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MIT Better World

By Katherine J. Igoe

In her view, they merge more practically than one might think. “Implementation is so important in policy. Technology expands access and opportunity and helps us scale different policies efficiently,” she explains. An engineer by training, she’s currently adding a dual degree to her toolbox: an MBA from the MIT Sloan School of Management and a master’s of public policy from the Harvard Kennedy School.

One deceptively simple research question drives her work: How do you use tech to scale social good?

Nukuna has always considered tech to be the more “stable” of her two possible career paths. She watched her Cameroonian parents work their way up from jobs at McDonald’s to careers in the sciences: her mom is a chemist, her dad is a doctor. She was inspired to excel, too, in some area of technology, which she loved, and the drive to give back was there from the very beginning. Nukuna’s parents always modeled gratitude, and she has watched them help other families in West Africa. “‘Do what you can, help where you can’—that was my parents’ motto, so I’ve tried to take it on,” she says.

The allure of tech led Nukuna to an undergraduate degree in industrial engineering at Georgia Tech, where she learned how to solve problems in a systems-focused way with analytical rigor and data. Meanwhile, her passion for politics led her to become student body president and to promote election turnout in a state with a history of voter suppression. In college, she met a role model, former President Jimmy Carter, one of only two presidents with an engineering degree. His trajectory made her feel she could also do both things she loved.

Nukuna went on to jobs at Google and Netflix, but she also gained essential policy experience, including taking on early education policy as an intern for Delaware Governor John Carney in 2020. At MIT, she participated in an MIT Sloan Action Learning lab focused on rural America, completing a class project for the Office of Economic Vitality (OEV) in Tallahassee, Florida. She learned the social context in class and then helped collect data from town halls, surveys, and economic studies. She analyzed these data using a qualitative coding process and used the results to develop recommendations for the OEV on how to more effectively promote minority- and women-owned businesses.

“Money isn’t everything”

The Action Learning lab and other experiences at MIT have helped her see policy problems with fresh eyes, learn about the evolving tech-based economy, and apply research findings to real-world issues. She appreciates that MIT Sloan focuses on developing principled, innovative leaders: “They’ll bring in speakers who remind us that money isn’t everything, that giving back is important. I’m grateful people keep instilling that in me so that it’ll stick when I have to remember it in important situations later.” Her path at MIT has been made possible through the Beatrice Ballini (1986) Fellowship, and Nukuna says she doesn’t take that investment lightly.

All of this preparation, she hopes, will help her achieve her goal of working to improve national policies, like voting rights, in part by understanding the impact of technology on social systems. She might one day make policy recommendations to combat misinformation on social media, she says, or assess bias in immigration databases. No matter where she lands, she intends to employ technology to forge a path to public good.