In April 1998, two Stanford grad 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, setting off a two-year border conflict that left tens of thousands dead. The first event set up Google’s dominance of the internet. The second set 15-year-old Timnit Gebru on a path toward working for the future megacorp.
At the time, Gebru lived with her mother, an economist, in the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa. Her father, an electrical engineer with a PhD, had died when she was small. Gebru enjoyed school and hanging out in cafés when she and her friends could scrape together enough pocket money. But the war changed all that. Gebru’s family was Eritrean, and some of her relatives were being deported to Eritrea and conscripted to fight against the country they had made their home.
Gebru’s mother had a visa for the United States, where Gebru’s older sisters, engineers like their father, had lived for years. But when Gebru applied for a visa, she was denied. So she went to Ireland instead, joining one of her sisters, who was there temporarily for work, while her mother went to America alone.
Reaching Ireland may have saved Gebru’s life, but it also shattered it. She called her mother and begged to be sent back to Ethiopia. “I don’t care if it’s safe or not. I can’t live here,” she said. Her new school, the culture, even the weather were alienating. Addis Ababa’s rainy season is staccato, with heavy downpours interspersed by sunshine. In Ireland, rain fell steadily for a week. As she took on the teenage challenges of new classes and bullying, larger concerns pressed down. “Am I going to be reunited with my family? What happens if the paperwork doesn’t work out?” she recalls thinking. “I felt unwanted.”
The next year, Gebru was approved to come to the US as a refugee. She reunited with her mother in Somerville, Massachusetts, a predominantly white suburb of Boston, where she enrolled in the local public high school—and a crash course in American racism.
Some of her teachers, Gebru found, seemed unable or unwilling to accept that an African refugee might be a top student in math and science. Other white Americans saw fit to confide in her their belief that African immigrants worked harder than African Americans, whom they saw as lazy. History class told an uplifting story about the Civil Rights Movement resolving America’s racial divisions, but that tale rang hollow. “I thought that cannot be true, because I’m seeing it in the school,” Gebru says.
Piano lessons helped provide a space where she could breathe. Gebru also coped by turning to math, physics, and her family. She enjoyed technical work, not just for its beauty but because it was a realm disconnected from personal politics or worries about the war back home. That compartmentalization became part of Gebru’s way of navigating the world. “What I had under my control was that I could go to class and focus on the work,” she says.
Gebru’s focus paid off. In September 2001 she enrolled at Stanford. Naturally, she chose the family major, electrical engineering, and before long her trajectory 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 making audio circuitry for Mac computers and other products. The next year she went to work for the company full-time while continuing her studies at Stanford.
At Apple, Gebru thrived. When Niel Warren, her manager, needed someone to dig into delta-sigma modulators, a class of analog-to-digital converters, Gebru volunteered, investigating whether the technology would work in the iPhone. “As an electrical engineer she was fearless,” Warren says. He found his new hardware hotshot to be well liked, always ready with a hug, and determined outside of work too. In 2008, Gebru withdrew from one of her classes because she was devoting so much time to canvassing for Barack Obama in Nevada and Colorado, where many doors were slammed in her face.