“To quote Billie Jean King, ‘Pressure is a privilege.’ There is certainly a level of pressure that comes with this responsibility, but that, in a sense, is something that I choose to have,” says Okezue Bell, coolly remarking on his numerous accomplishments to date and the many challenges that he’s currently tackling. Just a few months past his 17th birthday, this impressive young man has already developed a low-cost prosthetic arm for amputees, founded an international microfinancing platform for unbanked individuals, and begun his freshman year at Stanford University.
While working at the MIT Media Lab—conducting research using generative AI to create predictive models for psychological study—Bell learned about the Fab Foundation and contacted us to explore potential partnerships. Seeing multiple areas of alignment in our respective fields, we invited him to FAB23 this past summer to share his perspective as a young innovator and entrepreneur. We were incredibly fortunate to have him join us in Bhutan, where he established a strong presence and earned a devoted following, thanks to his keen insights and charismatic demeanor. And he was gracious enough to offer us a bit of his time after the event to reflect on the experience.
Can you share some of your personal highlights from FAB23?
I'd never been to Bhutan. So, everything seemed very fresh and new, which contributed to my zeal for the conference. And the way the physical space was set up—how it blended into the natural landscape—put me in a good head space, ready to absorb all the content of the conference and just try new things.
The Youth & Education Symposium was a huge highlight, getting to talk about issues in education with so many different stakeholders present. In other conferences, speakers oftentimes are only able to spew their opinions and maybe listen to those of their fellow panelists. Being able to actually interact and get live reactions from people on the ground as well is something that's very valuable and not always possible at these types of things. It's much nicer to be able to blend into the experience of the conference, beyond just contributing your thoughts. So, that was certainly a productive conversation.
And I got to really engage with students there as well, which was super exciting and something that I hadn't expected either. I knew that there would be youth attendance, but I imagined they'd be siloed to a specific section or area. Student presence is something that is not very often reflected in government or edtech conversations. It's still a bit of a frontier, involving majority stakeholders in issues that deeply affect them. Having students who are already incumbents of the area in which the event is being held is really nice. A lot of times, things being discussed pertain to our generation directly. And, ultimately, we're going to inherit these concerns, so it's good that we are privy to the conversations happening now. I had the opportunity to speak to many people I typically wouldn't even see represented at these types of conferences. So that was certainly something that was very exciting for me—and very new.
A central theme in your work is promoting the responsible creation and deployment of technology. In what ways were you able to leverage FAB23 as a platform for spreading your message?
Since FAB23, we've developed a sprawling Bhutan chapter, which is something that I never expected I could say. We now have people doing on-the-ground outreach in Bhutan, talking to farmers, talking to government, going around to schools to talk to students about responsible tech and sharing our perspectives. It's really nice to have reached this new part of the world, and I think that's something that FAB23 certainly facilitated by hosting the conference in Bhutan and interfacing so well with the community that was present there.
Outside of that, I've been able to communicate with a variety of different education groups as well. I followed up on a partnership with STEMpedia. We're now doing a formal partnership. We're going to hopefully be doing an event in the US on responsible tech and maybe scaling it internationally.
FAB23 also gave me a better sense of the direction I want to go with my organization.
Can you talk a bit more about that?
The conference gave me a much broader sense of how I'm going to push Fitudam forward, in terms of the responsible tech agenda. Getting to talk so much about the work we’re doing, I've become much more comfortable interfacing with a variety of government groups, no matter their affiliations or perspectives. We're doing development, and we're now doing political advocacy, working very closely with the US government, actually. We’re working with 36 congressional offices. So that's been super exciting. Working across bipartisan lines has been very enlightening.
Before the Fab conference, we didn't really talk to government that much. As we've progressed, we've been able to broaden our purview and our issue areas much more because we have more capacity for professional policy reviews and technical depth. We're getting more perspectives and more capacity to do meaningful work within these very concentrated spaces, like policy proposals or developmental proposals. Previously, it was difficult for us to generate high value content that could be used by legislators. But now that’s a lot easier.
The conference made me realize that the biggest benefit of Fidutam is not being a youth-led organization. I think that's helpful, but in highly technical spaces, when it ventures into the deeper ethical and social implications, one of our biggest value-adds is having perspectives and understanding of underserved or underrepresented communities—how their practices could work with this technology or be adversely impacted by it. So, having that understanding, coupled with sociopolitical perspectives and technical perspectives, plus the added layer of being youth in this space, that all makes it a lot easier to communicate these ideas and create new policy proposals or development standards. That was an idea that really started to take hold for me at FAB23.