Joy Buolamwini’s reach has always exceeded her grasp.
No challenge is too great for Buolamwini. Her accolades and accomplishments attest to that. Computationally keen and internationally oriented, Buolamwini’s impact was first felt outside the United States when she designed the website for an African consulate—as a high school student. Now, her focus has expanded to the entire African nation of Zambia.
Buolamwini is only 24. She’s just getting started.
Buolamwini began using computers at a young age, when she visited her father’s research laboratory. Her father, Chair of the College of Pharmacy at Rosalind Franklin University of Science and Medicine, is involved in computer-aided drug research and design. The laboratory included multiple silicon graphics computers that could display renderings of protein structures.
“I was captivated by the computers [more than the chemistry] and wanted to understand how the machines worked,” Buolamwini said. “This sparked an ongoing fascination with creating technology that can aide humanity in a variety of areas including health and education.”
Her love of technology developed into numerous endeavors from high school to college. Buolamwini operated a prolific website design business until she graduated from Georgia Tech. She founded multiple startup companies. She guest wrote for Newsweek. She received a multitude of awards and accolades from national organizations, including the prestigious Rhodes Scholarship and a Fulbright Fellowship. Buolamwini also interned with Yahoo and worked with The Carter Center.
Health and education prominently coalesced in Buolamwini’s career with her work at The Carter Center. Buolamwini led a team that designed a system for assessing neglected tropical diseases; the system reduced the process for collecting data by several months. She later piloted the system in Ethiopia alongside epidemiologists from The Carter Center. Cumulatively, 40,000 people were surveyed.
“That experience really made me think about how many more advances might be made if those traditionally underrepresented in computing fields were engaged in creating technology,” she said. “The world cannot afford to only have a small segment of the population creating technology, because we will miss countless opportunities and creative solutions that can only emerge when all who desire are empowered to shape our collective future.”
Buolamwini was named a Fulbright Fellow in May 2012. The Fulbright Program awards grants for international research or teaching English abroad. Program applicants select a participating country outside the United States for the aforementioned activity to take place during an academic year.
She selected Zambia to join a non-profit, led by a Georgia Tech graduate student. Buolamwini had previously worked remotely with the organization prior to her Fulbright application. That work led to her selection of Zambia. Though she eventually partnered with other non-profits in the Southern African country, the initial partnership was the beginning of her association with Zambia.
Buolamwini was named a Rhodes Scholar in November 2012. The prestigious scholarship program gives awards to students from select non-British countries to study at the University of Oxford in England. Buolamwini recently completed her master’s in education at Oxford. She’ll soon graduate with first class honors and a distinction on her dissertation; a case study on the College of Computing’s Online Master of Science in Computer Science program.
“Oxford provided a great environment to reflect on my time in Zambia and to consider how to best scale that impact,” Buolamwini said.
Buolamwini scaled that impact into Zamrize. Launched in January 2013, Zamrize is focused on empowering youth to become technology creators through lab-based, integrative computational experiences that provide exposure, education, and entrepreneurship. Thus far, multiple apps have been developed with predominantly health-related themes focused on the Zambian people.
Zamrize has attracted the attention of prominent international leaders, so much so that Buolamwini recently spoke at the Clinton Global Initiative’s 2014 Annual Meeting in New York City.
Buolamwini is now launching Code for Rights from Oxford. The new initiative addresses the gender and skills gap in computing fields by training women to create high visibility mobile applications that support their communities and attract woman to learn to code.
Code for Rights worked with Zamrize partner, Asikana Network, and trained them to build mobile applications. Asikana Network developed an internationally recognized women’s right app, Internet.org, which is available to millions of Airtel Zambia subscribers. The app has received praise from Sheryl Sandberg, chief operating officer of Facebook, and Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, executive director of the United Nations Women organization.
“I believe the heart of computing is humanity, and at Georgia Tech I learned how to use technology to catalyze our human potential,” Buolamwini said. “Now through Code For Rights, I hope to teach others to do the same.”
You can read more stories about Georgia Tech's global impact here.