06 Machine Learning Bootcamp
For creating future-ready workers at all levels
Digital transformation is do or die in today’s tech-fueled business world—and even an established fashion giant like Levi Strauss & Co. (LS&C) is no exception. Recognizing that simple but brutal reality, the company fast-tracked a digitization effort it had begun in 2018. On the to-do list: creating a digital enterprise office, scaling its use of digital tools and machine learning, integrating more AI to optimize its ecommerce and revamping its design process.
The goal was to encourage an agile and digital-first mindset in employees at every level—from those working the sales floor to those designing next season’s styles. “Everything that can be automated, should be automated,” CFO Harmit Singh wrote in an op-ed.
But rather than just investing in the latest whiz-bang tech, the company is also betting big on its people. In 2021, LS&C partnered with artificial intelligence consultancy Launchpad.ai to create an eight-week Machine Learning Bootcamp, considered the first of its kind in the industry. The program is open to employees across the enterprise—no coding experience necessary. Applicants complete a selection process that evaluates their problem-solving skills, analytical capabilities and attitude.
“Of all the qualities we screened for, we were especially interested in resilience and tenacity in addressing a challenge,” says Katia Walsh, LS&C’s senior VP and chief strategy and AI officer.
For its third and most recent cohort, LS&C had nearly 60 participants. That brings the total number of employees trained through the bootcamp to more than 150 from around the world, representing diverse backgrounds, cultures and positions. Some were relatively new to the company, while one woman had worked there for three decades. In the latest group, about 40 percent identified as Black, Indigenous and or a person of color, and about 40 percent were women. For LS&C, the democratization of machine learning is integral to its inclusion efforts.
“No business can succeed if its workforce does not reflect the diversity of its consumers, and that’s especially crucial in technology in order to minimize bias of algorithms and digital products,” Walsh says.
One of the challenges in creating the program was coordinating schedules and responsibilities so participants could spend two months away from their regular jobs. Walsh credits support from LS&C’s CEO and global leadership team as well as the company’s human resources department for enabling the bootcamp’s success, Walsh says.
Even with schedules sorted, the company also had to figure out a way to design a technical program for employees with nontechnical backgrounds. Launchpad.ai helped develop a curriculum to cover the foundations of data science, coding, machine learning and agile, collaborating with LS&C to create content and use cases specific to the apparel industry.
After completing the bootcamp, program graduates apply their new citizen developer skills to solve problems in ways they couldn’t have before. They might write a script to automate gathering data or digitize previously slow, manual processes such as color-matching threads and fabrics. Some create models to predict manufacturing defects or the optimal assortment of items in a store. Such improvements, Walsh says, save the company money, provide a higher ROI and increase financial margins. Graduates also collaborate on AI projects that become part of LS&C’s larger strategy and digital roadmap, strengthening ties across the company.
LS&C hopes the bootcamp will also help the company recruit and retain top talent—and show others that a technical field can be accessible to many. “Every organization today is a digital, data and AI one—whether it realizes it or not,” Walsh says.