Technology

What Really Happened When Google Kicked Timnit Gebru


In April 1998, Two Stanford graduate students named Larry Page and Sergey Brin presented an algorithm called PageRank at a conference in Australia. A month later, war broke out between Ethiopia and Eritrea, resulting in a two-year border dispute that left tens of thousands of people dead. The first event solidified Google’s dominance on the Internet. The second group 15-year-old Timnit Gebru is on the way to work for the future megacorp.

At the time, Gebru lived with her mother, an economist, in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa. Her father, an electrical engineer with a Ph.D., died when she was young. Gebru enjoyed school and hanging out in cafes when she and her friends managed to collect enough pocket money. But the war changed all that. Gebro’s family was Eritrean, and some of her relatives had been deported to Eritrea and recruited to fight against the country they made their home.

Gebru’s mother had a visa to the United States, where Gebrough’s two older sisters, engineers like their father, lived for years. But when Gebru applied for a visa, she was refused. So she went to Ireland instead, and joined one of her sisters, who was there temporarily to work, while her mother went to America on her own.

Arriving in Ireland may have saved Gebero’s life, but it also shattered it. She called her mother and asked to be sent back to Ethiopia. “I don’t care if it’s safe or not. I can’t live here,” she said. Her new school, the culture, even the weather was alienating. The rainy season in Addis Ababa is intermittent, with torrential rain interspersed with sunshine. In Ireland, it rained heavily Steady for a week. As she faced the teenage challenges of new classes and bullying, even greater fears were pressed. “Will I meet my family? What happens if the papers don’t work out? ‘ she remembers thinking. ‘I felt unwanted.’

The following year, Gebru was approved to come to the United States as a refugee. She met her mother in Somerville, Massachusetts, a predominantly white suburb of Boston, where she attended the local public high school — and a crash course on American racism.

Gebru found that some of her teachers seemed unable or unwilling to accept the idea that an African refugee might be an outstanding student in math and science. Other white Americans saw fit to trust their belief that African immigrants worked harder than African Americans, whom they considered lazy. The history chapter told a thrilling story of the civil rights movement resolving racial divisions in America, but that tale was hollow. “I thought that couldn’t be true, because I see it at school,” Gebru says.

Piano lessons helped create a space where she could breathe. Gebru also coped by turning to mathematics, physics, and her family. I enjoyed the artwork, not only for its beauty but because it was an area separate from personal politics or concern about war back home. This division became part of the Gebro’s way of navigating the world. “What I had under my control was that I could go to class and focus on work,” she says.

Gibero’s focus paid off. In September 2001 she joined Stanford University. Naturally, she chose the family’s major, electrical engineering, and soon her path began embodying the Silicon Valley archetype of an immigrant pioneer. For a course during her junior year, Gebru designed an experimental electronic piano key, which helped her win an internship at Apple making audio circuits for Mac computers and other products. The following year, she went to work for the company full time while continuing her studies at Stanford University.

At Apple, Gepro flourished. When its director Neil Warren needed someone to research delta-sigma modifiers, a class of analog-to-digital converters, Gebru volunteered to investigate whether the technology would work in the iPhone. “As an electrical engineer, she was fearless,” Warren says. He’s found his impressive new rig well done, always ready with a hug, and styled out of business too. In 2008, Gebru dropped out of one of her classes because she was dedicating so much time to Barack Obama’s participation in Nevada and Colorado that many doors were closed in her.



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