Code4Rights founder Joy Buolamwini talks standing up and star gazing

GoDaddy (Wonder) Women in Technology

Have you ever sat around with your friends and talked about what really mattered to you and how you wish you could affect change in the world?  Was it an injustice you had seen at work? Maybe a woman and child begging on a street corner? A video on Facebook of yet another animal being abused?  The unbelievable inhumanity you see daily on the news? Somehow the problems seem insurmountable and your ability to contribute insignificant. So, you finish your commiserations and your glass of pinot, and go back to your life.

Unless you’re someone like Joy Buolamwini, founder of Code4Rights.

Joy Buolamwini speaks at GoDaddy Women in Technology event

Though only 25 years old, the self-described “Ghanadian-American dreamer” has already proven that her guiding philosophy — Show Up, Speak Up, Stand Up — is more than a mere mantra. She’s channeled her passion for technology and social change into a mobile app-building movement that promises to make a real difference worldwide.

During an inspiring GoDaddy Women in Technology presentation, Joy shared her personal journey as an “experiential entrepreneur” — a tale of using technology to make a serious social impact. Spoiler: it involves stars and robots. Oh, and a whole lot of gumption.  But let’s go back to the beginning.

It’s Kismet

“Growing up, I saw arts and sciences used in the service of humanity, and I was really inspired by that.” ~ Joy Buolamwini

Imagine a little girl watching a television program about an interactive device that not only computes, but can recognize and simulate emotions, adorably named Kismet.  The 9-year old Joy was enthralled and said – “that – I want to do that one day.” Always encouraged by her parents — an artist and cancer researcher — she learned what she could about Dr. Cynthia Breazeal and the MIT Media Lab.

That, my friends, is what Joy calls “star gazing.” It’s about setting your sights on a goal that’s far above the bar (something Joy knows a lot about, as a pole vaulter) and keeping your focus on it, expanding your possibilities and unleashing your full potential.

“I’d really encourage all of you to be star-gazers,” she said.

Full circle: Joy spent an inspiring 71 minutes with GoDaddy CEO Blake Irving, then chief product officer at Yahoo, while interning at the company. She left with three key takeaways — Don't take the easy path; focus on meaningful projects; and travel to see how others see the world. She listened.
Full circle: Joy spent an inspiring 71 minutes with GoDaddy CEO Blake Irving, then chief product officer at Yahoo, while interning at the company. She left with three key takeaways — Don’t take the easy path; focus on meaningful projects; and travel to see how others see the world. She listened.

A Georgia Tech graduate with honors in computer science, Rhodes Scholar, Fulbright Fellow, and founder of six tech startups — yes, she’s honestly 25 — Joy is a huge proponent of empowering others. Her Code4Rights mission is to promote human rights though technological education, teaching others how to make apps that matter. “Technology empowers us to be more human,” Joys says. “And what’s more human than our rights?”

Start by showing up

Joy jump-started her journey to Code4Rights simply by showing up. She volunteered to join the welcoming committee for a visiting astronaut at Georgia Tech in 2011. Then she spoke up, introducing herself to the group with the vision she’d recently settled upon: “This year I’m going to impact African nations through technology.” The spouse of another member of the committee happened to be involved with The Carter Center. She was looking for an Android developer to go to Ethiopia to help develop an app that would replace the slow, paper-based surveys used to gauge the effectiveness of medication.

Joy swiftly stood up, submitting a proposal that would come to fruition as SwiftInsights. In two months in Africa, she worked to develop the end-to-end digital solution that has since been used to help combat neglected diseases in five countries by surveying more than 250,000 people.

“That was a transformative experience,” Joy says. “I learned that you don’t always have to have all the answers before standing up to make an impact.”

Stand up … together

Joy teaches students to code in a Zambian classroom.
Joy teaches students to code in a Zambian classroom.


When she had the opportunity to return to Africa in 2013 as a Fulbright Fellow, Joy was determined to wield technology as a tool to empower local communities. “I wanted there to be a way for other people to have more opportunities,” she recalls. The Zamrize project was born. Joy spent seven months in Zambia, teaching local young people how to create health apps. “It’s about empowering people with the tools they need so they can address the problems they think are important.” Like the app one young female student developed to share information about cervical cancer, the No. 1 killer of women in Zambia.

“When I went to Zambia, I realized the importance of actionable knowledge,” Joy says. She also realized the power of sharing creation stories — the narratives that breathe humanity into the technological advances her cause forwards — and of collaboration.

All those magical ingredients for technology-powered social change came together among a group of friends discussing women’s rights in a Zambian living room. Among them was Chisenga Muyoya, founder of the Asikana Network — a youth-led organization that seeks to see a significant increase of girls and women participating at all levels in technology.

Their conversation could have become nothing more, if Joy and Ms. Muyoya had treated it as an impossible dream and left it lying on the table with their empty glasses — if they’d gazed only at the bar. But they applied the 3-S Philosophy and went to work on WRAPP,  a mobile app designed to help women seek assistance in Zambia. It’s now available to more than 3 million Zambia Airtel subscribers.

Star gaze

After Zambia, Joy found herself at a crossroads. She could pursue an additional master’s degree during her second year at Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar — that was the expectation, after all — or she could star gaze. For the first time in the scholarship’s 111-year history, one of its recipients was granted permission to officially devote that coveted second year to a service project: Code4Rights. Joy’s 40-page proposal was accepted, and she set about taking the lessons learned in Zambia to a global audience. Since October, finding her stride and her passion in the classroom, Joy has been doing a series of workshops at Oxford.

Now, she’s preparing to wrap her arms even tighter around her long-held desire to “to do that,” as she embarks on the next leg of her experiential entrepreneurial journey — a stint at Kismet’s birthplace, the MIT Media Lab. While she’s there, you can bet she’ll be looking above the bar.