Kamau Bobb is the Director of STEM Education Strategy and Research at Google and the founding Senior Director of the Constellations Center for Equity in Computing at Georgia Tech. He is an engineer and science and technology policy scholar whose work focuses on the STEM enterprise, large educational systems, and the structural conditions that influence contemporary American life.
He brings to his current position a wealth of experience as a former Program Officer at the National Science Foundation (NSF). At NSF he was responsible for $30 million annually of investments targeted on improving computing and STEM education. In that role Dr. Bobb worked to help shape the national research agenda for effective means of delivering equitable and quality computational education to all students. He has worked with members of the Office and Science and Technology Policy in the Obama Administration to set the national strategy for STEM education at both post-secondary and secondary school levels. He was selected as a member of President Obama’s My Brother’s Keeper STEM + Entrepreneurship Taskforce to help U.S. cities craft strategies to engage young men and boys of color in the STEM landscape. Prior to his federal appointment, Dr. Bobb was the Director of the STEM Initiative for the University System of Georgia, a collaborative effort with the governor’s office to improve STEM education across the 30 public institutions serving approximately 325,000 students in the state.
Dr. Bobb holds a Ph.D. in Science and Technology Policy from Georgia Tech and M.S. and B.S. degrees in Mechanical Engineering from the University of California, Berkeley. He is a member of Leadership Atlanta Class of 2022 and serves on the board of trustees of AnitaB.org, the Lemelson Foundation and Spelman College. Center for Equity in Computing at Georgia Tech.
What is your typical day, and how do you make it productive?
I still have a childhood habit of beginning every day drinking a cup of hot chocolate. I’ve withstood years of teasing on that front, but I still start the day the same way. I generally have to balance work-related meetings in the day with civic responsibilities. I try my best to keep those things aligned, but it leads to days packed with meetings.
I also wind down days in old habits. I began jumping rope as part of training for track and field when I was in high school. It is another lifelong habit. I still jump rope nearly every evening. It offers some solace and peace of mind in the sphere and cadence of the rope.
How do you bring ideas to life?
Given my roles at Georgia Tech and at Google, I have to think a lot about big social patterns that affect the way education works and who gets access and who does not. I read and write about these issues constantly. But, I really enjoy testing my ideas in public. I often speak on various STEM education subjects at conferences, summits, and meetings. I use these opportunities to test my ideas with large audiences. I try to frame my ideas and arguments in effective ways and test to see how large groups of people receive them. I test to see how people respond, what parts they agree or disagree with, and what counterarguments people make. Because of the public forum, I have to answer questions on the spot in real-time. It is a kind of jousting about ideas and I love it. The give and take with audiences make my ideas feel alive like they’re flowing and taking shape.
What’s one trend that excites you?
It isn’t a positive excitement, but I am energized by the resurgent trend of ultra-conservatism. It is a trend that seems to reveal the dark underbelly of American life we so often pretend has faded and diminished over time. The recent Supreme Court decisions to allow businesses to deny services to LGBTQ people based on religious grounds, its overturn of women’s right to make decisions about their own reproductive health, the overturn of affirmative action are all part of a regressive trend. It seems to be taking the nation back to a time when armed hysterical masses exercised mob justice, banned books and burned witches. It is all very dark and depressing, but this trend to me reveals the truth of the nation. It excites me to be in a time where the battle lines are clear — between progress towards the American ideal, a more perfect union, and regression to its crude and dark past.
What is one habit that helps you be productive?
To the extent that I am, I stay productive by keeping focused on my larger concerns about educational justice. I have developed the habit of scoping out the magnitude of the problem almost daily. When I think about the nature of the problem and how many students are trapped in a system they have virtually no chance of escaping, I am energized — and enraged. The urgency of the problem and the implications to individual young people keeps me motivated and productive.
What advice would you give your younger self?
I would advise my younger self to develop a more artistic side. I always loved the trumpet. My father used to listen to Miles Davis’ Sketches of Spain on Saturday mornings while we did chores. I was amazed by how he could make the horn sing and talk and behave. He seemed to use the horn as a sanctuary for his inner-most self and we just had the privilege of being able to listen in. I took lessons for a long time, but then lay my horn down when I started running track competitively. That was a mistake. My advice to my younger self would be that in the long game, you’ll need creative ways to let your spirit speak in the world — long after your track legs are done.
Tell us something you believe almost nobody agrees with you.
Two things. First, it is a fact that dark chocolate ice cream is the best ice cream there is. Everyone seems to think that is my opinion. It’s not. It’s a fact. Second, I think it is possible for individual states to attempt to bring back a form of modern American slavery.
What is the one thing you repeatedly do and recommend everyone else do?
I continuously and repeatedly read. I’m a child of immigrants. When my parents came to this country and saw the slate of tv shows in the 1970’s they felt that it was a trap for my imagination and view of the world. I was banned from watching shows like Tarzan, The Jeffersons, Sanford and Son, and others that made Black people look small and small-minded. My father thought they constrained my sense of myself and my identity. He caught me watching Tarzan once and threw away the tv. I’ve been reading voraciously ever since. Especially now, when there are efforts to ban books, it is even more important to read constantly and to develop the habit of setting aside time to read. It is important to read widely, all kinds of books from authors from all over the world with all varieties of views. I was never a big novel reader, but more and more at this stage of my life, I am really interested in other people’s imagination – how they interpret the spin of the world and express it in stories. There is a level of human appreciation that comes from reading that I aspire to for myself and would recommend to others.
When you feel overwhelmed or unfocused, what do you do?
I would like to say that I have a go-to strategy — something like taking things piece by piece, identifying small accomplishable tasks, meditating, and not losing sight of the larger goals, etc. But I don’t. I do different things depending on what is making me feel overwhelmed or unfocused. Sometimes the things that make me feel overwhelmed are tactical, large bodies of work that I’m responsible for. Those overwhelm my mind. Sometimes it is the magnitude of social problems and justice. Those overwhelm my spirit. In the end, I try to just remain steady. Rudyard Kipling’s poem, If, has a line that says — If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster, and treat those two impostors just the same…That is one of my favorite guides for being in the world. Reminding myself of that helps when I deal with feeling overwhelmed or unfocused. It lowers the stakes. Victory doesn’t lead to vainglory and failure doesn’t lead to tragedy.
What is one strategy that has helped you grow your business or advance in your career?
Telling the truth in a way that is palatable is my main strategy, and I think my main strength. I operate in a world focused on educational justice. It is a world overflowing with hopeful platitudes about the potential of education to serve all students, level the playing field, make all students college and career ready, and prepare students today for the jobs of tomorrow. The reality is that American public education is profoundly broken. For Black and Brown students, it hardly does any of those things. Over the course of my career, I have constantly tried to point out that ugly truth so that I am uplifting and not betraying the students who are not served, and in a way that provides a path to collaboration and improvement for the system they are so dependent on.
What is one failure in your career, how did you overcome it, and what lessons did you take away from it?
I’ve been really fortunate not to have had major failures in my career. My failures have been many, small, and spread out. They mostly center on my inability to know when to bend. I feel strongly about certain subjects and it can blind me to other people’s points of view or alternate means of achieving the same end. I have learned, and am continuing to learn, that being flexible is not the same thing as ceding conviction.
What is one business idea you’re willing to give away to our readers?
Rather than a business idea, I have a business challenge. Public education in the United States is clearly a broken institution. Corporate and philanthropic involvement tends to center on light scalable interventions to help on the margins. It hasn’t really changed any of the big patterns over the last several decades. A challenge would be in certain major urban centers to radically reinvent the public-private partnership between schools and the private sector. The goal is to transform the professional status of the whole enterprise.
What is one piece of software that helps you be productive? How do you use it?
Blooksy is an AI-enhanced software designed to improve and assist the writing process. It was created by an Atlanta-based entrepreneur Anthony “AJ” Joiner. It is wizard-like in its ability to help sort and organize writing thoughts. Also, it is extremely helpful when trying to coordinate the edited work of multiple authors.
What is the best $100 you recently spent?
I recently went sailing in the Greek Isles for a friend’s 50th birthday. I don’t normally wear sunglasses, but I bought a pair that was handmade of cork in Kos. The lady who was the artist explained all the features of the frame. I wasn’t really interested, I just liked how they looked. But, as I was leaving she said that the lenses are a slight rose color and made a joke that it will make the world look like a nicer place. The world really is beautiful through these sunglasses. Coming back to the States and listening to the news of the summer so far, she was right. I am a realist for sure, but I definitely enjoy looking at the world through rose-colored glasses from time to time. It helps my spirit cope. The sunglasses were almost exactly $100.
Do you have a favorite book or podcast from which you’ve received much value?
One of my favorite books is The Japanese Lover, by Isabel Allende. It is an interconnected love story. It spans multiple generations and jumps across ethnic lines. It spans seasons in America where the government sanctioned the wholesale internment of Japanese people. What I like about it is the enduring strength of the love between the two main characters. In the story, love is up against American odds, cultural odds, and odds rooted in tradition, but it still wins. Their love for each other is lifelong and finds a way to exist in a natural state despite the rules stacked against it.
What’s a movie or series you recently enjoyed and why?
I recently watched the series Them produced by Little Marvin and Lena Waithe. It’s about a Black family in the 1950s that moves from North Carolina to Compton, California as part of the second great migration out of the South in the decades after the end of Reconstruction. It parallels one of my favorite books, The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson which outlines the enormity white American terror exacted on Black people that made Black people refugees in their own land. In Them, the main family is haunted by ghosts of their Southern experience that were born of real horror. It’s a dark and haunting series, but in a time when states and governors are trying to ban students from learning the dark side of America’s story, this series is fascinating and brilliantly creative.
- It is important to think about the arc of your life trajectory sometimes and to acquire and appreciate perspective.
- When building a career, or several phases of contribution to the world, it is important to have some core themes or passions that drive what you do, or anchor who you are in whatever you’re doing.
- There are two American teams — one progressive and searching for the illusive ideal of equality and fairness, and another regressive, armed, and seeking to force the country back into a bygone era.
Steve (Stefan) Junge hails from Germany and helps with the day-to-day publishing of interviews on IdeaMensch. While he and Mario don’t share a favorite soccer club, their enthusiasm to help entrepreneurs is a shared passion.