Last week, I found myself surveying Planet Earth through a tiny porthole on the international space station, contemplating the shared destiny of humanity and the need for all of us to embrace global development challenges as our own.
I wasn’t star-gazing from 400 kilometres up; I was simply seeing the world through the eyes of an extraordinary woman: Anousheh Ansari, astronaut, engineer, entrepreneur, and global humanitarian.
These days, Anousheh is a star in her own right. She made history and headlines in 2006 when she embarked on an 11-day expedition to the International Space Station, becoming the first female private space explorer and first Muslim woman in space.
Last week, I was lucky enough to have an hour-long, informal fireside chat with Anousheh in front of a packed room at Geneva’s Graduate Institute. During our discussion, I was repeatedly impressed by her enthusiasm, her indomitable spirit, and her commitment to finding new ways to use technology to solve the world’s problems.
Anousheh’s inspiring 2017 TEDx Talk, Only As Much As We Dream Can We Be, has garnered almost 10,000 views. In it she describes her life growing up in Iran; her nights spent gazing at the night sky, and her life’s ambition of becoming an astronaut. In 1979, when her family fled the Iranian revolution, she suddenly found herself in the United States, where she eventually went on to study mechanical engineering and to become a very successful tech entrepreneur.
These days, she explained, she devotes most of her time to the XPRIZE Foundation, a leading organization in the design and operation of incentive competitions aimed at solving humanity’s grand challenges.
Last year, she also co-founded the Billion Dollar Fund for Women, with the goal of investing one billion dollars in women-founded companies by 2020.
If that weren’t enough to keep her busy, Anousheh also serves on the World Economic Forum’s Global Future Council, is a UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador, and sits on the board of several not-for-profit organizations focused on STEM education and youth empowerment.
With ITU’s Girls in ICT Day global celebrations just wrapping up around the world, I was interested in what Anousheh thought about getting more girls interested in tech, and whether she had any practical suggestions.
Her advice was to start inspiring girls around engineering and technology at a much younger age.
“Right now, we’re focusing on girls in their late teens. By that age, kids have already formed a basic view of what interests them and what doesn’t. If they haven’t been inspired by a teacher – or even exposed to the possibilities of engineering and technology as career choices – they’re not even going to look in that direction. So we need to focus more on children, not just on teens.”
That made me think about the way we approach education in today’s fast-paced digital age. Are we doing enough to stimulate kids’ imaginations?
“I think we don’t encourage children’s natural capacity for wonder,” Anousheh confirmed. “In fact, to be blunt, most education curricula work on crushing that natural inquisitiveness, that capacity for fantasy and dreaming. We teach kids that all that matters is learning dry facts from textbooks. Yet, I think my capacity to dream has been instrumental in my career and in the successes I’ve had. We need to recognize this quality as something to be valued and encouraged, as a crucial part of every child’s unique identity and an element that will contribute to his or her success in later life.”
Anousheh confessed that she loved losing herself in the fantasy of Star Trek when she was a little girl, and laughed about her naivety on arriving in the U.S.
“I actually believed that Star Fleet Academy was a real tertiary institution and I tried to look it up in the phone book so that I could find out how to apply,” she told the audience. But faced with a disappointing earth-bound reality, Anousheh did not give up. She never lost sight of her dream of space travel, and through persistence and a lot of hard work eventually found herself a place on Soyuz astronaut training programme for the ISS.
“That astronaut’s vision of Earth, whole and totally interconnected, changed the way I look at the world forever,” Anousheh told the audience. “I realized we are all together, we share one space, we cannot think of the problems of one community as unconnected to the rest of humanity. We have one home, and we need to take care of it, and of each other.”
As the new Director of ITU’s Telecommunication Development Bureau, it was a message that truly inspired me and gave renewed, tangible meaning to ITU’s work to get the remaining 49% of the planet connected to the power and wonder of the online world.
Bringing technology to people everywhere, and particularly to those in the poorest parts of the world where ICTs can play a truly transformational role, would be a huge achievement. Some might even say say it’s too ambitious. But with tech now recognized as crucial to the 17 UN SDGs, we’re going to keep aiming for that.
Like Anousheh, we’re going to reach for those far-off stars, and who knows, we might just get there.