Please join us in welcoming Rumman Chowdhury, CEO and Founder of Parity AI, to the Board of the School of Data Science. Chowdhury joins a group of experienced, data-minded leaders.
Growing up in Rockland County, NY, Chowdhury was an X-Files fan. She watched Gillian Anderson portray Dana Scully, an FBI special agent, a medical doctor, and a scientist. Dana Scully could do it all, which inspired a young Chowdhury – and many other girls – to explore science-related studies. In fact, Scully inspired so many young girls to pursue careers in fields previously dominated by men that the movement was deemed “The Scully Effect.” In an interview for The M Dash blog, Chowdhury said, “[Dana Scully] was a strong woman in a male-dominated environment, and she didn’t compromise her femininity in order to be equal with the men she worked with. I strive to be that way.”
“I grew up in this magical place where your race and ethnicity and gender didn’t matter and all people cared was if you were a good person and if you did your work,” she said. Chowdhury noticed that as she took AP classes in high school, there seemed to be many girls in her classes. (The opposite would be the case once Chowdhury began working in Silicon Valley.) An early emphasis on morality and inclusion would define Chowdhury’s work.
After discovering a passion for science and mathematics in high school, Chowdhury moved to Boston to attend MIT. “My strengths lie in understanding people, but I still wanted to do it mathematically,” Chowdhury said in the same interview with The M Dash. “Then I took a political science class for one of my humanities requirements, and I realized how quantitative it was—we were writing papers with evidence and actual hard facts. That’s how I found what I wanted to do.” Chowdhury received two bachelor’s degrees upon graduation: one in political science, the other in management science.
“People always ask me, ‘how does a political scientist become a data scientist?’” Chowdhury added. “Ultimately, I think the two fields are very similar: They both involve the study of behavioral patterns. I’ve always been interested in people and data, and understanding how to connect the two.”
With a couple of bachelor’s degrees completed, Chowdhury went on to receive a Master of Science in Quantitative Methods from Columbia University. In the years that followed, Chowdhury worked with public policy companies, but she found that it didn’t involve as much of the quantitative side as she had hoped. Trying her hand as an economist, she found that it wasn’t quite right for her either. It was as a consultant that she began to try her hand at data science. “I went on to do consulting work that was basically data science—I would look through data, make a model, and use it to find concrete solutions that people could use—even though the field of data science didn’t exist yet,” Chowdhury said to The M Dash.
In 2009, Chowdhury moved west to attend the University of California, San Diego where she would receive her Ph.D. in political science and government. During her doctoral studies, Chowdhury dove into data science, and she finished her degree while working in Silicon Valley.
When she arrived in Silicon Valley, the culture she experienced was quite different from her high-school AP classes. While teaching, Chowdhury noted how her male students received attention from recruiters for high-level positions while she was still only getting asked about entry-level roles. “Besides the fact that I was literally their teacher, I couldn’t understand why these students would be tagged for these opportunities instead of me, aside from gender. I’ve thought about making an identical LinkedIn profile with a picture of a guy to see what would happen,” Chowdhury said to The M Dash.
Chowdhury specializes in artificial intelligence. In her line of work, she often encounters people worried about the future of AI, cynics who immediately draw comparisons to science-fiction villains such as Skynet, the doomsday-bearing self-aware creation of The Terminator franchise. “Robots don’t do the taking away of jobs. People who create [the robots] do the taking away of jobs. Companies that implement them do the taking away of jobs,” Chowdhury responded during a TEDx Talk at the Occidental College.
In the same TEDx Talk, Chowdhury explains some failings of AI as an example of moral outsourcing, the tendency to embrace the good but delegate the bad as a fault of a machine and not a human. She emphasizes the need to fight against this tendency and to take back responsibility when designing technology. “When we effectively write ourselves out of the equation, that’s why we get Skynet, that’s why we get robots taking away our jobs.”
“I truly believe that data science, AI, all this technology, especially with education, is intended to close gaps and be a great equalizer,” Chowdhury said in an interview with OZY. In her work with AI at Accenture and Parity, Chowdhury’s goal is to make AI accessible to everyone. “We are headed in the direction that we send ourselves,” Chowdhury said to OZY. “If we start building AI today to educate people, to close barriers to entry, to make the hiring process less racist, that’s the future we will have…it’s up to us.”
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