How a 19-year-old college student is helping bring technology to developing nations

Glodie Mujinga Mulunda is the Founder and President of the Assistive Labs at Yale—an offshoot of Assistive Labs, an organization rethinking how technology is built in order to benefit children living with disabilities. This year, Mulunda has played a crucial role in aiding the Assistive Labs project as it develops a communications device for children with speech and cognitive disabilities that will be distributed throughout Rwanda. It’s a project that’s equally innovative and important, and the fact that Mulunda is a 19-year-old college student about to start her junior year at Yale makes it all the more impressive.

Mulunda’s journey to starting the a branch of Assistive Labs at her university starts, fittingly, at Chicago Ideas Week. Mulunda is a Greenhouse Scholar, and last year one of her sponsors brought her to Chicago Ideas Week, where she attended both the day-long Edison Talks as well as a Conversation about the Implications of Artificial Intelligence. After that program, Mulunda’s Greenhouse Scholar sponsor would encourage her to introduce herself to one of the panel’s speakers, Ayanna Howard, who is a Professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology. It was then, after speaking with Howard, that Mulunda would be put on the path to reach out to professors at Yale and bring Assistive Labs to her campus.

I was talking to [Howard], and after talking to her for a little while she started asking me about what I’m doing at Yale,” said Mulunda, explaining how she initially studied computer science—with the hope of bringing tech innovations to developing nations—before switching to economics. Howard encouraged her she didn’t need to pick one discipline, and that she could, instead, marry the two passions. “She said, ‘If you’re still interested in getting into this, talk to one of your professors at Yale.’ And it was one of her colleagues, Brian Scassellati.” After Mulunda connected with Scassellati and attended some of his labs, she would meet Stephanie Valencia and, together, they would found Yale’s branch of the Assistive Labs. “All of that,” said Mulunda, “That would have never, ever happened without Chicago Ideas Week.”

Mulunda is currently interning at Cleveland Neighborhood Progress, and when she return to Yale in the fall she’ll already carry an impressive list of accomplishments along with her. Born in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Mulunda’s work with Assistive Labs at Yale has allowed her to connect back to her initial goal of bringing computer science programs and innovations to countries that are often ignored. And though she switched her major at Yale, it was that conversation with Howard that made Mulunda realize it wasn’t an either-or proposition.

“What Chicago Ideas creates, it makes you believe you can change the world,” said Mulunda, speaking about how the power of connection—and access to thought-provoking ideas—can push people to explore areas they never previously considered. “I was like, ‘Oh, I know about artificial intelligence,’ but stepping into that environment, that just opens up your eyes,” said Mulunda of her experience at Chicago Ideas Week. It’s why she’s become vocal about young people attending Chicago Ideas events, to leave inspired to create change and innovate. “It’s a great way to bring very inspired people together, to really challenge them to think about what’s going on in the world and how we, as individuals, impact our surroundings,” said Mulunda. “If you change one person you can keep that cycle going.”

Mulunda is working to ensure that others are brought into this cycle, sharing her story and encouraging people to constantly pursue their dreams. She reminds us that no matter how ambitious a project may seem at the outset, it’s always worth taking a first step. “There are a lot of problems in the world, but it’s only through passion and determination that we find the solutions.”

Assistive Labs is accepting donations to help fund their project in Rwanda, and you can donate here.

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