Pan-African Weekend: Meet the 2015 Young Africans Committed to Excellence

Sandra Appiah May 05, 2015
Last Edited by:Sandra Appiah Updated: September 15, 2018

 Joy Buolamwini

IMG_0151Nationality: Ghanaian
Current position(s): Founder Code4Rights |Ambassador To Africa for Presidentially Endorsed Computer Science Master’s Degree
Education: BS Computer Science Georgia Institute of Technology, MSc Oxford University, MIT Media Lab Graduate Student
Topic of Interest: Technology Entrepreneurship, Inclusive Instructional Media and Human Rights

Joy Buolamwini is a Rhodes Scholar, a Fulbright Fellow, a Stamps Scholar, a two-year recipient of the Astronaut Scholarship, a Google Anita Borg Scholar, and a Carter Center technical consultant recognized as a distinguished volunteer. At the Carter Center, she created an android-based mobile surveying solution that was used to survey nearly 40,000 people in Ethiopia to help eliminate blinding Trachoma for over 17 million people. She has presented the work internationally and the tools are now used worldwide to combat other neglected tropical diseases.

At Georgia Tech she conducted research on health informatics as well as social robotics and autism, graduating with highest honors with a bachelor’s degree in Computer Science. As a Fulbright Fellow in Zambia, she is working with local organizations and computer science education experts as well as practitioners to empower Zambian youth to become creators of technology as the Executive Director of the Zamrize initiative. She was recently appointed to the Georgia Tech OMS CS Board as Ambassador to Africa in order to help increase the number of computer science professionals worldwide.


F2FA: What makes you proud to be an African?
JB: The genius, passion, and resilience of the African spirit make me proud to be a daughter of the continent and a sister to its many nations.

F2FA: What inspired you to go in to your field?
JB: As the daughter of an artist and cancer researcher, I grew up seeing the arts and sciences used in service of humanity. From the age of 9, I was fascinated by robotics and wanted to create meaningful technology. As a result, using technology in the service of humanity has been the core of my endeavours. I strive to show compassion through computation.

F2FA: What do you see as the way forward for Africa to fulfill its potential?
JB: From practicing pole vaulting (sport of catapulting oneself over a fixed bar with a long pole), I have learned that you can live life bar gazing or stargazing. In a vault competition your goal is to clear a bar of success as measured by spectators and officials. However, when you concentrate clearing bars such that your eyes see nothing else, you barely realize your potential or keep failing to reach external expectations. We should instead set our gaze beyond the bar. By sky gazing instead of bar gazing, we not only clear the measure of success of onlookers, but we achieve something far more substantial. For ourselves ,we are free to reach to our highest potential. Our possibilities are no longer set by the expectations of others. For those who watch, waiting for a turn or healing from failed attempts, their imagination of their aspirations expands.

The greatest opportunity for Africa is the youthful population that believes in working to create a thriving continent. The challenge is creating the ecosystems that can support economies where everyone has the access to a good education, decent health care, and opportunities to support their loved ones and passions. No continent has yet to completely reach these aspirations. It will take a combination of effective leadership, political will, cultural shifts, infrastructure, and capital to manifest such a reality in Africa and beyond. We must ensure that we do not succumb to the colonized heart.

The colonized heart is every bit as dangerous as the colonized mind. The colonized heart does not aspire to be authentically expressed. The colonized heart is too jaded to believe those who hurt who he loves and what he is in the past can be allies in the present. The colonized heart becomes insular for the fear of breaking only to find it has hastened death. The colonized heart fails to fully circulate the life giving blood of the resources and opportunities around. The colonized heart wallows in the greatest challenges instead of striving to advance the greatest opportunities. For too long, we have been bar gazing. Africa must begin to star gaze.

F2FA: How important is home grown innovation to reaching this end?
JB: We must be the originators of the pathways to enable Africa to reach its full potential, because ultimately we are responsible for creating the societies we desire. Lasting change requires authentic propagation which can not be imported or parachuted in from afar. Change must be cultivated by the actors and allies who have the most to lose and gain.

F2FA: With Africa soon having the largest youth population in the world, what can governments and communities across the continent do to properly engage and stimulate the youth and effectively harness their power, energy, and creativity?

JB: I believe one way to harness youth talent is to invest in talent accelerators that equip energetic young Africans with the most in demand skills in the world which can be used globally while retaining talent locally. is a beautiful example of how youth can contribute to economic prosperity while improving futures through becoming high class software developers. The company trains local talent in Nigeria and equips them to work in the fast growing technology sector that is currently facing a shortage of developers. Though there is ongoing training and support, with n 12 weeks apprentices can begin working full-time on software development projects. Beyond software development which command salaries over 70,000USD in the States, there is also an opportunity to engage youth in other areas such as online marketing, search engine optimization, social media marketing, and web design.

F2FA: What advice would you give to young people about finding their life’s purpose and path?
JB: Your purpose and path are acts of creation. You must deliberately craft your life. I developed the 3-S Framework For Potential (Show Up, Speak Up, Stand Up) to help me increase opportunities to craft my life in service of my purpose. Show up to conferences and events where people you aspire to be like congregate. Speak up about your visions, ideas you want to try and problems you want to solve. And finally, stand up to meet the opportunities that open up to you as a result of showing up and speaking up.

F2FA: What are you looking to accomplish that you haven’t accomplished yet?
JB: I would like to represent Ghana in the Olympics one day – ideally as a pole vaulter or ambassador of inspiration.

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