BLACK LEADERS IN ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE AND STEM
These are four of the finest black leaders in AI and STEM. Three of whom directly work within the field of AI and one who is impacting the field directly by creating pathways for young leaders of tomorrow.
Sara Menker – Gro Intelligence
In 2019, Fast Company named Sara Menker one of the most creative people in the business world. Part of the reason for this distinction was her decision to share crop forecasts to the US agriculture industry when the federal government could no longer do this during a shutdown. This shows that being in artificial intelligence isn’t just about computer programming. It’s about finding solutions.
Her 2017 Ted Talk has gained over 1.7 million views, and every single one of those viewers learned something vital. In this talk, she perfectly highlights why the looming global food crisis is closer than many think. And while doing so, she explains why she left a high paying job on Wall Street to found Gro Intelligence. By discussing food crisis projections, she demonstrates how artificial intelligence needs to solve this issue and how she is doing it through unique thought processes, such as projecting food needs via calories instead of mass.
More recently, she has joined the UN Secretary-General’s High Level Advisory Group on Climate Action, specifically due to her food data expertise. The way I see it, there’s being a leader of AI, and then there’s saving the world through AI. Sara Menker is doing both!
Kimberly Bryant – Black Girls CODE
The name of Kimberly Bryant’s company, Black Girls CODE, says it all. Black girls can and SHOULD be coders too! In 2021, Black Girls CODE will celebrate its 10th anniversary. And it has a lot to celebrate. It has taught over 20,000 young women how to code. By 2040, it aims to have increased this number to 1 million!
What really makes me admire Bryant is the story of how and why she started Black Girls CODE. It all began when she noticed how much her daughter liked video gaming. She realized that this hobby could lead to a career, and enrolled her daughter into a Stanford tech camp to help encourage this goal. But there were barely any women and no people of color, other than Bryant’s daughter, in the camp. So Bryant took money out of her 401K and organized her own program to teach people like her daughter how to make it in the coding world.
Girls Who CODE is just one of the ways in which Bryant is working to make society more equal. For instance, in 2019, she led a TED Talk that highlighted how the risk of failing can be significantly more devastating for minorities. She’s frank about how she didn’t just glide into STEM. Instead, she had to work damn hard to defy the odds. Time and time again, she struggled to succeed. Eventually, it paid off. Now she’s ensuring that the next generation of black leaders have a smoother career path than she did!
Timnit Gebru – Formerly Google
In late 2020, Timnit Gebru was fired from Google’s Ethical AI team. What had she done? She co-authored a paper on the social and ethical issues related to AI. Google acted terribly in this instance. An executive told her to either retract the paper or take her name off of it. Gebru had one week to comply, with the deadline being the day after Thanksgiving. Naturally, she didn’t comply, and the company got rid of her.
Gebru’s story shows just how far people of color and women still have to go in STEM. All she was doing was highlighting how AI can generate and intensify racism. But here’s the thing: I hope that Gebru’s firing will illustrate why the tech industry needs to diversify and consider minorities more predominantly. Many people at Google and outside the company opposed Gebru’s treatment. Hopefully, the executives at Google and the wider tech world will learn from this experience.
Gebru is likely to lead that change. Since leaving Google, she has focused on forming a research institute that furthers equality. It may be a while until this institute launches. But when it does, it’s sure to become an important force in highlighting how AI can discriminate against minorities and how the world can fix this problem.
Donna Auguste – Auguste Research Group
No one can deny that Donna Auguste is a pioneer of AI. Way back in the 80s, she became the first African American woman to enter Carnegie Mellon University’s computer science doctoral program. In the 90s, she joined Apple as a software engineering manager. In this role, she incorporated AI into the company’s digital assistant products.
Later in the 90s, she co-founded Freshwater Software, which created server reliability programs. In fact, the software was so good that Mercury Interactive purchased it in 2001 for $147 million. In the 2000s, she created a charitable foundation that built schools, hospitals, homes, solar power systems and internet access in developing nations and in deprived parts of the US. While she was doing this, she also set up Alpha and Omega Inc, a technology and content development company.
Today, she heads the Auguste Research Group, which researches sensors and data science. It’s also making STEM more diverse.
These are four of the finest black leaders of AI and STEM that I can name. But of course, there are a number of others who deserve nothing but respect. And future black leaders in AI are currently making their way into the industry. Thanks to people like the four pioneers above, these future leaders will achieve incredible things!
— Omari Ross