In April 1998, two Stanford 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, opening a two-year border conflict that left tens of thousands dead. The first event established Google’s dominance on the Internet. Second Timnit Gebru, 15, has set out to work for the future megacorp.
At the time, Gebru was living with his mother, an economist, in the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa. Her father, an electrical engineer with a doctorate, died when she was little. Gebru loved school and going out to cafes when she and her friends could scrape together enough pocket money. But the war has changed all that. Gebru’s family was Eritrean, and some of his relatives had been deported to Eritrea and recruited to fight against the country they had made their home in.
Gebru’s mother had a visa to the United States, where Gebru’s older sisters, engineers like her father, had lived for years. But when Gebru applied for a visa, she was denied. Then she went to Ireland instead, joining one of her sisters, who was there temporarily to work, while her mother went alone to America.
Arriving in Ireland may have saved Gebru’s life, but it also shattered him. He called his mother and begged her to be sent back to Ethiopia. “I don’t care if it’s safe or not.” I can’t live here, ”he said. His new schooling, culture, even time were alienating. The rainy season in Addis Ababa is over, with heavy rains interspersed with sunshine. In Ireland, the rain has fallen. firmly for a week.As he took on the challenges of adolescence in the new classes and intimidation, bigger concerns were pressed. “Will I be reunited with my family? What if the documentation doesn’t work?” remember to think. “I feel 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 enrolled in local public high school – and a crash course in American racism.
Some of his teachers, Gebru found, seemed unable or unwilling to accept that an African refugee could be a first-year student in mathematics and science. Other white Americans were considered appropriate to confide in her their belief that African immigrants worked harder than African Americans, who they saw as lazy. The History class told an uplifting story about the Civil Rights Movement that resolves America’s racial divisions, but that story sounded hollow. “I think it can’t be true, because I saw it at school,” says Gebru.
Piano lessons helped provide a space where she could breathe. Gebru also learned to turn to math, physics, and his family. She loved technical work, not only for her beauty, but because it was a realm unscathed by personal politics or worries about war at home. This compartmentalization has become part of Gebru’s way of navigating the world. “What I had under my control was that I could go to class and concentrate on work,” she says.
Gebru’s attention paid off. In September 2001 he wrote to Stanford. Naturally, he chose the larger family, electrical engineering, and soon his career began to embody the Silicon Valley archetype of the immigrant trailblazer. For a course during her junior year, Gebru built an experimental electronic piano key, helping her win an internship at Apple by making audio circuits for Mac computers and other products. The following year he went to work for the company full time while continuing his studies at Stanford.
At Apple, Gebru has prospered. When Niel Warren, his manager, needed someone to dig into delta-sigma modulators, a class of analog-to-digital converters, Gebru volunteered, investigating whether the technology worked on the iPhone. “As an electrical engineer I wasn’t fearless,” says Warren. He found that his new hardware hotshot was well-liked, always ready with a hug, and decided to even get out of work. In 2008, Gebru retired from one of his classes because he spent so much time campaigning for Barack Obama in Nevada and Colorado, where several doors were slammed in his face.