From Zero to Hackathon Tech Mentor: My Weekend with Girls in AI

Jenny Kong

I signed up for the role as a tech mentor for a Girls in AI event held by Microsoft. It is a two-day hackathon for teenage girls to build AI solutions for social wellfare. I told my friend who shared the information with me that I was not sure if I met the requirements because “it seems very AI oriented”. “Sure why not” was her answer. True, I’ve been working on a Machine Learning project on fMRI data for 8 months and build Deep Learning models on a weekly basis (because I’m taking Deep Learning this module), but I was still uncertain about my eligibility as a “tech mentor”.

Microsoft Reactor@SF

The two-day hackathon included several talks from female leaders in Microsoft all around the world and hands-on workshops. Talks covered topics from design thinking, autonomous systems to AI ethics. I actually learned a lot about what Microsoft has been doing and how the company is fulfilling its mission in various aspects(full disclosure: I don’t even have a Microsoft account). In all, I was surprisingly very much impressed by what they’ve done : simply just doing the right thing and motivating younger generation. Sounds nicely cliche, but what’s amazing is that the cliche wins, Microsoft is one of the most succesful tech company in the world.

With the rise of Artificial Intelligence, there are only 12% of AI expertise are female, and the percentage of female graduating with Computer Science degree has been declining in the past decade. Alice Envisions the Future is how Microsoft and teensinai came up with to try to bridge up such gap.

Powerful talk on Artificial Intelligence by Shaloo Garg, MD, Microsoft for Startups

The girls on my team had zero Machine Learning experience on the first day, did not know what labels and features are. Nevertheless, they were able to build an Image Classification Model which classifies major kinds of trash in the ocean from living creatures (using Custom Vision in Cognitive Service) in the end. Due to the lack of tech mentors, I sometimes had to roam around tables and even helped a group with frontend designs. It was such an honor to witness how these girls were progressing during the hackathon.

(middle) Elena Sinel, Founder of Teens in AI

It turned out that I was as good mentoring the teenagers as other senior working professionals! I have sufficient technical knowledge to help them build up the concept as well as the models, and guide them through the journey of creating a product. Moreover, the Microsoft Azure platform indeed is simple enough for a total newbie like me to pick up quickly and teach the girls to play around with it.

I was surprised how much I was able to contribute. Although for them it seemed pretty reasonable: a grad student studying Data Science, doing research with Machine Learning in UCSF: duh, standard tech mentor for teenager hackathon. For me, I was learning data science in tears and depressions, never felt like I’ve learned “enough” to be able to feel good about myself. Mentoring the girls actually made me slow down and look back to myself, and realized how far I’ve achieved and what exciting future await with the new tools I’ve learned along the way!

Panel Session(from left): Didem Un Ates, Caroline Matthews, Galiya Warrior, Renee Farris

During the panel session, there were some questions from the audience regarding whether the speakers have encountered obstacles specifically due to their sex. For the interest of time they only gave short answers as “yes”.

I noticed that this is the question that’s always being asked in this kind of successful women experience sharing event, as if there should be intolerable major events happening to those who are under the stagelights. From my experience it was a slightly different story. Born and raised in a somewhat neutral family, I’ve never considered myself seriously discriminated throughout my life. However, there will be moments, when I think back to that childhood conversation with my sibling or a classmate, I realized that I might have been unconsciously affected by what’s been defined by the society.

In 2019, especially in California(where everyone is politically correct), it’s probably harder for children to recognize if something happening is an act of discrimination. I don’t know how much the girls could relate to the talks and slogans adult women put together for them, but I encourage them to always live their lives to the fullest and reflect to their past selves and others.

At the pitching session, one of the products the girls developed was a platform where girls can teach girls how to code, share tech information and form communities. A judge asked how they would know if a registered user is actually “a girl”. The team answered: “Well, there’s a chatroom in our application. The way girls chat is very different from the way boys do, so the girls in the community can immediately identify the boy.”

I was shocked when I heard this, but again it goes back to what I mentioned above. Gender inequality doesn’t necessarily mean blood and tears. It could be implemented in our subconsciousness, either by the evil or the innocent.

After the presentation, all mentors were invited to share their findings and thoughts from the event. I said to the girls, “Never differentiate yourself from others solely based on gender.” I tried to say more but I wasn’t much prepared for it. In the end I added, “I know we’re gathering here because we are girls and I love how we’re empowering each other in such way. Please just bare in mind that you’re good not just because you’re a girl, it is because you’re a good person.” I hope someone in the audience someday would understand!

Yes I was intimidated when I was giving the 2-second moral lecture

In the end, I want to thank Microsoft for holding this wonderful event, not just for myself, though I gained so much more than I expected, but for the entire society and younger generation. I know this sounds super cliche, but what do we know, cliche might again win in the end!

Some nice things about Microsoft:

Disclaimer: Microsoft is not hiring me (but you can! Check out my LinkedIn:

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