Joy Buolamwini Profile
Joy Buolamwini (Tennessee & Jesus, 2013) recently completed the MSc in Education (Learning & Technology) at the University of Oxford, and is currently piloting the first formal 'Service Year’ through the Rhodes Scholarship. The Rhodes Service Year offers Rhodes scholars an opportunity to use their residence in Oxford to pilot a community service-oriented project rather than complete an academic program.
For Joy’s Service Year, she has launched Code4Rights, a technology education initiative that builds upon her work establishing Zamrize as a Fulbright Fellow. Joy graduated from the Georgia Institute of Technology with a Bachelor of Science in Computer Science in 2012, and has been honoured as a Stamps Scholar, Google Anita Borg Scholar and Astronaut Scholar. She was formerly a competitive pole vaulter, and in her free time enjoys spending time with loved ones, playing guitar, writing songs, and making playful digital creations (follow @Code4Rights, like Fb.com/Code4Rights, and sign up for the C4R newsletter to learn more).
Rhodes Project: What prompted you to start Code4Rights and Zamrize?
Joy Buolamwini: Zamrize was my Fulbright Fellow initiative and the idea was to empower Zambian youth to become creators of technology. My inspiration came from my own experiences in computer science at Georgia Tech. I was really excited because during my junior year I had set in my mind that I wanted to make an impact in African nations through mobile technology, but I wasn’t sure how. I just knew that I saw the power in these computational tools, and being from Ghana I wanted to use these tools and opportunities to help others. That year I went to Ethiopia to pilot a global health data collection system. The system was adopted to survey over 40,000 people. It is now used in 5 different countries to help monitor neglected tropical diseases like trachoma, lymphatic filariasis, and schistosomiasis, and has affected the lives of 17 million people. I want other people (especially women and Africans) to be able to create impactful technology for their communities, which sparked the idea for Zamrize.
When I was in Zambia teaching youth to code mobile applications, I met the “Steve Jobs of Zambia” – Mark Bennett (unfortunately, he has since died). He was a successful entrepreneur who started iSchool (a Zambian project to add e-learning to school curricula), and everyone said I had to meet him – eventually he became a partner in Zamrize. Because of this, thousands of Zedupads, the iSchool’s flagship education tablet designed to be distributed throughout Zambia, were preloaded with health apps created by Zamrize participants. I also worked with Asikana Network, a local women-in-tech group, to facilitate the creation of a women’s rights app now available to over 3 million Zambians. I arrived in Oxford shortly afterwards.
My first year studying education here in Oxford was great, but in my second year I realized I had unfinished business. So I proposed to do a year of service that would allow me to build on the work I did in Zambia with our partners and expand it into something that could go worldwide. The idea behind Code4Rights is to promote human rights through technology education, empowering people to create meaningful technology for their communities. Code4Rights stems from my experiences with Zamrize to empower Zambian youth to become creators of technology and focuses on extending the women’s rights app impact project.
Rhodes Project: Can you tell me about your ‘Rhodes Service Year’ this year?
Joy Buolamwini: The idea behind the Service Year was to take the founding principles of the Rhodes Scholarship and put that into play in another way at Oxford. We were selected to be scholars but not scholars alone, right? For me, the prospect of doing another master’s “because it was nice” wasn’t good enough. I knew I had to at least try to see if there was a different way to use the scholarship. I wanted to stay immersed in this community while pursuing something I might not have been able to do otherwise. Rhodes House agreed to let me pilot the first formal Service Year.
I think symbolically it’s a great thing for the Rhodes Trust to incorporate – I feel like it speaks to the mission even more. It says we’re open to new ideas, we’re open to change and the Trust is open to support scholars in exploring options like this.
Rhodes Project: How are you spending your time here in Oxford this year? What does a typical day look like?
Joy Buolamwini: Typical is atypical. I was really fortunate to gain a spot in a co-working space on Little Clarendon Street – it’s called The Hatch. Some days you’ll find me there working, hiding or chatting away. Sometimes I go to the Said Business School Launchpad. It’s great to get a sense of the atmosphere and what people are excited about. I’m trying to make sure I use my time as effectively as I can while maintaining balance – in some ways, it’s a year of service, but it’s also a year of rest.
Rhodes Project: What do you envisage for the Rhodes Service Year for the future?
Joy Buolamwini: I hope it creates a space for scholars to try what they might not have ever dared to do otherwise. I don’t know that I would have dared to do Code4Rights otherwise if there wasn’t this opening or space to explore it. If I wanted to pursue this initiative, it was a choice of leaving the community or not. I think something would have been lost there if I did leave early. I think Rhodes Scholars in the future might feel even more fulfilled with this opportunity if they have this kind of option to express themselves, learn and grow.
Rhodes Project: What do you think the next 10 years of your life will look like, professionally and personally?
Joy Buolamwini: Personally, I definitely want to have a family so hopefully I’ll find the right life partner and then have some children. I definitely want to make some time and space for humanity, not just in the abstract, but in immediate relationships.
Professionally, it keeps changing for me. I call myself a ‘experiential entrepreneur’ because I’m always exploring a new area to create, learn more and challenge myself. I’ve lived that way for most of my life, which is okay when you’re in your early to mid-twenties because the consequences of risk taking aren’t as high. I hope I never stop dreaming. I hope I’ll continue to be somebody who tries to explore boundaries and create opportunities for others to do that as well – I can see myself potentially spending time in business, academia, policy, maybe even sports. I’ve always wanted to pole vault for Ghana in the Olympics!
I still want a PhD, so I’d like to do that before I have a family. I’d be the third-generation doctorate in my family coming from West Africa and there’s a statement in that. Academia seems like a good place to explore some of my truly crazy ideas.
Rhodes Project: Who was your role model/mentor in the tech space?
Joy Buolamwini: I have been so fortunate to have many incredible mentors. Most immediate would be my parents – my mother’s an artist and my father’s a professor of medicinal chemistry and pharmaceutical sciences. Growing up I saw art and science as one, and I think that’s what drew me to computer science.
I’ve also been fortunate at Georgia Tech to have close relationships with some brilliant minds in computer science and entrepreneurship. My closest mentors stemming from that network are Dr. Merrick Furst, CEO of Flashpoint – he encouraged me to pursue entrepreneurship. His business partner and another mentor Matt Chanoff is an economist and is on the board of Code4Rights and Zamrize. Within the College of Computing I had the privilege of working with Dr. Irfan Essa and Dr. Andrea Thomaz on social robotics and autism. I also admire Dr. Mark Guzdial and Barb Ericson who introduced me to the world of education technology and were among the first supporters of Zamrize.
I would also say Roe and Penny Stamps are great role models. Roe Stamps is a mentor and well-established venture capitalist. He and Penny decided to put their wealth into providing educational opportunities for other people. Roe and Penny have been really open and generous with the network they have built over the years. I cannot leave out Dr. Charles Isbel, a leading expert in machine learning or Cedric Stallworth, a former Georgia Tech American football quarterback who was also in the NFL. They demonstrated to me a commitment to promoting excellence and diversity in the College of Computing while I was an undergraduate. There are many others whose time, advice, and example have shaped me in important ways. There isn’t enough space to do everyone justice. In the startup community in Atlanta, Jen Bonnett took me under her wing when I was only a first year undergraduate student. She along with Lance Weatherby, Greg Foster, and Keith McGregor helped integrate me into the emerging startup ecosystem in Atlanta. On the media side of things, Jen Myronuk has been a long time champion of promoting stories about the process of creation. Her encouragement to capture digital breadcrumbs is a large part of why I have fiscal sponsorship from FilmMakers Collaborative to pursue creative media production.
Rhodes Project: What do you think are some of the best strategies to address the systemic barriers for women in computing, tech and entrepreneurship? What is the best way to increase numbers and get women at the forefront of those sectors?
Joy Buolamwini: Definitely a multipronged approach – acknowledging that from the get-go is very important. Having accessible pathways means access, not just in opportunity, but access to supportive environments. I think for anybody to thrive, you need to let people know that their stories matters and that who they are matters and they have the ability to be what they choose to be. It’s easiest for people to believe that when they have role models – when the support is there, and it’s recognized that your potential is unbounded.
But we don’t usually grow up that way. We’re limited in so many ways, and so by the time we reach our college years we’ve often stopped dreaming. Especially when we look into spaces and they seem hostile – intentionally or otherwise. Harvey Mudd College is a beautiful example of making computing more accessible to women because they focus on how to make computing meaningful – not just making the next algorithm for the sake of making the next algorithm.
For all sorts of systemic reasons, by the time people come to university they might not have had the same level of exposure to computers, technology or programming – so if you’re with people who have had a ton of exposure, it can seem intimidating. Role models are important but I think the ‘belief factor’ is too. One of my other mentors is Kimberly Bryant, founder of Black Girls Code. She wanted a community where people felt accepted and empowered to create through code, so she’s done that for thousands of girls between the ages of 7-17.
Rhodes Project: What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?
Joy Buolamwini: Never stop dreaming! And sleep – because when you’re sleeping you can dream. Another piece of advice I’ve received is from Megan Smith, the Chief Technology Officer of the United States – she’s the ultimate ‘tech woman’. When I asked her about teambuilding, she advised me to pick people who were self-aware. With self-awareness, we’re able to take a step back in team settings – especially in those difficult moments.
Rhodes Project: What books have been most transformative for you?
Joy Buolamwini: I recently read A Call To Action: Women, Religion, Violence and Power by President Jimmy Carter. He went straight to the matter – how religious texts have often been used to oppress women and how patriarchy is a reflection of culture but not necessarily the divine. This book’s discussion of human rights affirmed for me what we’re trying to do with Code4Rights – providing people with actionable knowledge. The first part is knowing that you have rights, and the second part is having any movements for change come from within local communities. We’ve been exploring this idea of what a community-sourced mobile app looks like as part of a wider toolkit of approaches to raise awareness and share resources regarding rights. The Code4Rights approach also positions women as the creators and originators of solutions for themselves – but that doesn’t have to be exclusionary.
Rhodes Project: Could you tell me more about your time competing in pole vaulting, and what you love about the sport?
Joy Buolamwini: What I love about pole vaulting is that you’re constantly daring yourself – and daring nature. There are a lot of parallels you can draw between pole vaulting and entrepreneurship. You have to visualize yourself doing something before you vault. You visualize yourself going over the bar but still have to take actions to make it happen. It’s kind of ridiculous to envision yourself going across the bar with this somewhat shaky pole, but you do it anyways.
And in order to do it, you have to commit all the way. If you hesitate on a vault in the wrong place you’re not going to make it.
Lately I’ve been thinking about “bar gazing” versus “star gazing” in life. It’s so easy to bar gaze, and I think that’s what most of us do – the typical achievements, scholarships, the job, the key relationships to have. If you’re pole vaulting and you bar gaze, you’re going to hit the bar and knock it over or barely pass. You don’t reach your full potential unless you star gaze – looking beyond whatever expectations have been set for you or how someone else has defined success. You realize your full potential when you’re not concentrating on the bar. For me, that has been a great metaphor for life.
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