A group of ninth-grade techies, asked to brainstorm fixing one of Minnesota's most difficult economic problems, proposed developing software to help remove bias in hiring and relieve the state's workforce shortage.
The idea proved to be the winner in a contest Tuesday night at the end of the weeklong tech camp hosted by Silicon North Stars, a nonprofit group founded by Steve Grove, the commissioner of the state's job agency, and his wife Mary.
Both are former Google executives and Mary is an investment partner in Rise of the Rest, the venture firm led by tech-industry luminary Steve Case that helps startups outside Silicon Valley and the East Coast.
For six years, the couple directed the summertime camp to introduce students from Minneapolis and St. Paul high schools to technology careers. Until this year, when the Groves returned to Minnesota from California, the camp took young Minnesotans on a tour of Silicon Valley.
Each year, the couple asked participants to think of ways that technology can be used to tackle a societal problem. Last year, it was school shootings. This year, it was something that Steve Grove's colleagues at the Department of Employment and Economic Development contend with: how to increase opportunities for people of color amid a significant worker shortage.
"As we think about the future of workforce development and the future of demographics in our state, even though we boast low unemployment numbers, the number of highly skilled tech jobs is increasingly going unfilled," Mary Grove said.
"For our students, as they think about entering school and what opportunities are in front of them, we really wanted to engage them and have a debate and discussion about what will it take to essentially empower the next generation to be really impactful and prosperous," she added.
Five teams of students pitched ideas to three judges, friends and family on Tuesday evening at Fueled Collective, a co-working space in the Grain Exchange Building in downtown Minneapolis.
The teams had about a day and a half to develop their idea into a product or service and rehearse their pitches for the final contest.
The winning team — named Optimal Jobs and formed by students Coreti Soe, Mary Yang, Sebastian Landaeta, and Kenneth Curry — proposed building a center where artificial-intelligence software could interview people about their experience, education and interests.
The software would then try to match the person to available jobs based on their answers.
Another team pitched a career-networking site called Spyder Web, which would match people looking to switch careers with others who can teach and mentor them.
Another team proposed a "smart patch" that could be placed behind a person's ears to connect to their five senses. The patch would alert product users whenever they exhibited bias, whether intentional or unintentional, toward other people.
It would give product users recommendations on how to adjust their biases or prejudices, said Damola Ogundipe, CEO of Minneapolis-based startup Civic Eagle who volunteered to coach Fiona's student team and who was one of four camp chaperones.
"The only thing that's even remotely close to it is Elon Musk's Neuralink," Ogundipe said, referring to a venture the billionaire inventor announced last week. "That's the only system I've seen that uses technology to connect to your brain or your senses in any capacity."
In addition to the contest, the 24 students involved in the tech camp visited Best Buy's headquarters and met startup executives around the Twin Cities. Each camp member was also paired with a mentor to develop short- and long-term goals. The camp was chiefly funded by a grant from the Knight Foundation.
Participants in Silicon North Stars stay in the program all through high school. They take part in quarterly "Minnesota Meetups" with Twin Cities entrepreneurs and investors.
"You will learn many things and step out of your comfort zone," said Soe, a member of the Optimal Jobs team who will be a freshman at Humboldt High School in St. Paul. "You will learn about a lot of interesting tech."
Ibrahim Gabow, who will be a freshman at Harding High School in St. Paul, said, "I'm 100% sure that this [a career in technology] is what I want to do."
Silicon North Stars is launching a college scholarship this fall that will award five students $5,000 each, Grove said. She said the more than 110 young people who are Silicon North Stars alumni and active students are eligible for the scholarship.