Rhodes Scholar Shows ‘Compassion through Computation’

From her high school bedroom in Memphis, Tenn., Joy Buolamwini realized she could change the world with technology as she created a website for the Ethiopian Embassy in the Ivory Coast. This was one of the first times, but certainly not the last, that her computing skills would have a global effect. 

Joy Buolamwini
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Joy Buolamwini is a 2012 alumna and a 2013 Rhodes Scholar. She will study Global Governance and Diplomacy and African Studies at the University of Oxford.

Born in Canada to African parents and having lived in Ghana, Barcelona, Memphis and Atlanta, Buolamwini truly considers herself a global citizen. Next year, she’ll take her talents to the U.K. where she’ll study Global Governance and Diplomacy and African Studies at the University of Oxford as a 2013 Rhodes Scholar. The Rhodes Scholarship is recognized as the oldest and most celebrated international fellowship award in the world. The Rhodes Scholarship Trust bestows its honor on just 32 U.S. students a year, and each is given the opportunity to pursue a secondary degree at the University of Oxford.

Rhodes is not the first prestigious fellowship program to recognize Buolamwini’s enterprising spirit. She’s also a 2013 Fulbright scholar and will use her grant to improve access to education in Zambia. Her past experience developing web and mobile applications for Atlanta’s Teach for America schools will inform Buolamwini’s efforts with the Zambian Institute for Sustainable Development to create a program that gives students a foundation in information technology, mobile software development and entrepreneurship.

Life at Tech

Coming to Tech as a computer science major and Stamps President’s Scholar in 2008, Buolamwini spent the past four years growing her skills and flourishing in finding ways to employ them. She interned at Yahoo, worked at the Carter Center, founded multiple startup companies and earned numerous competitive scholarships, including the Google Anita Borg Scholarship and the Astronaut Scholarship.

“Having people around Georgia Tech who were affiliated with the startup community really inspired me,” she said. Her first innovative venture at Tech was with the Institute’s InVenture Prize, where Buolamwini was the youngest finalist in 2009. “The most valuable thing was the confidence I gained and realizing I could put something out in the world and make it become a reality. Everything became an opportunity after that.”

"Everything" is the operative word: Buolamwini has researched human-robot interaction to support early diagnosis of autism, been a guest writer for Newsweek and won countless awards for her computing prowess. The former pole vaulter stayed active in student activities, once scoring five touchdowns in a Homecoming powderpuff football game. Ultimately, her various pursuits have been in the name of serving others with technology, motivated by the idea of “compassion through computation.”

But, to those who know her, what makes Buolamwini different is the character behind the laundry list of accomplishments and accolades.

“She has an integrity to herself that is really unusual,” said Merrick Furst, distinguished professor and founder of Flashpoint, Georgia Tech’s startup incubator from which one of Buolamwini’s companies graduated. “It’s not that Joy does one thing well, it’s that her talent is a well, coupled with a remarkable boundless generative energy.”

From Atlanta to Africa

As a technical consultant at the Carter Center, Buolamwini created a mobile surveying solution to digitize a paper-based health assessment system used for working with trachoma in Ethiopia. In just 10 weeks, her team developed the necessary technology and she traveled to Ethiopia to pilot the system against its paper predecessor.

"Assumptions I made while developing the software in the U.S. were often invalidated, leading to changes made under my mosquito net as dawn approached," she said. “I realize[d] I cannot remain in a cultural cocoon centered on technology alone. No initiative can reach maximum impact without understanding the needs of all stakeholders and mechanisms.” The work led to the successful implementation of a survey to 40,000 people that could ultimately serve 17 million in the effort to eradicate trachoma in the region.

“I want to use mobile technology to address grand challenges in education and health while uplifting African nations,” she said. “I also want to encourage more women and underrepresented groups in computer science to not just be consumers of technology, but full participants in its creation.”

As an Alumna

Since graduating from Tech in May, Buolamwini, along with three other Tech alumnae, founded a hair technology company called Techturized. The company creates personalized recommendations, a market need Buolamwini observed through her own experience of “going natural” with her hair. Techturized also highlights the role that hair plays in women’s lives.

“Joy has a unique skill set in understanding the technology as well as the people,” said Randy McDow, executive director of the Stamps Family Charitable Foundation, and director of the President’s Scholarship Program at the time Buolamwini was named a Stamps scholar. True to the name of her freelance web development company, Jovial Designs, “She’s fun to talk to and doesn’t offer a tired or boring view of the world. She really wants to make positive changes and makes you want to be a part of that. She embodies her name so well.”

If it seems as though Buolamwini’s accomplishments never stop, it’s because neither does she.

“I can get exhausted just thinking about what Joy accomplishes, and, for her, she’s just being Joy and the world is getting better,” Furst said.

Buolamwini’s philosophy is that success never happens in isolation. “At Tech, I have been surrounded by so many people who cared to nurture me as a student, an entrepreneur and a leader, while reminding me that reaching out to help others is the greatest achievement one can have.”

Georgia Tech President G.P. “Bud” Peterson connected Buolamwini’s story and the Rhodes Scholarship with Tech’s overarching purpose. “Our goal at Georgia Tech is to prepare innovators and leaders who will use their academic experience to change the world,” he said. “Through the Rhodes Scholarship, Joy will be able to do just that, and we at Georgia Tech are tremendously proud of her accomplishments and potential.”

As she departs for Zambia early next year, Buolamwini will take on an advisory role at Techturized. She will return from Zambia just in time for Sailing Weekend, a tradition among Rhodes Scholars to coordinate their September travel to Oxford. After an initial gathering of winners and past Rhodes Scholars over the weekend, Buolamwini is excited about embracing her new community.

“They’re successful, smart, capable people. They make you feel like the world is going to be OK.”