The best way to understand the shape and power of Break Through Tech’s work is to hear from the people who are part of it — from the young women participating in our innovative programs, to the leaders who host those programs inside their organizations and the team members who run our programs in cities around the country and online. Meet Chu Huang, director of Break Through Tech AI at MIT, a collaboration with MIT Schwarzman College of Computing, home to one of the world’s top-ranked computer science programs and pioneers of breakthrough research in computing and artificial intelligence. Now entering its second year at this location, the program serves diverse undergraduate women and non-binary students from across Greater Boston; between the thriving and historic academic presence in the city and the dozens of startups emerging, it’s a place with lots of students where the tech landscape is evolving every day.
Chu, what does this work mean to you personally? How does Break Through Tech’s mission line up with your own career focus?
What drew me to this role was the mission. Knowing that Break Through Tech prioritizes and serves diverse women and non-binary undergrads to break through in the tech sector was appealing because of how much opportunity there is in tech and innovation, and because we need the people in this space to be more reflective of the world we’re living in. As a female-identifying, first-generation college student who was raised by a single parent in an immigrant household, I’ve been exposed to the inequities and systemic barriers that affect people with backgrounds like mine. Joining Break Through Tech was also an opportunity to continue to work in education while drawing on my experience with program operations, infrastructure, and supporting fast-growing enterprises.
Why is it important to help diverse young women and non-binary undergraduate students break into AI?
AI already has so many effects on our day-to-day lives, from self-driving cars to cameras. We need more diverse people shaping this technology.
A big part of our work is helping young women and non-binary folks from underrepresented backgrounds to feel confident in this space. Representation matters. Whether they want to be a machine learning (ML) engineer or a CEO, the students we serve can easily think, “There’s nobody who looks like me… can I even have dreams that big?”
One thing that blew my mind, initially, is MIT’s commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion (DE&I). There’s a lot of authentic commitment, at all levels. I feel very supported, like I have the resources to meet the mission of the program.
What have you noticed about why students choose to study AI?
They grew up with technology and it’s so natural to them, they’re able to see so many opportunities to use this technology to create the kinds of changes they want to see in the world. A number of students in our first cohort expressed an interest in using AI to address mental health stigma, and to help people manage their mental well-being. We also had a student focused on using AI to help us make sure we’re more conscientious about our environmental impact. Our students give me a lot of optimism for the future — they have vision, and know that this program can help them in reaching their goals.
What’s some of the best feedback you’ve received from students?
The first thing I think of is a student who was so appreciative of the mentorship aspect of our program. Students get paired up with a role model in the industry — someone who shares a similar identity, who they can learn from and build a relationship with. Representation is so powerful, and we make sure that it’s visible — that this is a space where being in tech can be seen as the norm, for someone like them.
This student was so happy to meet someone she could identify with who was working in the industry, and to learn from what her mentor has gone through — ”these are some of the mistakes I made that you can learn from.” Her mentor helped her think through whether it was worth getting a Masters or a PhD…she was a sounding board, a thought partner, who was sincere about wanting to help this student break through.
The other thing I think of is the student we had who drove from Vermont to our monthly gatherings in Cambridge, MA. She saw so much value in the community aspect of our program, and looked forward to learning alongside her peers; a commute like that takes real dedication, once a month for a whole year (the people who know New England weather will especially get it!).
One student told us, “The sense of accomplishment that followed after completing the industry project helped me find my footing as a woman in tech.”
A big part of Break Through Tech AI is AI Studio, an experiential learning opportunity hosted by industry collaborators. What’s one of your favorite pieces of feedback you received from a collaborator?
The first thing that comes to mind is a collaborator who couldn’t believe the quality of our students’ industry project contributions, how much they rose above the standard — considering that on top of this challenging program these young people are already juggling so much, from rigorous academic schedules and studying to work and internships, family, extracurricular activities, a social life.
Here’s a specific piece of feedback from an industry collaborator that gives you a sense of the kinds of projects our students work on — and how our program benefits not just the students, but the companies and their employees:
“The Break Through Tech AI students I advised produced a mobile application that can assist blind people by describing moments captured by a smartphone. They were creative and passionate enough to add more functionality, such as supporting multiple languages, to broaden the usage of the application. I am very proud of my team. Serving as a challenge advisor was a valuable experience for me!” – 2022 AI Studio Challenge Advisor
What are you most proud of, that Break Through Tech AI has accomplished in its first year at MIT?
The community we’ve built. One specific example is our first cohort’s final showcase in December of 2022. All of our students came together and presented their work, in small teams, in front of a larger community. Their mentors were invited, as well as company challenge advisors, TAs, the MIT community, even family members — one student brought her little brother — and folks from the central Break Through Tech team. To see how our program brings so many pieces and people together, a culmination of so much time and energy and collaboration, and to shine a light on our students and see how proud they are of themselves, was very, very powerful.
What’s next for Break Through Tech at MIT?
We are scaling up! Our next cohort, which we’ve just begun recruiting for, will have 100 students, nearly triple the number from our first cohort, which is currently wrapping up. We’ll be looking to engage many more industry collaborators. I can’t wait until next year, when we’ll get to hear where our alumni have landed, from internships to full time jobs.
Boston-area companies of all sizes, we’d love to collaborate with you! Complete our Interest Form to get involved, and/or email Chu directly with any questions at firstname.lastname@example.org