Named a WIRED Icon for 25th Anniversary Issue & Nominated Jewel Burks
The legendary magazine named me a WIRED Icon for their 25th issue and also gave me the chance to write an article and nominate someone from the up & coming generation having a massive affect on the industry. Read the article below or at WIRED.com
JEWEL BURKS CAN fix just about anything. I met her in 2014, while producing my online show Small Empires, which profiled entrepreneurs. We’d seen a lot of pitches for early-stage AI companies, but most were more artificial than they were intelligent, claiming to have AI solutions that were really just humans doing the work under a few layers of software. Burks’ company, Partpic, was an exception. Burks and her team had built an app that let you point the camera on your smartphone at any bit of hardware—nuts, bolts, screws, whatever—to find a replacement from a massive catalog of parts, in real time. “I certainly would not bet against Jewel,” I said on camera at the time.
Sourcing repair parts isn’t the most glamorous problem, but it’s been a major pain point for industrial distributors like McMaster-Carr, where Burks had worked as a supervisor. To find the right replacement, staffers had to flip through thick catalogs looking for a match, sometimes without knowing the part number or supplier name. Burks jumped in. She had no experience with computer vision (she studied marketing at Howard University). But she learned about the technology by reading academic papers and watching videos. She started attending events at Georgia Tech and recruited PhDs to help her build a visual search app. She left McMaster-Carr to start Partpic, and by her mid-twenties she’d raised more than $2 million in seed funding, cut deals with distributors and retailers to integrate Partpic software into their mobile apps and websites, and demonstrated her tech to President Obama. (He’s still thinking about becoming a VC, right?) Eventually she sold her company to Amazon, where she’s now the team lead of visual search.
It’s not just Burks’ talent that impresses me—it’s how she has emerged as a champion for representation and access in the tech industry. The stats are alarming: While black women’s business ownership is growing fast, less than 1 percent of VC funding goes to women of color. Women hold only 11 percent of executive positions at Silicon Valley companies. Burks fights to change this by mentoring female founders and other women of color in tech and is a board member of Goodie Nation, a community using tech to solve civic problems like access to education and health care.
We need leaders who are also tenacious community builders. Burks is one—and she’s only 29. Imagine the impact she’ll have in the next 29 years.