Girl Power in the World of AI


In the technical and largely male-dominated world of Artificial Intelligence, the notion of making emotional connections seems completely counter-intuitive…until you talk with Olga Russakovsky. As co-founder of SAILORS (Stanford Artificial Intelligence Laboratory’s Outreach Summer), America’s first AI summer camp for teen girls, Olga reflects on what she refers to as a “transformative experience.” It was a simple moment that occurred one morning when the SAILORS camp girls were at breakfast.


Photo credit: Lauren Yang


“Girls were sitting there, braiding each other’s hair…and discussing AI!” she says. “Watching them do something so girly like braiding hair while they were talking through their research project at SAILORS was so inspiring!”



Photo credit: Connie Lu


The Challenge of Diversity

“It’s very clear we have diversity problems in AI,” Olga continues. “If you look around the room at any conference or event, you notice there are minority groups who are missing.” This observation led Russakovsky to conceive the SAILORS camp at Stanford University as a natural extension of her PhD work in AI. When she proposed her idea of a summer camp where AI would be taught to high school girls, her PhD adviser (and ultimately, co-founder) Fei-Fei Li, who also recognized the need for outreach from the Stanford AI lab, jumped at the opportunity and joined her in her mission.


Photo credit clockwise from top left:  Lauren Yang; Lauren Yang; Micaela Go; Connie Lu; Micaela Go


The statistics outlining the numbers of women in computing have not been encouraging. According to a report by The American Association of University Women (AAUW), the number of women in the computing field plunged from 1990 when it was 35 percent to just 26 percent in 2013. The numbers, says AAUW, are significantly lower for Hispanic, African American and American Indian women. If all continues to go as planned, however, SAILORS may just be the antidote to the low representation of women and minorities in AI.



Photo credit:  Rachel Guo


Value of Community

The residential camp, now in its third summer, runs for two weeks and has accepted 32 girls who are rising high school sophomores for the summer of 2017. Its three main objectives are to educate and excite students about the AI field, to foster personal growth, and to provide students with a hands-on experience with real research projects in the AI Lab. The program also aims to “encourage interest among underrepresented populations in the field” and build a close-knit community.

Community and relationships were an integral part of making Olga’s vision a reality. “The fact that Fei-Fei was my advisor, mentor and friend was instrumental in making SAILORS happen. It’s not something a grad student could have just pulled off. It needed support from professionals. Fei-Fei was able to provide the support and leadership. And it was the same with Rick Sommer (longtime friend, mentor, Executive Director of Stanford Pre-collegiate Studies, and SAILORS co-founder). His office was happy to support it. So these long-term relationships were very important.”



Photo credit:  Lauren Yang


Think big, start small

While she had a lot of support and encouragement, launching the program was not easy. “When I started out, I tried to do a lot of things, and I was the hub where it all came together. But that’s completely unsustainable. The logistical issues were the biggest challenge.”

Her advice for others with a vision? “Start small, make sure it’s done right and that it will make an impact; then scale up from there. Don’t bite off more than you can chew.”

To girls who are interested in pursuing careers in technology, she recommends,
“Reach out and find mentors! Don’t isolate yourself. Make friends and find a variety of mentors. Not only female mentors. Having a diverse peer support group in your field and diverse mentors really helps when you’re struggling with something.”

Among those who inspired her most, she says, are her parents and Fei-Fei Li. Born in Ukraine and raised in Palo Alto, California, Olga grew up wanting a PhD and to do research like her math professor father. Her mother, a former math and computer science teacher who currently works as a math tutor, actually helped build the SAILORS curriculum.

Mentor and friend Fei-Fei (shown above with Olga) arrived in the US as a teen and worked throughout high school and college to support herself and help her family.

“Fei-Fei has a clear mission,” Olga asserts, “to change the world –and the world of AI – through research and her work on diversity. Everything she does is aimed at this mission. She just goes for it. She thinks deeply about how to do it right and make a true impact.”


Photo credit:  Lauren Yang


The next step

An unexpected offshoot of SAILORS is the national nonprofit, AI4All, launched just a few months ago. While SAILORS was successful in breaking down diversity barriers for women, Olga says the organization wasn’t addressing the full range of racial, gender and socioeconomic representation. “We wanted to do more.”

Thus AI4All was born. Its goals, says Olga, “are first to create mentorship and support underrepresented high school students to help them navigate and stay in the field, to sustain their interest and provide them with opportunities; and second, to help them create their own outreach initiatives – enable them to start similar programs for younger students. The hope is that the impact will be exponential.”

Actually, the impact of Olga’s brainchild is already exponential. A trio of SAILORS alumnae have created a STEM outreach program for middle-school girls. Six other alumnae have won the she++ #include Fellowship, which supports high school students to develop computer science outreach initiatives in the communities. In May, Melinda Gates and AI pioneering leaders Jensen and Lori Huang announced they will provide significant gifts through their foundations to AI4ALL.

“AI4ALL has the potential to change not just the lives of the students we’re educating, but the field of AI as a whole,” Olga asserts. “Bringing more diversity of thought and voices to AI will create a more vibrant, effective and democratic field. The diverse community of AI technologists will develop more creative solutions, tackle a broader range of problems, and build AI that benefits all members of our society.”