Making an Impact through STEM and AI Education

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(7 min read)

IBM’s very own Phaedra Boinodiris is the keynote speaker at the 6th Annual Luncheon of the United Nations Women USA, North Carolina Chapter. She will be speaking about the “Future of Work, AI Bias, and Ethics”. Additionally, Phaedra has been nominated for the “2019 Woman of Influence in STEM” award. She was nominated for her advocacy efforts in STEM education. Before the event, we sat down to talk about her volunteer work around STEM and AI education.

What was your first reaction when you found out you were nominated for the “Woman of Influence in STEM” Award from UN Women USA?

My first reaction was “Who, ME?? There must be some mistake!” Well, in truth I did ask them, “Are you sure you have the right Phaedra Boinodiris?”

You see, I don’t feel like I stand out particularly. I have a messy kitchen, I’m on my second marriage raising four kids, my neighbors refer to me as “Zander and Athena’s mom”. I am pretty sure I burned dinner last night. How can you burn soup?

Why do you think you were nominated for this distinguished award?

The committee told me that they wanted to nominate me due to my unique career in STEM and my volunteer efforts to ‘accelerate equity and advance humanity with youth, teachers, and entrepreneurs’. They then voiced that I am a real role model for girls.

You are a known advocate for STEM education. What inspired you to go down the route of education and AI?

I think I have had a unique career in STEM. Luckily, I was born into a family of technophile immigrants. Growing up, I was encouraged to play with technology and start my own businesses. My career started off in videogames as co-founder of WomenGamers.Com. Then my sister and I started the first scholarship program in the US for women to pursue degrees in game design and development. Since graduating from undergrad, I have devoted much of my time to volunteering in the community. I spent a lot of time teaching the use of play as a path to careers in STEM. It worked for me, after all!

After receiving my MBA, I volunteered as a coach to entrepreneurs with the University of North Carolina’s (UNC’s) Adam’s Foundation. Specifically, I worked with social entrepreneurs and became UNC’s Social Entrepreneur in residence, as well as a Kenan Fellow Coach. Later, I joined IBM to lead a practice in the design and creation of serious games/advanced simulations. Then I had this really cool arc where I got to follow my passions in AI and Blockchain.

This career epiphany moment came to me while volunteering with a disadvantaged high school in Texas. I was emboldened to run for an open county school board seat. Though I wasn’t elected, I started to build my vision for transforming education. I joined advisory boards of schools and museums and got more involved with UN initiatives like AI for Good, Blockchain for Good, teaching with Sustainable Development Goals. Additionally, I helped launch IBM’s first K-12 program and began to do more public speaking than ever.

Joining IBM’s Blockchain team as an Offering Manager found me leading an effort to introduce micro-credentialing to the market. Micro-credentialing allows students – disadvantaged ones, in particular – to get credit for learning in both formal AND informal learning settings.

Can you tell us more about your motivation for educating people on AI?

My latest passion is introducing the concepts of Ethical AI to the layperson. Particularly, I am thinking about mitigating bias through labeling. I was so horrified by Cambridge Analytica and use cases of AI being fed biased data to then go on to make erroneous decisions that this is now the focus of my Ph.D. thesis! I want to use my ability in storytelling and really try to teach these concepts to as many people as I can.

The European Union gave me, along with seven Microsoft execs, this wondrous gift to pursue a Ph.D. in this field. We all meet up at UCD SMARTlab in Dublin, Ireland twice a year. The funny thing is that I feel that the Ph.D. program in AI and Ethics gives me ‘permission’ to study, think about and talk about things that I care deeply about.  Isn’t it funny to think that some of us feel the need for such permissions? I volunteer and pour all this energy into these efforts because I care deeply about making a positive impact wherever I can.

They’ve asked you to do the opening keynote at the UN Women NC event. What do you plan to talk about?

I will be talking about my journey and about how AI and Education pertain to the future of work. The talk is only 10 minutes and I have so many stories to tell. I am anxiously hoping that I can choose the best stories for my audience, so they will see what I see.

Where do you feel the future of Education and AI lies?

In brief, the world is changing faster than ever, and we have to teach with an emphasis on the skills and competencies that will be critical to the 4th Industrial Revolution. We also need to think of new business models that open up the ecosystem of learning (like micro-credentialing). Additionally, we must all have a better understanding of technology’s impacts (intended and unintended) on society. As we rely more on AI, for example, to make decisions like hiring, diagnosing, financial, etc, we must understand more about AI bias and ensure that people are knowledgeable and protected.

What is your “day job” at IBM?

I am a Worldwide Cloud Sales Enablement lead for IBM Cloud and Cognitive Software. My current focus is to consult on ways to create compelling experiences that change sellers’ behaviors and activate learning. I would love to find more ways to blend my interests – AI bias, micro-credentialing, design, Future of Work – into my day job, but for now they mostly remain separate. I am also a proud, card-carrying member of the IBM Academy of Technology Leadership team. It is a wonderful group of people who join forces to do cool things at IBM that we care about.

How do you manage to fit in a full-time job at IBM and all your volunteer work?

Sometimes I burn soup! Maybe the truth is that work-life balance is a myth. Instead, it’s more like a see-saw, with one side going up and one side going down. What I can tell you UNEQUIVOCALLY is that I have been graced with having work environments that make room for me and everything that I care about that goes with me. I have to tell you, THIS for me means everything. I am neverendingly grateful.

What advice and guidance would you give to someone wishing to follow in your footsteps?

Put a timer on when cooking. (I know I have boiled this metaphor to death!)

But seriously, here’s my advice: Think carefully about who you are as a person and what you REALLY care about. Always think about giving back and using every opportunity that you can to teach and inspire others. You are reading this blog because you have likely devoted your career to technology! Be the spokesperson that we need to teach others how technology is vastly changing everyday lives. Plug-in anywhere and everywhere. Join advisory boards, judge tech competitions, coach, go and speak at your local university, middle school and high school, and if you have children of your own, expose them to your work!

I have brought my children to numerous humanitarian design conferences, tech conferences, and events where entrepreneurs are pitching their ideas. These kinds of exposures STICK. It is critically important as they start to imagine what they will pursue as they grow older.

I would also encourage you to WRITE about what you see! Blog about your experiences in such a way that resonates with people. Have people in the center of your story.

This UN award nomination is HUGE.  What are your future goals now? Where do you go next?

I would love to continue volunteering the way that I have been, work indefinitely with IBM, and keep affecting positive social impact at scale. After finishing up my Ph.D., I want to use all my knowledge for the power of good. I would love to help advise and counsel the next US Department of Labor. (Putting all this out into the Universe!)

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