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Engineering while Black



My first week at the Massachusetts Institute of Tech­nology was rife with revelations. I learned that five days sufficed to build a photosensitive robot from wires, circuit boards, and Legos; that burritos were tasty, if a bit messy, their insides prone to spilling on formerly white shoes; that I had an accent. This last bit revealed itself directly, from the passing remarks of an airport taxi driver, and indirectly, from a classmate’s occasional furrowed brow when we were deep in conversation.

Like breathing, recurring sensory details recede into the background. In Nigeria, where I was born and raised, nearly every skin I saw was black, so color had no weight. In America, skin had spectra, variation. With each new tone that the eyes processed, a flood of implicit associations followed. White was the norm. Black was fraught, frequently associated with headlines about imprisonment, police killings, everyday discrimination, and angry protests. For many, those associations would subconsciously shape their very first impression of me. Paradoxically, I was now both “newly Black” and “always Black.”

New fears echoed uneasily within me. They started to subside in my first few weeks at the Institute, whose actions seemed to indicate: “We see you; we welcome you; you belong.” We had the ABCs of student groups: African Students Association, Black Students’ Union, Chinese Students Club, etc. Campus event calendars were filled with offerings like graduates of color speaking candidly about their post-Institute careers, or professor-­led panels on the importance of a diverse research team in developing machine-learning algorithms. Black Lives Matter was vividly affirmed, on posters in long hallways, in emails from President Reif, in the empathetic words of a resident dorm advisor. A titanium bubble seemed to separate MIT from the rest of the world, a dome deflecting the javelin jabs of racism. In spaces where few looked like me, I thrived emotionally. With my floormate Kevin, I built Olaf, my first snowman, six feet of densely packed snowballs adorned with twigs and tar-black stones. I joined a fraternity, and we screamed ourselves hoarse atop the highest roller coasters of Six Flags, golden arcs of sunlight on our faces.

Still, loosely scattered moments reminded me of the ever-present implications of skin. A Black Lives Matter poster in the Infinite Corridor was defaced. A fellow student, prone to all manner of silly jokes, said off-handedly that he was glad MIT had lowered its bar for people of color through affirmative action, because we “always make parties lit.” Shame followed me to bed that nightshame for my own silence, my anxious avoidance of confrontation, my inability to explain why his joke, uttered with a smile, stung so sharply. In a computer science recitation, the teaching assistant asked us to form pairs, and I panicked. I was the only Black student. Would it matter? And if not now, in some other class?

Many of us felt that we needed to be as perfect as humanly possible, lest our individual failings become the stereotypes of Blackness.

These off-kilter moments were the exception, I reminded myself. But within this dynamic of “mostly good,” I realized that my moments of joy were often at the mercy of a physical attribute beyond my control, as if my skin could turn on me at a moment’s notice, poisoning the air with a peer’s subconscious bias. Consider how you might feel about opening doors if doorknobs had a 1 in 200 chance of zapping you with electricity.

Harder still was realizing that my “1 in 200” was “1 in 50” or “1 in 5” for other students of color. We were drawn to each other through movie nights featuring stars like Lupita Nyong’o, through feasts of West African jollof rice and spicy stewed chicken. Beneath the buzz of flickering projector screens, we passed intimate details of our lives back and forth with uncommon ease. I came to understand how the experiences of Blackness within the Institute formed a diverse tapestry rather than a monolith, even if some commonalities emerged. Black friends struggling severely with mental-health issues met a range of responses from their instructors, from extensive support to indifference to weariness at a perceived lack of effort. Black peers who felt they were simply getting by received outsize affirmation: “You’re so impressive, so articulate.” For them, it became a taxing mental exercise in discerning good-faith praise from condescension, in resisting the impression that academic strength was being implicitly positioned as un-Black. Many of us felt that we needed to be as perfect as humanly possible, lest our individual failings become the stereotypes of Blackness. This state of mind meant that even setbacks as simple as an internship rejection were doubly scrutinized: were my skills insufficient, or did my Blackness seep through the résumé? Were these pervasive feelings legitimate, or were we haunted by illusory mirages?

While we pondered the nuances of collegiate micro- and macro-­aggressions, we were treated to a more dismal spectacle looping on the major news networks. People who looked like us were shot, beaten, and choked to death, sometimes in front of their families. We saw their killers wander from the blood trails of their jagged knives to the untouched aftermath of their tidy lives. Social-media gurus became detectives overnight, studiously digging up scraps of irrelevant background infothis criminal record from eight years ago, or that threatening posture in the ninth frame of the video, glimpsed better with a squint. We saw some of our classmates use this moment of our collective pain to play devil’s advocate.

A country that once equated Black bodies to goods prime for sale and harvest will not magically purge itself of inequality overnight. No, that imbalance soaks the fabric of its very institutions. The titanium bubble I’d earlier imagined did not exist, and the world’s outside troubles found their way in. Because racial imbalance is ever present, Black students at MIT feel the weight of their Blacknessthe uneasiness, the double discerning, the otheringand have to manage the dissonance of experiencing these feelings in one of the world’s most renowned universities.

As a proud alumnus, I can say that my four years at the Institute remain some of the best years of my life. I danced in the hallowed space where technology becomes magic. I formed everlasting bonds. I thrived. Yet, like my Black peers, I often had to grapple with understanding the consequence of my skin within, and beyond, MIT’s doors. I had to reconcile the good, the great, with a world still fractured by racial inequality. To many, the reflexive response is “Deal with it!” Such a state, they argue, is as inevitable as life itself. Unchangeable. 

Not to MIT, which has always prized in its students a hunger for taking on the impossible. And certainly not to me.

Vincent Anioke ’17 is a software engineer at Google Canada.

Lyron Foster is a Hawaii based African American Musician, Author, Actor, Blogger, Filmmaker, Philanthropist and Multinational Serial Tech Entrepreneur.

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F3, a Stories-style Q&A app for Gen Z teens, raises $3.9M



F3, an anonymous Q&A app targeting Gen Z teens which blends a Tinder-style swipe-to-friend gamification mechanic, Stories-esque rich media responses and eye-wateringly expensive subscriptions to unlock a ‘Plus’ version that actually lets you see who wants to friend you — has raised a $3.9M seed round, including for a planned push on the US market.

The Latvian team behind F3 are not new to the viral teen app game having founded the anonymous teen Q&A app — which faced huge controversy back in 2013 over bullying and safety concerns after being linked to a number of suicides of users who’d received abusive messages. Not that they’ve let that put them off the viral teen app space, clearly.

Investors in F3’s seed round hail from the Russian dating network Mamba (including the latter’s investor, Group) and a co-investor VC firm with a marketing focus, called AdFirst.

Alex Hofmann (former president) and Marat Kichikov (GP at Bitfury Capital) are also named as being among those joining the round as angel investors.

F3, which launched its apps in 2018, has 25M registered users at this point — 85% of whom are younger than 25.

The typical user is a (bored) teenager, with the user base being reported as 65% female and 60% Europe / 20% LatAm / 20% Rest of World at this point. (They’re not breaking out any active user metrics but claim 80% of users have been on the app for more than three months at this point.)

On the safety front, F3 is using both automated tools and people for content moderation — with the founders claiming to have learnt lessons from their past experience with (which got acquired by IAC’s back in 2014, given them the funds to plough into F3’s development up to now).

“We’ve been solving problem of violating content in our previous company (, and now at F3 we’ve used all our knowledge of solving this problem from day one. Automation tools include text analysis in all major languages with database of 250k+ patterns that is continuously being improved, and AI based image recognition algorithms for detecting violating content in photos and videos,” says the founding team — which includes CEO Ilja Terebin.

“Our 24/7 content moderation team (8 in-house safety experts and 30+ outsourced contractors) manually reviews user reports and items flagged by automation tools,” they add.

However reviews of the app that we saw included complaints from users who said they’ve being pestered by ‘pedophiles’ asking for nudes — so claims of safety risks being “solved” seem riskily overblown.

Why do teens need yet another social discovery/messaging app? On that Terebin & team say the app has been tailored for Gen Z from the get-go — “focusing on their needs to socialize and make new friends online, ‘quick’ content in the form of photos and short videos, which is true and personal”.

“Raw & real” is another of their teen-friendly product market fit claims.

F3 users get a personalized URL that they can share to other social networks to solicit questions from their friends — which can be asked anonymously or not. (F3 users can also choose not to accept anonymous questions if they prefer.)

Instead of plain text answers users snap a photo or grab a short video, add filters, fancy fonts and backgrounds, and so on to reply in a rich-media Stories-style that’s infiltrated all social networking apps (most recently infecting Twitter, where it’s called Fleets).

These rich media responses get made public on their feed — so if an F3 user chooses to answer a question they’re also engaging with the wider community by default (though they can choose not to respond as questions remain private until responded to).

Asked how F3 stands out in a very packed and competitive social media landscape, they argue the app’s “uniqueness” is that the Q&A is photo and video based — “so the format is familiar and close to other social networks (‘stories’ or ‘snaps’) but in a Q&A style back-and-forth communication”, as they put it, adding that for their Gen Z target “the outdated text-based Q&A just was too boring”.

“We compete for eyeballs of Gen Z with Snapchat, TikTok and Instagram. Our key strength is that through the Q&A format one can make new friends and truly get to know other people on a personal level through the prism of ‘raw and real’ content, which is not central on any of those platforms,” they also claim.

In terms of most similar competitors, they note Yolo has seen “some traction” and concede there are a bunch of others also offering Q&A. But here they argue F3 is more fully featured than rivals — suggesting the Q&A feature is just the viral hook to get users into a wider community net.

“[F3] is a fully functional social platform, built around visual communication — users have content feed where they can view posts by people they follow, they can create photo/video content using editing tools in the app itself, there’s a messenger functionality for direct chats, follow-ships, content and user discovery. So for us, the anonymous messaging/Q&A format is just an entry point which allows us to grow quickly and get the users on our platform, but then they make new connections and keep engaging with their unique social circle they have only on F3, making it a sustainable stand-alone social network.”

Again, though, user reviews tell more of a raw (and real?) story — with plenty of complaints that there’s little value in the free version of the app (while F3 Plus costs $3.99 for 7 days; $8.99 for 1 month or $19.99 for 3 months), and questions over the authenticity of some anonymous questions, as well as complaints that other users they’re able to meet aren’t nearby and/or don’t speak the same language. Other reviews aren’t wowed by more of the  same Q&A format. Others complain the app just feels like a data grab. (And the F3 ‘privacy policy‘ definitely has a detailed story to unfold vis-a-vis the tracking users are agreeing to, for anyone who bothers to dig in and read it.)

“This whole app is literally just like all the other apps. Just another copy cat that you still have to pay for,” runs one review from July 2020. “Don’t download.”

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Altana raises $7M to protect supply chains from disruptions, child labor



Supply chains used to be one of those magical elements of capitalism that seemed to be designed by Apple: they just worked. Minus the occasional salmonella outbreak in your vegetable aisle, we could go about our daily consumer lives never really questioning how our fast-fashion clothes, tech gadgets, and medical supplies actually got to our shelves or homes.

Of course, a lot has changed over the past few years. Anti-globalization sentiment has grown as a political force, driving governments like the United States and the United Kingdom to renegotiate free trade agreements and attempt to onshore manufacturing while disrupting the trade status quo. Meanwhile, the COVID-19 pandemic placed huge stress on supply chains — with some entirely breaking in the process.

In short, supply chain managers suddenly went from one of those key functions that no one wants to think about, to one of those key functions that everyone thinks about all the time.

While these specialists have access to huge platforms from companies like Oracle and SAP, they need additional intelligence to understand where these supply chains could potentially break. Are there links in the supply chain that might be more brittle than at first glance? Are there factories in the supply chain that are on alert lists for child labor or environmental violations? What if government trade policy shifts — are we at risk of watching products sit in a cargo container at a port?

New York-headquartered Altana wants to be that intelligence layer for supply-chain management, bringing data and machine learning to bear against the complexity of modern capitalism. Today, the company announced that it has raised $7 million in seed financing led by Anne Glover of London-based Amadeus Capital Partners.

The three founders of the startup, CEO Evan Smith, CTO Peter Swartz, and COO Raphael Tehranian, all worked together on Panjiva, a global supply chain platform that was founded in 2006, funded by Battery Ventures a decade ago, and sold to S&P Global in early 2018. Panjiva’s goal was to build a “graph” of supply chains that would offer intelligence to managers.

That direct experience informs Altana’s vision, which in many ways is the same as Panjiva’s but perhaps revamped using newer technology and data science. Again, Altana wants to build a supply-chain knowledge graph, provide intelligence to managers, and create better resilience.

The difference has to do with data. “What we continually found when we were in the data sales business was that you are kind of stuck in that place in the value chain,” Smith said. “Your customers won’t let you touch their data, because they don’t trust you with it, and other proprietary data companies don’t let you work on and manage and transform their data.”

Instead of trying to be the central repository for all data, Altana is “operating downstream” from all of these data sources, allowing companies to build their own supply chain graphs using their own data and whatever other data sources they have access to.

The company sells into procurement offices, which are typically managed in the CFO’s office. Today, the majority of customers for Altana are government clients such as border control, where “the task is to pick the needles out of the haystack as the ship arrives and you’ve got to pick the illicit shipments from the safe ones and actually facilitate the lawful trade,” Smith said.

The company’s executive chairman is Alan Bersin, who is a former commissioner of the U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency currently working as a policy consultant for Covington & Burling, which has been one of the premier law firms on trade issues like CFIUS during the Trump administration.

Altana allows one-off investigations and simulations, but its major product goal is to offer real-time alerts that give supply chain managers substantive visibility into changes that affect their business. For instance, rather than waiting for an annual labor or environmental audit to find issues, Altana hopes to provide predictive capabilities that allow companies to solve problems much faster than before.

In addition to Amadeus, Schematic Ventures, AlleyCorp, and the Working Capital – The Supply Chain Investment Fund also participated.

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Adobe expands customer data platform to include B2B sales



The concept of the customer data platform (CDP) is a relatively new one. Up until now, it has focused primarily on pulling data about an individual consumer from a variety of channels into a super record, where in theory you can serve more meaningful content and deliver more customized experiences based on all this detailed knowledge. Adobe announced its intention today to create such a product for business to business (B2B) customers, a key market where this kind of data consolidation had been missing.

Indeed Brian Glover, Adobe’s director of product marketing for Marketo Engage, who has been put in charge of this product, says that these kinds of sales are much more complex and B2B sales and marketing teams are clamoring for a CDP.

“We have spent the last couple of years integrating Marketo Engage across Adobe Experience Cloud, and now what we’re doing is building out the next generation of new and complimentary B2B offerings on the Experience platform, the first of which is the B2B CDP offering,” Glover told me.

He says that they face unique challenges adapting CDP for B2B sales because they typically involve buying groups, meaning you need to customize your messages for different people depending on their role in the process.

An individual consumer usually knows what they want and you can prod them to make a decision and complete the purchase, but a B2B sale is usually longer and more complex involving different levels of procurement. For example, in a technology sale, it may involve the CIO, a group, division or department who will be using the tech, the finance department, legal and others. There may be an RFP and the sales cycle may span months or even years.

Adobe believes this kind of sale should still be able to use the same customized messaging approach you use in an individual sale, perhaps even more so because of the inherent complexity in the process. Yet B2B marketers face the same issues as their B2C counterparts when it comes to having data spread across an organization.

“In B2B that complexity of buying groups and accounts just adds another level to the data management problem because ultimately you need to be able to connect to your customer people data, but you also need to be able to connect the account data too and be able to [bring] the two together,” Glover explained.

By building a more complete picture of each individual in the buying cycle, you can, as Glover puts it, begin to put the bread crumbs together for the entire account. He believes that a CRM isn’t built for this kind of complexity and it requires a specialty tool like a CDP built to support B2B sales and marketing.

Adobe is working with early customers on the product and expects to go into beta before the end of next month with GA some time in the first half of next year.

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