Encouraging the next generation of AI leaders is a highly held value at Mastercard. Supporting the AI Accelerator for youth is one way we like to give back. The initiative is changing the world, one teen, one project at a time.

Mastercard once again sponsored and mentored at the AI Accelerator, a hands-on, two-week learning intensive run by the Teens in AI initiative. The program offers youth aged 11-19 exposure to using AI for social good.

AI Accelerator offers teens a chance to build their own tech start-up with the help of industry mentors, learn about AI in workshops and hear from inspiring entrepreneurs. They learn to consider ethical decision making, social interaction, and gender bias and racial bias in their models. Empathy and human-centered design are emphasized. They work in four-person teams to solve real-world problems, competing to be the best project. Past projects included AI solutions for mental health, obesity and domestic violence.

Learning during a pandemic

This year’s AI Accelerator program was presented with a twist. Not deterred by a global pandemic, founder Elena Sinel offered a virtual program, opening the event to a simultaneous worldwide audience.

The Global AI Accelerator Online ran from July 27 to August 7 with 45 teens. Participants logged in from diverse locations, including Africa, Fiji, Eastern Europe, the UK, and North America. The 300 applicants comprised 73 percent female, 53 percent European, and 74 percent from Black and Afro-Caribbean communities, and included neural diverse and non-binary youth.

“(Working in diverse teams) teaches them the importance of collaboration early on which is an integral part of building out any enterprise,” said Deepak Ravichandran, Vice President, Enterprise Strategy, Mastercard. He has served as a mentor and judge for the AI Accelerator for several years.

AI, a good tool to solve big problems

In this first-of-its-kind event, students from around the globe joined forces virtually. Fittingly, many of this year’s projects were aimed at solving problems related to COVID-19. They ranged from easing the transition to online learning, facilitating donations to homeless shelters, helping refugees and aid organizations communicate, to mapping out Brazilian reforestation.

Sudhir Jha, Senior Vice President, Mastercard and Head of Brighterion noted that tough times often spark innovation. In his keynote speech to the teens, he said, “COVID-19 has accelerated AI. When a crisis strikes on a large scale, people get forced into innovation.

“If you look at the financial crisis in 2008, web and mobile were the most prevalent technology and pretty much wider adoption happened. In the next few years, the world completely changed because of that,” Sudhir said. “My prediction is that it’s going to actually fuel a lot of innovation. There’s going to be a huge acceleration in education, in healthcare and other domains all because of the crisis that has moved us in that direction.” (Read about Brighterion’s contribution to COVID-19 innovation.)

How to create a winning AI solution in three weeks

The winning team named their AI solution Eleos, which curates and delivers targeted advice and external support to help young people aged 14-16 manage their emotional wellbeing.

The entire team felt passionate about helping young people make mental health a priority while destigmatizing the need for help. Each had friends or family members who were reluctant or unsure of how to reach out. “Mental health is something that we can’t deny,” said team Eleos member Mohammed, “and each of us has a duty to help another person.”

Eleos teammate Imani has friends with mental health issues and they don’t know where to turn for help or who to talk to. “Young people are the future of the world. With mental health, people don’t take it as seriously as they should.”

But it often comes down to stigmatization, says team colleague Anisha. “I guess for me just trying to find a way for young people to speak about it… Even my own friends and family look at it as taboo, or a bad activity,” she said.

Mentorship is key to learning

When asked who a standout mentor was, Mohammed mentioned two. “Ganesh from Mastercard helped a ton. He explained the technical side of our project, what we needed to do, research we should look for and how we could go about creating our product.”

The other was a key mentor from the UK National Health Service (NHS) who worked tirelessly with the team and introduced them to others within the NHS who could contribute critical information. Other important mentor learnings included ethics, design thinking and remembering to keep their focus on young people.

In addition to keynote speakers, Mastercard provided mentorship, scholarships for five students and a judge for the final competition. Mastercard also will provide mentorship for the competition winners, providing them access to experts from our AI Center of Learning.

The team will continue working together to bring Eleos to market and testing will be done by the NHS.

Team Eleos’ winning AI project to help teens connect with mental health resources

It began with an AI hackathon

Teens in AI is the brainchild of a mom who wanted more for her 12-year-old daughter than traditional “girl careers.” Both Elena Sinel and her daughter were frustrated when they were told computer science was just for boys. A master’s student at the time, Elena was invited to a hackathon, took her daughter and inspiration struck.

“After the hackathon, I could see my daughter’s confidence booming and her transformation,” Elena says. “Once I got involved in the entrepreneurial society at university, I saw the potential for my daughter.”

What followed was a 2015 pilot of what today is called the AI Accelerator. Elena wanted youth to learn human-centered design and marketing as well as coding. She was thrilled by the business community’s level of interest that contributed to the success.

By the time Elena ran the second AI Accelerator in 2017, she knew she had the basis for a viable business. Still stretched thin as the single mother of two children, she hired a business development manager to help her expand the event into a business.

Significantly, she was approached that same year by a 16-year-old boy with mental health challenges who wanted to work for her. Off school, in treatment and haunted by suicidal ideation, he asked Elena “to help him keep his mind busy.” When she asked his passion, he replied simply, “AI.”

Teens in AI launched at the UN

Together, Elena and the boy created the concept of a teen hackathon project focused on mental illness. The event was a great success, but it also bought a surprise via social media.

A Twitter user tagged the UN AI for Good Global Summit, which was looking to host a youth panel on AI. A UN staff member contacted Elena to invite her to be a speaker and asked if she could bring a young person with her. How could she say no?

Elena and her young associate traveled to Geneva for the Global Summit. “We decided to launch a movement,” Elena recalls. “I launched Teens in AI then and there on inspiration.”

What drives Teens in AI?

Elena explains that while many people think AI is just coding, it’s so much more than that. “Teens in AI empowers kids to change the world and find their purpose,” she says. “AI has the potential to create impacts,” she says.

Elena wants youth to learn the principles of ethically sourced data and whether AI and its metadata can be used for bad purposes. She firmly wanted to fuel the philosophical debate of how the future should look, based on the intersection of quantum computing and data.

“Education is still limited, so youth still think AI is scary. They are influenced by their parents to look at traditional jobs like medicine, law and education,” Elena says. “But those involve AI too, which will transform those careers.”

That’s a notion embraced by Nitendra Rajput, Vice President, Product Development, Mastercard. In his opening keynote to the youth, Nitendra said that AI is already being used in a wide variety of industries. It assesses students’ education and their learning plans. It scans city data to predict disease outbreaks and recommend treatments. In business, AI identifies credit risk to help banks make lending decisions and prevents fraud.

In his role as head of the AI Garage (Mastercard’s innovation center), Nitendra fuels innovation and learning amongst his team.

“Figure out what you want to be,” Nitendra advised the teens. “Then figure out how AI will affect that domain. AI is not just for IT and computer scientists. It affects all industries. (Knowing about) AI will give you an early advantage regardless of the competition.”

Changing the world, one person at a time

Elena partnered with Mastercard for the Girls in AI hackathon in San Francisco in 2018 and with Microsoft to promote women entering the field of AI, running a three-city pilot hackathon for women in 2019. (Of note, only 12 percent of database researchers and 20 percent of tech employees are women). A Mastercard hackathon for teens in New York followed.

The first international hackathon in Nairobi, Kenya in 2019 inspired a bigger agenda, but COVID-19 put other plans on hold, particularly a 150-country roadshow with Microsoft.

“We did hackathons in Paris, London, Paisley, Eastern Europe and Africa in March, but 10 more cities are on hold. We hope to run another global virtual hackathon in October to celebrate Ada Lovelace Day with thousands of girls across the world learning about how to use AI for impact,” Elena says.

Learn more:

Sudhir Jha’s presentation (12:49)

Nitendra Rajput’s opening keynote speech (20:00)

Deepak Ravichandran’s discussion with founder Elena Sinel (12:03)

Team Eleos’ winning AI project to help teens connect with mental health resources (3:36)