TC: Tell us about yourself.
Amanda : I’m Amanda Southworth, I’m 16, and I’m founder and executive director of Astra Labs, a 501(c)3 non-profit software development company. What we do at Astra is build software for people that need it the most, but usually get it the least. I grew up competing at robotics competitions starting in 2011, and immersed myself in tech culture. But, I found it to be less forgiving as a queer, mentally ill, girl than it was to my more privileged counterparts. Even then, middle school and high school was awful. I was suffering with multiple different things at once. My self esteem was absolutely non-existent.
I was addicted to self harm in middle school, and I was using painkillers to attempt suicide starting in 2011, continuing all of the way to 2016. During all of this, I was discovering my sexuality, dealing with anorexia from middle school, and trying to cope with being in an abusive home. Of course, this didn’t make me the most popular person to be with. Even worse, my mom, who I was living with, didn’t believe in therapy or medication, or even doctors, or anything medically related. I was stranded. And I suffered with it for a long time. And I still do to this day. When I was in the midst of all of this, there was no solution that I could find that could help me with the things I needed. All of the meditation or mental health apps required money that I didn’t have, and those that did were usually not updated, weren’t accessible to those with disabilities, or just had flawed design. Overall, I saw that if you weren’t paying up, you really couldn’t find something that would be effective. I got so sick of being helpless. I knew that I had to change or die. So, in 2015, I used my programming skills to make an app that I needed, called AnxietyHelper. It was really simple at first. All it did was provide information about the most common mental illnesses, and resources to cope with them. At the same time, I taught myself multiple cognitive behavioral therapy techniques. I powered myself through recovering from anorexia, and I left my high school and stopped self harming and using suicide as coping methods. I got into homeschooling, and just threw everything I had into expanding AnxietyHelper and developing my next app, Verena, which is a security system for those in the LGBTQ+ community. Verena was released in May 2017, and as time grew on, I realized that this was what I loved. This is what I needed to do. I dropped out of high school in December. Around that same time, Teen Vogue announced the class of their annual 21 under 21, which included me. When I went to the first Teen Vogue Summit in LA, Teen Vogue partnered with TOMS and gave me and 3 other girls $25,000 to continue the work that we do. With that money, I decided that I wanted to create something that embodied everything that I stand for, and that I want to do in my life. That’s Astra Labs.
TC: Was there any key experiences/people that influenced you to be who you are/ do what you do?
Amanda : Something that frequently inspires me, is music. That’s what I credit to keeping me alive until I could leave the situation I was in. And these bands that I listened to promoted an incredible message. That’s how I coped. Just this year, I got back my statistics from Spotify. Most people listened to about 25,000 - 40,000 minutes of music in 2017. I listened to 90,000 minutes. Even then, I’ve always looked up to people who are breaking ground in what they do. Tech CEOs like Tim Cook, who is openly gay, and Elon Musk, who literally just comes up with amazing ideas like it’s second nature, are also huge in my life. These people are breaking ground and setting paths for kids like me to look up and admire.
TC: Tell us about your non profit and the things it’s helped you achieve as-well as what your proudest moments?
Amanda : I tend to think that people solve problems that they experience, and that tech is an amazing way to do that. However, there’s a lot of systemic barriers keeping marginalized communities from getting into tech, stopping them from making solutions to the problems they see. Technology has the capacity to solve a vast amount of problems. The problem is, we’re not focusing it on the right problems. We’re making advancements in fields like quantum physics and space travel, which is amazing! But, we still have problems like homelessness, awful healthcare, higher infant morality among POC, hunger, and other stuff that we need to fix first. That’s what my non-profit does. We give innovation to people that need it the most, but get it the least. We take the latest technology, and try to apply to it to areas where people need help. Two of the things that we have coming up both use artificial intelligence to enable better detection of various things, and using that to provide higher quality results to people. The first is an app called Oculatum, which uses something called a neural network (which is the computer’s equivalent to a human brain) to detect objects in a photo. The thing that makes Oculatum so different from other apps, is the fact that it uses object detection to help schizophrenics determine whether or not what they are seeing is a visual hallucination. Over time, the more they use the app, the more information they have about what might trigger some delusions, where they occur most commonly, and other information that wouldn’t be available otherwise. The second project we have coming up is called Whizard, which is a suite of study tools that allows a user to scan their handwritten notes with their phone, and get a digital copy of their handwritten notes, a study guide, and a practice test. Essentially, it creates everything that you need to study for you. And the best part about it? We devised a plan so that everyone has access to these tools, regardless of income. The subscription model revolves around three different tiers. Apprentice, Magician, and Master. Apprentice is the free tier. Users can add up to 6 classes, with 10 study sets each, and be apart of 6 study halls, with ads. The next level is Magician, which removes ads and allows unlimited classes, study sets, and study halls. This costs $4.99 a month. The final level is Master. This level removes the ads for the user, as well as unlimited access to every tool that Whizard has to offer. They also get beta access if they choose to opt in. The thing that distinguishes Master from apprentice, is that this tier enables the One for One model. They not only pay for their subscription, but they also buy one for a low income student, a first generation college student, an immigrant, or a single parent. To enable even more people to have access, Whizard education fund was created, where 5% of all subscription incomes, as well as 5% of all donations, goes. Students can apply to be covered by the fund and have access to these free subscriptions, and can renew their status as being eligible for financial aid every year. Those with these financial aid will have unlimited access to the app, but will also be shown ads that go directly back into the fund to provide more financial aid. This allows Whizard to enable better tools to everyone, without losing any money from donating these subscriptions. Besides what’s in the future, our past apps, AnxietyHelper and Verena, are helping hundreds of people, every day. I think that my proudest moment was when I went back to Venice Beach and sat on the lifeguard tower where I first came up with the idea for AnxietyHelper, and letting myself think, “I actually did it. I made it happen. And I’m a better person than when I was here last time”. And that’s always going to be what I want to do, is I want to not only grow in my skills, but grow as a person. I want to be the person that I needed when I was younger, and I always try to put myself in positions where I am open and being honest about who I am. I try to carve the paths that I needed when I was younger,paths that activists, advocates, and others carved for me, so I can do what I want to without fear of repercussion.
TC: What impact or message would you like to make/spread with your actions?
Amanda : Where you currently are doesn’t determine where you’re going to end up. I thought I would be dead before I left middle school, now I’m a high school dropout working to use technology to make the world a better place.
TC: What’s a piece of advice you’d like to give to others reading?
Amanda : Don’t give up your authenticity to make others comfortable. It’s your job to make yourself happy, not make others happy. A lot of times friends/family/assorted strangers on the internet critique me for not using the apps to generate income, or for openly cussing on social media, or for not being a good role model, or for calling people “love”, or for talking about suicide or my bad relationship with my family. The point I’m trying to make, is that all of that is what makes me unique. It’s my character, my personality, and overall who I am. And if you start changing those little things about you to make people comfortable, you’re giving up who you are. It’s not your responsibility to do that, for anyone (unless you’re hurting people, which is uncool). This extends heavily to advocacy and life as someone who doesn’t typically fit into the mold, especially in tech and other areas dominated by people who don’t look like you. You are as equal as everyone else, and you shouldn’t have to belittle yourself to make others accept you.