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Tampa crowds hear tale of two ideas: Diversity and data drive business success

TAMPA — To grow an innovative and competitive economy — the model the Tampa Bay area is aiming for — companies need both inclusive teams and the smarts to turn massive amounts of data to their advantage.

It's a yin and yang picture, one that emerged Tuesday at separate events 10 miles apart:

• Near downtown, about 60 people turned out for a Tampa Bay Wave panel discussion on diversity and inclusion in the tech industry.

• Meanwhile, at the University of South Florida, a crowd of 600 packed a ballroom for a day-long Muma College of Business forum on business analytics.

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Despite the different topics, the speakers at times sounded as if they had eavesdropped on each other. The diversity panel talked about the importance of tracking and measuring hiring, bidding and investing. The business analytics crowd heard about trust.

Both groups delved into the hazards of bias, whether in buying supplies or enterprises that rely on machine learning. For example, if a facial recognition system does poorly at recognizing darker skin tones, then it's worth asking whether it learned the job from a data set where images of white people were over-represented.

Here are four takeaways from the day:

Have uncomfortable conversations

Get used to the idea of "being comfortable being uncomfortable," said Crystal Barnes, senior vice president of global responsibility and sustainability at Nielsen and executive director of the Nielsen Foundation.

It's not easy to take a conversation about the problem of unconscious bias to management, she said, but it has to happen.

"Bringing diverse entrepreneurs and organizations into your company is really important, because there's a ripple effect there," she said. "If you can think through it and address it head-on, you start to address the lack of a pipeline" for diversity.

Blockchain is not just for cryptocurrencies

"How many of you like organic foods?" asked Frank Yiannas, who oversees food safety at Walmart.

A lot of people at the USF Marshall Student Center raised their hands.

"What if I told you that there is more organic food sold in the world than is produced in the world — and you're buying it," he said.

Issues of food safety, reliability, sourcing and freshness prompted Walmart to start using blockchain technology, a decentralized, distributed way of sharing data among many permitted users, to start tracking some produce all the way back to individual farms.

At the start of the project, Yiannas' team at Walmart tried to trace the origins of a package of sliced mango.

It took nearly seven days.

By the project's end, the same search took just 2.2 seconds, and showed when and where the mango was picked, whether it was washed with hot water and when it crossed the border.

That kind of enhanced tracking, he said, not only can help in an emergency, like the recent contaminated romaine lettuce recall, but also improves efficiency, freshness and reliability.

"Trust is really important," Yiannas said. The opposite of transparency is anonymity, "not really knowing where food came from or how it was produced."

'Entrepreneurship is the great equalizer'

"You can have a great idea that is going to change the world ... and you can make something happen," said Lakshmi Shenoy, whom Jeff Vinik hired to create an innovation hub at Channelside Bay Plaza.

"If you're willing to hustle and learn things and meet people and ask for things and be uncomfortable, you can be successful."

The more data, the better

As businesses turn to machine learning and the cloud, the amount of data is as important as the ways it is parsed and analyzed.

Two of the USF speakers, in fact, quoted machine learning scholar Andrew Ng, who said it's not who has the best algorithm who wins; it's who has the most data.

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Contact Richard Danielson at or (813) 226-3403. Follow @Danielson_Times