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‘We lose out on a lot of incredible STEM talent when the barrier is so high’

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Janet Phan, a tech leader at PwC and founder of nonprofit Thriving Elements, explains why good mentors are invaluable to disadvantaged communities.

As the daughter of Vietnamese refugees, Janet Phan is certain she wouldn’t be working in tech today without the guidance of mentors.

Now, Phan is an EMEA technology programme leader at PwC and the founder of Thriving Elements, a nonprofit specialising in mentorship for girls from disadvantaged communities.

‘Mentors can make all the difference in a mentee’s life; they sure did for mine’
– JANET PHAN, PWC AND THRIVING ELEMENTS

Why are women from disadvantaged communities often excluded from the tech industry?

Education lays a foundation for vibrant lives for girls and women, their families and their communities. Communities in need lack the access to quality education and resources, such as reliable and affordable broadband and devices to connect to the internet.

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Refugees have the challenge of adapting to a new environment, including culture and language barriers. They may come with a good education in their home country, but it is not recognised in their new country, and thus they are forced to take a job far below their skillset.

A culture still exists that encourages women to stay at home to take care of their partners and children. In addition to communities in need, in a thriving country like Switzerland, expensive childcare results in women staying at home. Those who live in poverty are at risk of not reaching their full potential because their priority is survival.

For a woman who wants to get into tech, this could be near impossible if she isn’t set up for success financially, educationally or without a mentor to guide her. Without mentors creating access and opportunities for me, I wouldn’t have reached mine.

What do you see as the major barriers in tech for women from disadvantaged communities?

We need more mentors. From my experience of being in this industry, the one thing that has really stuck out to me is that oftentimes I am the only female at the table.

Women are grossly underrepresented in key leadership and managerial positions within the industry. We need those in those positions now to lead and mentor the next generation. Sometimes it takes just that one moment or that one person to help someone see what they are capable of and go beyond their potential.

I’ve also observed from time to time junior to mid-level male counterparts who are also trying to reach leadership positions or get that next promotion not being supportive of their female counterparts’ growth, since they are looking out for themselves.

We need more male allies to help with sharing with leadership about their team members’ impact and achievements, especially those who are underrepresented. In some cases, people who have risen from communities in need, we feel so thankful to have the opportunity to be where we’re at that we don’t necessarily push the grain as to avoid conflicts.

What steps can we take and what resources will we need to address this?

We need our women leaders in technology to shift the narrative that technology is computer programming or coding. Computer programming is just one facet of the field. Technology encompasses a breadth of areas. If more girls and women understood how many STEM careers were available to them beyond coding, the number of women in tech would increase.

We need creative designers to make digital interfaces attractive and user-friendly. We need auditors and detail-oriented personalities to ensure compliance with local country regulations. We need those who love programming and project management to be the glue that brings a successful technology or engineering programme together. We need to change the narrative to expand our audience and message. We need more inclusivity of the diverse personalities and skillsets needed in order for technology to be impactful.

My ask is that leaders, educators and anyone in the sphere of influencing the next generation of women in technology expand the scope of messaging. We need to shift from the idea that technology and engineering is computer programming to the message that technology is for everyone, and the industry needs what you have to bring to the table, whatever that may be.

We lose out on a lot of incredible STEM talent when the barrier is so high.

What makes for a good mentor, do you think?

Encouragement and empowerment are important. Some of the most powerful advice I’ve ever received from a mentor was, ‘The worst thing they can tell you is no. What do you have to lose when you try?’.

As a mentor, the role isn’t to instruct; it’s to encourage and empower. Great mentors also share their thought process on the decisions they’ve made along their career paths. More importantly, they share their failures and what they learned from them. Transparency and authenticity can help mentees make these difficult decisions as they face them later in their career.

Mentees may feel too intimidated to share some of their challenges or worry that it will make them seem unqualified. This is why it’s also important the mentor gets to know the mentee on a personal level. It’s crucial to understand what they need help with and what drives them.

Lastly, mentoring isn’t one-sided. For the relationship to be rewarding to the mentor, it’s important they find a mentee who’s willing to take advantage of access to the knowledge, experience and time the mentor can offer.

What impact can a good mentor have on a mentee’s life?

My life has been changed by my mentors. I am the daughter of Vietnamese refugees, and I quickly learned my parents would not be able to guide me to where I needed to go, whether educationally or financially, to achieve my goals.

I spent my summers working 12-hour shifts at KFC (with a night shift at Hollywood Video) to save for a car and tuition. I met my first mentor in high school, before I had a name for what he was. I was dropping out of a business competition that would have required me to travel across the state. With a phone call, he was able to bring my parents around and I ended up participating. For the first time, I realised that there could be ‘guides’ along my way. If I was willing to do the hard work, they could open doors, increase access and help me navigate the system.

The series of mentors that I’ve had since – mentors who guided me through college, the start of my career and my role today as a global technology consultant for a major consulting firm – were so impactful on my life that in 2016, I founded a global nonprofit, Thriving Elements, that matches girls in underserved communities with long-term STEM field mentors.

So yes, mentors can make all the difference in a mentee’s life; they sure did for mine.

Is current STEM mentorship lacking? How can we fix that?

Yes. I believe there are three key reasons why and how we can fix it. The first is that people are not sure how to be a mentor.

The second is that the mentoring programmes that exist are often an add-on to the core competency or vision of a nonprofit organisation. Or someone is running it on the side of their desk in a for-profit organisation with no proper funding or resources.

To fix this, nonprofits should partner with mentoring programmes where mentoring is their core competency.

The third is that mentoring programmes – either those run by nonprofit or for-profit organisations – are fixated on the number of mentor and mentee pairs they can match up and lack proper guidance to mentors and mentees. I believe mentor-mentee matches should not be run like a supply chain. It is a two-way street that must be driven by the mentee.

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Privacy proves elusive in Google’s Privacy Sandbox • The Register

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Google’s effort to build a “Privacy Sandbox” – a set of technologies for delivering personalized ads online without the tracking problems presented by cookie-based advertising – continues to struggle with its promise of privacy.

The Privacy Sandbox consists of a set of web technology proposals with bird-themed names intended to aim interest-based ads at groups rather than individuals.

Much of this ad-related data processing is intended to occur within the browsers of internet users, to keep personal information from being spirited away to remote servers where it might be misused.

So, simply put, the aim is to ensure decisions made on which ads you’ll see, based on your interests, take place in your browser rather than in some backend systems processing your data.

Google launched the initiative in 2019 after competing browser makers began blocking third-party cookies – the traditional way to deliver targeted ads and track internet users – and government regulators around the globe began tightening privacy rules.

The ad biz initially hoped that it would be able to develop a replacement for cookie-based ad targeting by the end of 2021.

But after last month concluding the trial of its flawed FLoC – Federated Learning of Cohorts – to send the spec back for further refinement and pushing back its timeline for replacing third-party cookies with Privacy Sandbox specs, Google now acknowledges that its purportedly privacy-protective remarketing proposal FLEDGE – First Locally-Executed Decision over Groups Experiment – also needs a tweak to prevent the technology from being used to track people online.

On Wednesday, John Mooring, senior software engineer at Microsoft, opened an issue in the GitHub repository for Turtledove (now known as FLEDGE) to describe a conceptual attack that would allow someone to craft code on webpages to use FLEDGE to track people across different websites.

That runs contrary to its very purpose. FLEDGE is supposed to enable remarketing – for example, a web store using a visitor’s interest in a book to present an ad for that book on a third-party website – without tracking the visitor through a personal identifier.

Michael Kleber, the Google mathematician overseeing the construction of Privacy Sandbox specs, acknowledged that the sample code could be abused to create an identifier in situations where there’s no ad competition.

“This is indeed the natural fingerprinting concern associated with the one-bit leak, which FLEDGE will need to protect against in some way,” he said, suggesting technical interventions and abuse detection as possible paths to resolve the privacy leak. “We certainly need some approach to this problem before the removal of third-party cookies in Chrome.”

In an email to The Register, Dr Lukasz Olejnik, independent privacy researcher and consultant, emphasized the need to ensure that the Privacy Sandbox does not leak from the outset.

It will all be futile if the candidates for replacements are not having an adequate privacy level on their own

“Among the goals of Privacy Sandbox is to make advertising more civilized, specifically privacy-proofed,” said Olejnik. “To achieve this overarching goal, plenty of changes must be introduced. But it will all be futile if the candidates for replacements are not having an adequate privacy level on their own. This is why the APIs would need to be really well designed, and specifications crystal-clear, considering broad privacy threat models.”

The problem as Olejnik sees it is that the privacy characteristics of the technology being proposed are not yet well understood. And given the timeline for this technology and revenue that depends on it – the global digital ad spend this year is expected to reach $455bn – he argues data privacy leaks need to be identified in advance so they can be adequately dealt with.

“This particular risk – the so-called one-bit leak issue – has been known since 2020,” Olejnik said. “I expect that a solution to this problem will be found in the fusion of API design (i.e. Turtledove and Fenced Frames), implementation level, and the auditing manner – active search for potential misuses.

“But this particular issue indeed looks serious – a new and claimed privacy-friendly solution should not be introduced while being aware of such a design issue. In this sense, it’s a show-stopper, but one that is hopefully possible to duly address in time.” ®

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Government plans €10m in funding for green and digital business projects

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The Government and Enterprise Ireland are providing two funds to regional Irish businesses in a bid to help them transition to a greener, digital economy.

The Government has today (29 July ) announced it will provide €10m in funding through Enterprise Ireland to projects supporting digitalisation and the transition to a green economy.

The Regional Enterprise Transition Scheme, worth €9.5m, will provide grant funding to regional and community-based projects focused on helping enterprises to adapt to the changing economic landscape due to Covid-19 and Brexit.

Leo Clancy, CEO, Enterprise Ireland said: “The Regional Enterprise Transition Scheme is aimed at supporting regional development and the regional business eco-system, helping to create and sustain jobs in the regions impacted by Covid-19.”

Grants of up to €1.8m or 80pc of project cost are available to businesses. The projects should aim to address the impact of Covid-19 and improve the capability and competitiveness of regional enterprises.

The call for the Regional Enterprise Transition Scheme will close on 8 September 2021. The successful projects will be announced in October and all funding will be provided to the successful applicants before the end of the year.

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A separate funding scheme, the €500,000 Feasibility Study fund, will provide financial support to early-stage regional enterprise development projects.

Launching the funding schemes, Minister of State for Trade Promotion, Digital and Company Regulation, Robert Troy TD said the funds would “help stimulate transformational regional projects to support enterprises embrace the opportunities of digitalisation, the green economy as well as navigate the changed landscape arising from Covid-19.”

Minister of State for Business, Employment and Retail, Damien English TD commented at the launch that the funds would help “build Covid-19 and Brexit resilience and enable applicants to support enterprises and SMEs to respond to recent economic and market challenges which also includes the transition to a low carbon economy, digital transformation and smart specialisation.”

The Feasibility Fund is open to new projects, with grants available of up to €50,000 or 50pc of project cost and will allow promoters to test their project concept and deliver virtual or site-based solutions to their target audience.

Applications for the Feasibility Fund close on 1st October 2021.

For more information and details on how to apply for the funds, see here and here.

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CEOs told to ‘think before they tweet’ after Just Eat spat with Uber | Twitter

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Chief executives are being warned to “think twice before they tweet” after the boss of takeaway company Just Eat Takeaway was told his Twitter spat with Uber threatened to undermine the firm’s reputation.

Jitse Groen this week became the latest in a growing list of chief executives to be rebuked by customers, investors and even regulators over ill-judged tweets.

Cat Rock Capital Management, an activist investor which has a 4.7% stake in Just Eat, highlighted Groen’s Twitter battle with Uber boss Dara Khosrowshahi as an example of outbursts that damaged the brand. The investor said Groen’s tweets had partly led to the firm being “deeply undervalued and vulnerable to takeover bids at far below its intrinsic value”.

Earlier this year Groen had a rant at financial analysts on Twitter, claiming that “some can’t even do basic maths”. He tweeted that he was “amazed how bad these analysts have become … All of them mix up definitions. It’s unbelievable.”

Brand and marketing expert Mark Borkowski said Groen’s case highlighted the difficulty executives face when trying to engage with customers on the platform.

“Everyone sees Twitter as a huge marketing opportunity that can drive a business forward, and it really can,” Borkowski said. “But these bosses must stop and think twice before they tweet, as just one misjudged tweet can send their share price plunging.”

Possibly the most expensive tweets ever sent were posted by Elon Musk, the maverick boss of electric car company Tesla, in 2018. The US Securities and Exchange Commission fined Musk and Tesla $20m each after he tweeted that he had “funding secured” to take the company private at $420 a share. The regulator said the tweet, which sent Tesla’s share price up by as much as 13%, violated securities law. As part of the settlement, Musk was ordered to step down as Tesla’s chairman.

Musk’s tweets continued to anger some investors. Pirc, an influential adviser to shareholders including the UK’s local authority pension funds, last year recommended that investors voted against Musk’s re-election to the Tesla board because his tweets posed “a serious risk of reputational harm to the company and its shareholders”.

Pirc said his controversial outbursts on Twitter had cost Tesla millions of dollars in settlements, but Musk easily won the vote, and has continued to tweet several times a day to his 59 million followers.

“Twitter is all about personality,” Borkowski said. “While Musk’s tweets can be very controversial, they fit with his brand. Twitter is perfect for renegades, mavericks and disruptor brands. It’s much harder for well-established brands with solid reputations, if something goes wrong for them they risk damage to their hard-earned brand.

“People now think that to run a successful business, you have to be on social media and every brand has to have a Twitter account,” he said. “The chief executives see that the bosses of their rivals have a Twitter profile, and they feel they have to have one too.”

Borkowski said some bosses have been very successful at building a presence and personality on Twitter, and using their platforms to promote social issues such as LGBTQ+ rights and the Black Lives Matter movement (as well as promote their brand and products).

James Timpson, the chief executive of cobbler Timpson, this week celebrated passing 100,000 followers on his account on which he weaves photos of his colleagues working in shops with posts tackling tax avoidance and prisoner reform.

This week, he responded to Boris Johnson’s proposal to create “fluorescent-jacketed chain gangs” of people found guilty of antisocial behaviour with a tweet suggesting offenders should be helped into work instead.

Tim Cook, the chief executive of Apple, has won praise for using Twitter to successfully pressure the governor of Indiana into revising proposed legislation that had threatened to allow discrimination against gay people on religious grounds.

Researchers at Harvard Business School and Duke University said Cook “effectively framed the debate using social media at a time when opinions were being formed and the impact went beyond the political”.

Borkowski suggested that before chief executives tweet they should “consider whether they have the personality and temperament to get the tone right each time”.

“There is nothing more inelegant than a chief executive going after rivals publicly on Twitter,” he said.

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It was exactly that sort of behaviour that Cat Rock had accused Groen of undertaking. When Uber Eats announced earlier this year that it would take on Just Eat in Germany, Groen lashed out in a tweet directed at Khosrowshahi, accusing him of “trying to depress our share price”.

Khosrowshahi replied that perhaps Groen should “pay a little less attention to your short term stock price and more attention to your Tech and Ops”. That sparked Groen to reply “thank you for the advice, and then if I may .. Start paying taxes, minimum wage and social security premiums before giving a founder advice on how he should run his business”.

Alex Captain, Cat Rock’s founder, said: “The response should not happen on Twitter. It should happen on a credible forum with the facts, data, and analysis that the company has at its disposal.”

A Just Eat spokesperson said: “Just Eat Takeaway.com has a regular dialogue with all its shareholders and we take all their views very seriously.”



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