Influential Black Women in Computer Science

IllinoisWCS
10 min readFeb 26, 2023

Written by Hela Kasibhotla

In the past few decades, technology and its abilities has skyrocketed thanks to the countless individuals who have made their impact on the industry with their tremendous efforts, triumphs, and expertise. Among these individuals are many Black women who have made their mark by pushing the limits of Computer Science and Engineering as well as revolutionizing the educational front. They have contributed to everything from life changing educational organizations to research regarding algorithmic bias in AI. Their innovation and passion has vastly impacted the technological field and has introduced it to the idea of intersectionality and the importance of diversity in STEM.

Kimberly Bryant

Kimberly Bryant

Kimberly Bryant, CEO of Black Girls Code, was born in 1967 in Memphis, Tennessee. She was raised by a single mother in the height of the Civil Rights Movement, which greatly impacted her view on life as a Black girl interested in the STEM field. As a child, Bryant was a self-proclaimed “nerdy girl” who loved mathematics and science. She attended Vanderbilt University with a scholarship and earned a degree in Electrical Engineering with minors in Math and Computer Science.

While she had an incredibly impressive career trailblazing through many different companies, her true purpose really began in 2011 when she founded Black Girls Code. After her daughter expressed interest in Computer Science and coding but was unable to find diverse and inclusive coding resources and clubs around her, Bryant decided to found an organization herself that would pave the way for diverse educational resources in Computer Science for young girls as a whole.

Currently, Bryant’s organization has amassed 3000 students across 7 U.S. chapters and chapters in South Africa as well. Bryant serves on the National Champions Board for the National Girls Collaborative Project, and the National Board of the NCWIT K-12 Alliance. Her organization and dedication to social work has granted her many prestigious awards and the opportunity to impact young girls all over the world.

Marian Croak

A picture of Marian Croak

From a young age, Marian Croak was dedicated to science. Born in New York City, Croak spent the majority of her childhood dabbling in the different fields of STEM. Her father built her a chemistry set, which she claims jumpstarted her interest in pursuing science and technology. She attended Princeton University where she earned her Bachelor’s and got her Ph.D. in Quantitative Analysis and Psychology from USC.

After college, Croak went on to spend three decades working at AT&T Bell Laboratories where she made multiple strides. She advanced the use of TCP/IP in digital messaging back in its early stages, which standardized the way of packaging and communicating information digitally. In her time at AT&T, she also patented the creation of technology that allows users to to donate to organizations through text messaging on cell phones. This was a massively successful campaign, especially as it was made during the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and people needed as much help, even remotely, as possible. Before she departed from AT&T, she held the title of Senior Vice President of Applications and Services Infrastructure as she managed over 2,000 engineers and programmers as well as 500+ programs that greatly impacted the trajectory of AT&T.

In 2014, Croak joined Google as the Vice President of Engineering. Her work has landed her into the Women in Technology Hall of Fame and the National Inventors Hall of Fame for her patent regarding Voice over Internet Protocol.

Alexis Williams

Alexis Williams

Alexis Williams, who might look familiar to you, is a 19-year-old TikTok activist who first blew up in 2020, but her passion for CS and activism was already alight years before.

After watching the movie Hidden Figures, Williams truly began to realize her potential as a young, gifted Black girl with the talent to make change in the world. As she was in middle school, she started dedicating her to time to becoming more familiar with programming and STEM as a whole; she really developed a passion for using CS and web design in social justice.

In this time, she attended the well known coding bootcamp Kode With Klossy, where she spent two weeks learning about web design and how it could be used for the best. She still looks up to model Karlie Kloss, the creator of the bootcamp, and other influential women who use their audience and influence to create good.

This all came to a head in 2020 after the death of George Floyd. Williams was deeply impacted by Floyd’s murder and wanted to make resources regarding police brutality more accessible to young people remotely as so many folks from around the states wanted to help but did not know how. As a result, she created PB Resources, a website dedicated to educating about police brutality as well as a singular place with access to tons of action activities and organizations to donate to/support.

Now, she continues to advocate for social justice issues, STEM education equality, and LGBTQ+ rights on her TikTok account. She also attends the NYU Tandon School of Engineering where she studies Computer Science.

Rediet Abebe

Rediet Abebe

Born and raised in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, Rediet Abebe was always known to be a precocious student. In school, she was a good student, and she even won a merit-based scholarship to attend the highly competitive International Community School of Addis Ababa. Her countless efforts and academic achievements throughout high school led her to Harvard University, where she obtained a Bachelor’s in mathematics and later a Master’s in applied mathematics. In her time at Harvard, she was a journalist on the Harvard Crimson. She also obtained a Doctorate in Computer Science at Cornell University. Safe to say, she is decorated in prestige!

After her time in academia, Abebe dedicated her life to researching techniques in AI and algorithms, specifically taking a look at the interaction of algorithms and inequality. Her main goal is to diversify algorithms and AI to make them more inclusive of different races, especially those in the Black community.

Her work in research got her inducted into the Harvard Society of Fellows in 2019. and she also became an Assistant Professor in U.C. Berkeley’s Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science. She was the first Black female in the history of the department and the second in the history of the School of Engineering.

Abebe also cofounded the Black in AI organization, which is a network of 1,500+ researchers working on AI. She did this in 2016 with Timnit Gebru. The organization holds annual workshops at the Conference on Neural Information Processing Systems (NeurIPS).

Lyndsey Scott

Lyndsey Scott

Lyndsey Scott is the definition of doing it all and looking good while doing it! Born in West Orange, New Jersey, Lyndsey Scott was always interested in science and innovation. Despite who she is today, she endured lots of bullying as a child for being the only black girl in her class and for taking an interest in STEM. Because of this, she spent most of her time devoted to her studies and her interests in innovation. She would write games for her TI-84 calculator and share them with her friends.

Her interests led her to obtaining a degree in Computer Science from Amherst College. By the time she had gotten her degree, she felt like her CS career had come to a close as most of the programming she did on her own and felt like she wanted to branch out into modeling and acting. As a result, she took a little hiatus to pursue these avenues, and though she wasn’t immediately successful, she worked her way up to modeling for brands like Calvin Klein and Victoria Secret. She said she wanted to keep her programming life separate from her modeling life, but after seeing the disparities between girls and people of color in tech industry and the modeling/acting industry, she felt the need to speak up.

She continued her journey of programming by becoming an iOS developer, and she started her own company Standable Inc. She joined Girls Who Code as a mentor, has given talks on programming at various schools in New York, and mentored with the Girl Scouts as well. In 2022, she announced a scholarship she was launching for women, BIPOC, and LGBTQ+ students majoring in Computer Science.

Sofia Ongele

Sofia Ongele

Here’s another face that may be familiar to you — Sofia Ongele is a 20-year-old TikTok creator, programmer, and activist. Many years before she became a content creator, she attended a coding camp, Kode With Klossy (as seen in Alexis Williams’ section). Growing up, Sophia knew she would have a career in technology, she absolutely loved computers and she loved the idea of creating new and exciting things using code. As a result, she decided to join Kode With Klossy, and little did she know that it was going to change her life. After gaining lots of experience and the passion to code after the camp, she created a revolutionary app called ReDawn dedicated to helping sexual assault survivors get the help and resources that they need. The app was a personal project for her, and she channeled her anger and sadness into it. Her app really spoke to millions of people, and as a result, it won several awards.

After this, she became a recurring intern of many different roles with Kode With Klossy. She also became a mentor with Girls Who Code. In the summer of 2020, she went viral on TikTok for her technological creations that advocated for social justice. On top of the many projects she made on her own, she had countless collaborations after she becoming a TikTok creator as she also joined the non-profit Gen-Z For Change, formerly Gen-Z for Biden. With the organization, she was able to further advocate for marginalized groups and make websites that hundreds of thousands of young kids could use to also further their fight for what is right.

Ongele obtained a Bachelor’s in Computer Science from Columbia University and continues every day to make strides in the social justice and tech communities!

Timnit Gebru

Timnit Gebru

Born and raised in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, Timnit Gebru has a tumultuous childhood that sparked her lifelong exigence to serve the people and tell the truth. She lost her father at a young age and had to escape her country of residence when she was 15 because of the Eritrean-Ethiopian War. She spent a brief stint of time in Ireland before being granted asylum in the U.S.. Her time in the U.S. as a high schooler was plagued with much racial discrimination, especially from teachers. Despite this, she was accepted into Stanford University where she obtained both a Bachelor’s and Master’s in Electrical Engineering. She also got a Ph.D. in Computer Vision.

During her time at Stanford, Gebru took part in lots of research regarding algorithmic bias and AI. She wrote multiple research papers about her fears of the future of AI, but some of them went unpublished. In her career, she worked at Apple, Google, and was a researcher with Stanford. She recalls her time at Apple (2004–2013) being “technically interesting,” but not rewarding morally. She had many “egregious” experiences and was puzzled as to how they went unreported. Between 2013 and 2017, Gebru worked as a researcher with Stanford where she delved deep into the issues of racial bias in algorithms and AI in large systems that are used widely today. Starting in 2018, she began working for Google as a team leader for ethics in AI, but in her time there, she signed a letter “calling on Amazon to stop selling its facial-recognition technology to law enforcement agencies because it is biased against women and people of color,” which led the company to ask her to “exit.”

After exiting Google, Gebru found it more useful to spend her time writing and publishing research papers and tackling issues without having to press superiors. She also went on to cocreate Black in AI with Rediet Abebe.

It’s clear from what we have seen that these women have greatly impacted the CS world for the better — tackling issues from educating minority youth to rallying kids around the world with technology to publishing groundbreaking research about bias in algorithms. Without these women, and the countless other black women in the tech field, the technological field would be nothing and would completely lack intersectionality, so we thank them for their hard work and support them on their journeys to push CS beyond the bounds!

Companies/Things to Check Out!

Since we’ve discussed so many wonderful Black women in tech, why not check out the amazing creations they made!

Black Girls Code

Black in AI

Data for Black Lives

PB Resources

Lyndsey Scott Coding+ Scholarship

Sofia Ongele’s Personal Website

Sources:

--

--

IllinoisWCS

The official Medium account for Women in Computer Science at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign