Allison Silveus feels as if she lives in two different worlds.
In one, there’s Fort Worth — a growing, family-friendly city she calls home. In the other, there’s Silicon Valley — a community that is forward-looking and innovative, where she works remotely as a consultant for companies developing training with virtual reality.
Silveus, 39, is developing her own technology through her company Unbent to redefine how companies conduct the hiring process. The technology allows a company to conduct interviews in a virtual office using virtual reality. The aim is to detect bias in the hiring process.
With years of experience in higher education and an eye toward innovation, Silveus wants Fort Worth to challenge assumptions and identify technology that could bring innovation and change to the workplace.
Suggest a profile
To suggest emerging leaders for the Fort Worth Report to profile, please email reporter Seth Bodine at firstname.lastname@example.org and Managing Editor Thomas Martinez at email@example.com.
Working through barriers
Silveus moved to Fort Worth in 2005 when she was accepted to a master’s program in forensic genetics at University of North Texas Health Science Center. She later found a passion for education when she started teaching biology at Tarrant County College. She still remembers her first class.
“I had three days to prep for a course that had no lab material, no nothing,” Silveus said. “And I don’t think I slept a wink for like that whole semester because I was working just constantly, trying to get things going.”
A passion for education wasn’t immediate. In fact, Silveus hated school as a child. Raised in a Spanish-speaking family, she had trouble navigating between English and Spanish in the classroom. At school, she remembers seeing a speech pathologist and early morning tutoring sessions from her mother. The school recommended that Silveus attend another school for students with learning disabilities. Her mother fought for her and insisted Silveus didn’t need the help.
She saw a system that placed students into boxes: gifted and not gifted. Silveus saw teaching as an opportunity to push against that system.
“It was kind of like taking those students that had been always told that they didn’t fit into a box and then giving them an opportunity to see things in a different way,” Silveus said.
Charlene Cole, the dean of mathematics and sciences at Tarrant County College – Northeast Campus, hired Silveus to be a tutor at the campus science learning center.
“She’s innovative and she has an innate love for seeing others succeed.”– Charlene Cole, dean of mathematics and sciences at Tarrant County College -Northeast Campus
Upon learning that Silveus had a master’s degree, Cole recommended her to apply for a teaching position. Cole described Silveus as exceptionally bright, people-oriented and not afraid to try something new in the classroom to enhance student learning, such as applying for grants or forming study groups to support students. To her, that’s the epitome of innovation and transforming science, technology, engineering and mathematics education.
“She’s innovative and she has an innate love for seeing others succeed,” Cole said. “So that’s very crucial because as you help others then of course, you’re going to be lifted up, because people see genuineness, and she’s that. So no matter where she’s been, I know that she’s been innovative, trying new things. I know she’s been reliable. And I know she’s been persistent.”
“It’s some barrier that you know … it’s coming your way and you have to make a decision like, ‘Am I going to let that hold me back from this next thing?’ And for me, I decided I wasn’t going let that hold me back.”– Allison Silveus
Throughout her career in higher education, Silveus said she hit barriers for professional development. The academic setting hires people for a specific role, but she said the system does a poor job at mapping out long term professional trajectory. They hire on fixed traits or skills and don’t take into account that people might want to pursue other things she said.
“What ends up happening is you have this natural attrition where individuals end up leaving one academic setting or one university and going to the next university because they feel like that’s their only way to move beyond what they’re kind of capable of,” Silveus said.
Silveus was writing grants for students, and serving on endless committees, but there was no path forward for promotion, she said. When she asked what she needed to do to be eligible for a promotion, there was only one: get a more advanced degree. So, she did.
“It’s some barrier that you know … it’s coming your way and you have to make a decision like, ‘Am I going to let that hold me back from this next thing?’ And for me, I decided I wasn’t going let that hold me back,” she said.
From higher education to Silicon Valley
When Silveus went to get her doctorate’s degree at Texas Christian University, she was working three jobs, including real estate, to pay the bills. During her studies, she became fascinated by another barrier in the workplace: bias.
While serving on hiring committees, she noticed a common pattern.
“People would say, well, we have to pull so many that have this … this trait because of … requirements,” Silveus said. “And I thought that’s really interesting because that’s kind of like bias in itself, the way that they’re perceiving names, for example, on resumes.”
An evolutionary social psychology class exposed Silveus to the science about how the brain responds to different biases.
“So a group that is actually highly homogenized, meaning they’re around a lot of individuals that look a lot like them – they have a heightened bias for people that look naturally like them,” Silveus said. “They have tendencies to say ‘I like you, I want to hire you.’ And individuals that grow up in communities that are very heterogeneous, where there’s a lot of difference, they don’t have as much of that reaction. They don’t have as much of that bias.”
Silveus enjoyed research, but she was also dabbling in business at the time through working in real estate during her doctorate program. Her husband was attending classes at Tech Fort Worth, and she said the people there helped foster her interest in business.
Observing hiring problems in her workplace and using the knowledge she learned from researching evolutionary social psychology and virtual reality led Silveus to make her startup, Unbent. The virtual reality platform aims to address bias in the hiring process.
She is developing an algorithm to measure affinity bias, using data metrics to measure how people react to different avatars in virtual reality, and language processing to identify what they associate with the avatars they are engaging with.
In the virtual space, candidates are evaluated on how they communicate with each avatar in the space. The technology then evaluates those interactions.
“So for example, if you ignore, let’s say, all the Asian American females that are heavyset in a room,” Silveus said. “What ends up happening is you have no bars, you have no lines for showing that you’ve ever interacted or that you’ve had any desire to engage with them.”
Unbent also evaluates levels of empathy in conversations in the virtual space with certain avatars and what candidates remembered about the virtual people they were interacting with, Silveus said.
Students at Southern Methodist University helped develop the technology. Klyne Smith, a clinical professor of computer science who worked with Silveus, said her passion is unmatched.
“She’s almost like the great triple threat,” Smith said. “She has a great personality, the passion for what she’s doing. And she understands … the concepts of product delivery, at the technical level.”
Unbent is now in the top 20 finalists for the 2022 Fort Worth Business Plan Competition, in which the winner will be awarded May 5.
A company contacted Silveus on LinkedIn to do some consulting on virtual reality.
In the summer, Silveus plans to bring Unbent to the Founders Institute in Dallas, a business incubator.
But for her, Fort Worth will always be her home – where her family, husband and two children are. She said the city has changed over the years, but the friendly environment has remained.
“It’s always about trying to do the right thing,” Silveus said. “That mentality I guess. I don’t know, it’s cool.”
Still, Silveus thinks there are plenty of barriers that Fort Worth could overcome. One is embracing technology that disrupts industries and puts companies on the map – something that Silicon Valley is embracing more than Cowtown.
She thinks it’s on city officials such as City Council to do a “reflective audit” of programs that promote business and startups to see if it’s restricting certain people from the programs and if that’s valuable.
If the restrictions aren’t valuable, Silveus said, it’s time to open things up. Silveus said one way to do that is to open a marketing campaign that is built around Fort Worth’s aspirations to be a technology hub and opening access to anyone that is interested.
“Open it up, so much so that people from Chicago or people from California have the opportunity to apply and participate in it,” Silveus said. “Because then you’re recruiting new blood. You’re recruiting these individuals with these new ideas that we might be naturally excluding because we haven’t done an audit on ourselves.”
Allison Silveus bio
Birthplace: San Angelo, Texas
Moved to Fort Worth: In 2005, upon being accepted to the University of North Texas Health Science Center biomedical science program.
Family: Two sons (Hadrian, 13 and Emory, 9), and husband (Jorge Silveus). Married since Jan. 1, 2006 – met in college chemistry at Brookhaven Community College.
Education: Bachelor’s in biology from University of Texas – Arlington; master’s in forensic genetics biomedical science, doctorate in education at Texas Christian University; defended dissertation on June 14. “Exploration of a Graduate Academic Medical Fellowship Program: An Approach to Evidence-Based Medical Curriculum Development.”
Work experience: Research and genetic typing of transplants at University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center (2007-2008); adjunct for microbiology at TCC-Northeast (2009); full-time biology faculty, Tarrant County College – Trinity River (2010-2016); Real Estate – Charitable Reality (2015); research assistant and Latina STEM Program at Texas Christian University (2016-2018); division of academic innovation at University of North Texas Health Science Center (2021-2022); consulting for confidential public company in Sunnyvale, California. CEO of Unbent (2020-present).
Volunteer experience: Mentoring committee at TCC, STEM Council Committee at TCC, Co-Chair of Diversity Committee in 2015.
First job: Working on a horse ranch in Richardson, Texas as a child.
Advice for someone learning to be a leader: Surround yourself with people who possess the talent and skills you seek to learn. This will put you on a path towards lifelong learning and success.
Best advice ever received: As a working mom, I have to remember my time is limited. Life will always put “drainers” or “pessimists” in your way to challenge your decisions. My dad reminded me years ago that in order to be focused and happy we need to avoid the drainers in life that drain you of money, time and energy. If either of these three go missing, it is time to stop and reevaluate who you are putting in your path.
Seth Bodine is a business and economic development reporter for the Fort Worth Report. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow on Twitter at @sbodine120.