Celebrating the remarkable contributions of Black women to innovation and technology

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By Dr. Nashlie H. Sephus

Jackson Advocate Guest Writer

As we celebrate Women’s History Month, the accomplishments of African Americans women are far-reaching and varied. We’ve contributed to every sector and industry. From activism to arts and entertainment, to our contribution to innovation and technology that have shaped our modern world. Black women have left an indelible mark on the landscape of innovation, be it pioneering inventions that revolutionized industries to groundbreaking discoveries that transformed our understanding of science. As we commemorate Women’s History Month, I’m reminded of the Black women who came before me and are a constant reminder to myself that despite African American women only making up three percent of the tech workforce, I belong in this industry.

Throughout history, we have and continue to overcome systemic barriers and discrimination to make significant strides in various fields, including science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics (STEAM). Despite facing immense challenges, our ingenuity, resilience, and brilliance have propelled us to the forefront of innovation.

Necessity is the mother of invention. In 1966 Marie Van Brittan Brown filed a patent for the first home security system. Brown’s invention was inspired by the security risk that her home faced in the neighborhood where she lived in Queens, New York. Marie, a nurse, and her husband, Albert, an electronics technician, didn’t work a standard nine-to-five. The crime rate in their neighborhood was very high. As a result, Brown looked for ways to increase her level of personal security. Her original invention consisted of peepholes, a camera, monitors, a two-way microphone, and an alarm button that could be pressed to contact the police immediately. She is also credited with the invention of the first closed circuit television. 

Pre-COVID, we were slowly embracing the technology of video conferencing and virtual meetings. Fast forward just four short years and we can’t imagine a life without it. Video conferencing and other Internet-based audio/video and text communication applications wouldn’t exist if not for voice over IP (VoIP) technology. VoIP was invented by Dr. Marian Croak, a Black woman. Dr. Croak holds over 125 patents in VoIP technology and is Google’s Vice President of Engineering. 

Dr. Gladys West programmed early computers to better model the actual shape of the earth using data from satellites. This work laid the foundation for modern GPS featuring accurate models of the earth’s surface.

It can’t be overstated the pivotal roles of mathematicians and engineers Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson in NASA’s space program during the 1960s, calculating trajectories for historic space missions and breaking down racial and gender barriers in the process. Dr. Mae Jemison was the first African American woman to travel to space.

Our list is long and these are just a few of our trailblazers. Black women have made significant contributions to fields as diverse as medicine, telecommunications, renewable energy, and beyond. 

As we reflect on the achievements of African American women in innovation and technology, it is imperative to recognize that our contributions have often been overlooked or marginalized. Despite facing systemic obstacles and injustices, we have persevered and thrived, leaving an enduring legacy of excellence and innovation.

Dr. Nashlie H. Sephus is the Principal Applied Scientist For Amazon Artificial Intelligence (AI) focusing on fairness and identifying biases in these technologies. She formerly led the Amazon Visual Search team in Atlanta, which launched visual search for replacement parts on the Amazon Shopping app in June 2018. This technology was a result of former startup Partpic (Atlanta) being acquired by Amazon, for which she was the Chief Technology Officer (CTO). Additionally, Dr. Sephus is the developer of the JXN Tech District and founder of The Bean Path, a non-profit organization based in Jackson, MS dedicated to creating equity in STEAM opportunities by increasing access to tools, knowledge & networks to underserved communities, particularly in Mississippi.

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Celebrating the remarkable contributions of Black women to innovation and technology

By Jackson Advocate News Service
April 1, 2024