interest in law is rooted in a desire to remedy historical wrongs marginalized groups have faced- that’s what NYU law is known for. My time at the law school has been great because I've gotten support from the Grunin Center, the NYU Law Venture Fund and a host of professors and alumni that have been supportive of my entrepreneurial journey.
Tell me about a challenge you have recently overcome and how.
Recently we have been working to refine a narrative to help people understand the company and what we do. With support from the NYU Entrepreneurial Institute staff, particularly Rebecca Silver and Emily Baum, we've been able to better tell our story much better!
Who have been some mentors to you in your journey? What do you look for in a mentor? We've had many mentors: Heather Weston, Helson Taveras, and most recently Rob Fassino from the NYU Summer Launchpad program. We also have mentors through NYU Law School’s Venture Fund program. It is important that mentors understand Bloc’s social mission as well as its business mission - above all they must be nice people.
Talk about some NYU Summer Launchpad (SLP) highlights.
The NYU-Yale Pitchoff was a highlight. It was an exciting opportunity to visualize the work Bloc has done over the past month in SLP as well as a beneficial learning experience.
What would you tell other NYU students who may be considering launching their own startup?
Seek help! There are numerous resources across schools at NYU to aid you in getting your venture off the ground.
Describe each of your team members in one word.
Riley is described as plugged and Amina - a visionary.
Amina and Riley are exactly the kind of nice they look for in their mentors: they're dedicated, passionate, and capable. Their startup is already changing technology, and the future of work, for the better.