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Back to the beginning: 15-year-old computer scientist traces her path to becoming an innovator

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Emma Yang, founder of Timeless, shares a presentation at TEDxFoggyBottom in Washington, D.C.
Emma Yang speaks at TEDxFoggy Bottom in Washington DC in 2017
I am a tech founder, innovator, entrepreneur, machine learning researcher, and high school student. At age 15, my life seems to be a series of beginnings, but I’ve found that sometimes you don’t recognize the start of something important until after it’s happened. Before everything else, I was a primary school kid who really liked computers.

I began coding when I was six years old by bouncing cartoon cats around the edges of my screen. Scratch, the tool MIT released to teach kids about coding when I was about five years old, was full of fun characters (“sprites”) that you could rotate and whose colors you could change by dragging vibrant blocks of code into the window. The blocks would join together with a satisfying “snap” that I can still recall. I remember sitting on my grandmother’s couch many days after school, holding a heavy laptop, and playing with the sprites, before I began looking into other users’ projects and starting to figure out more complex structures.
WATCH: Changing the world with code | Emma Yang | TEDxFoggyBottom
WATCH: Changing the world with code | Emma Yang | TEDxFoggyBottom
A few years later, my interest turned from games and animations to mobile apps. I stuffed my heavy laptop into my parents’ black mesh computer bag and took the bus to First Code Academy, one of the first coding schools in Hong Kong (where I lived at the time), which was founded by a female entrepreneur, Michelle Sun, who had just returned from Silicon Valley.

Learning loops, logic, and user interfaces at First Code was exciting and presented three beginnings for me: it was the first time I learned about developing mobile apps, which is a significant part of my work now; it was the first time I was one of the youngest people in the room, a role to which I’ve since become accustomed; and it was the first time I was one of very few girls, if not the only girl, in the room, another role I’ve since gotten very used to.


My interest in coding and eventually computer science continued to expand. I took online classes in HTML/CSS and learned Java with books about object-oriented language, encapsulation, and methods. In sixth grade, my family moved to New York, and I found the Technovation Challenge, a global technology entrepreneurship challenge for girls. I participated with a friend of mine from school and we made it all the way to the finals in San Francisco, where we won second place globally. The challenge was the first time I was in a room full of girls who were all passionate about using technology for good. I started to see technology not just as blocks of code or an animated whack-a-mole game, but as a strength, tool, and platform for a middle-school girl who wanted to change something (maybe even the world).
Emma Yang stands on stage holding a check for $50,000 that she won at the Women Who Tech startup challenge in 2018
Emma Yang holds the grand prize at the Women Who Tech Emerging Tech Challenge in 2018 for her app, Timeless.
I took my second live coding class when I was in the seventh grade. It was a high school class for creating iOS apps, and, again, I was the youngest in the room and one of the only girls in the class. The four other girls and I would sit in the back and work through group projects together, almost forgetting how isolated we were from the rest of the class. The class dynamic was so different than what I experienced at the Technovation Challenge and served as another beginning: my first exposure to the gender imbalance that exists in much of the tech world.
A cellphone screen shows how the app, Timeless, assists Alzheimer's patients.
Timeless’ “Today” screen shows the patient’s upcoming events for the day.
For the last three years, I’ve been building my company and mobile app, Timeless, which I created to help my grandmother, who has Alzheimer’s disease, stay connected with my family. Now, Timeless 2.0, which we just launched globally, helps hundreds of families across the world do the same. Timeless has given me unthinkable opportunities to travel the world, sharing my story and using my voice to encourage more girls and young people to pursue their passions.
All of these small moments have broadened my understanding of what it means to be a girl in the 21st century who wants to improve the world, and who wants to become her best self
There was no single event that gave me my start down this path. I had no “aha” moment animating cats on my grandma’s couch in Hong Kong or listening to girls from across the world pitch their solutions for social injustice in an auditorium in San Francisco. It wasn’t just the fact that I’m often the youngest person in the room, or the only girl, or the only computer science geek, that made me want to create something that was meaningful to me and, ideally, to millions of Alzheimer’s patients around the world. But all of these small moments have broadened my understanding of what it means to be a girl in the 21st century who wants to improve the world, and who wants to become her best self.

Someone recently asked me what I would want to achieve if I had unlimited resources. I said that I would cure Alzheimer’s, expand the way we leverage machine learning, and optimize research for diagnostic tools. At Timeless, we’re working on it. And in the meantime, I’ll keep my eyes and mind open for new opportunities, because you never know what might change the future.