Sameer Raina, president of Digital Divide Data, a remarkable organization that uses technology as a disruptor of the status quo. Their focus is on using technology to create employment in communities worldwide.
Q: “Digital divide” is a term that refers to that gap between demographics and regions that have access to modern information and communication technology, and those that don’t. Does that term mean the same to you?
Yes. We contextualize the digital divide is in terms of youth employment. The digital divide happens between the “haves” and “have nots”.
Our focus is on using technology and digital devices to help create jobs and generate employment in areas where, traditionally, there have been few employment opportunities. And within the employment spectrum, our focus is on creating jobs for people between the ages of 18 to 25, again, using technology as a catalyst to help create jobs and employment.
Q: How do you make that happen? Can you give an example?
We work with disadvantaged, underprivileged communities. We teach them analytical and computer skills, machine learning skills, etc., and then we connect them to the demands in the market. For example, we would run a work and study program, and we would work with a group of 18 to 25, typically high school graduates. We would teach them a lot of data skills, analytical and digital skills; then, on the demand side, we work with potential job creators and employers, primarily in the technology areas. We tell them we have smart, bright and talented people trained to do certain tasks, and we use impact sourcing to connect the employer with the labor skill market, and then use that bridge to help create jobs.
Q: How did DDD start? How did you end up focusing on this?
DDD started about 15 years ago. Jeremy Hockenstein, who is our co-founder and CEO, was backpacking in Cambodia, and came across a lot of smart Cambodian youth who were very skilled, but didn’t have employment opportunities in the local market. When he went back to the US, he figured out there were skills in digitization that could be taught to these young people. He connected with his alma mater, Harvard, and asked them for digitization work from their libraries and publications. And we would do the digital conversion of this material in Cambodia.
That’s how we got started, and 15 years later we have about 2000 people in our program, and they’re learning different types of skills –conversion, digitization, machine learning, computing. We’re working with customers around the world using social impact sourcing, to generate employment and give them value.
Q: How has the work evolved since the beginnings? We collaborated with DDD and the National Museum of Kenya digitizing their collection and making it accessible, and it made me realize that inclusion is twofold –on the one hand you’re training all these young people in technology, and giving them jobs because they’re in charge of digitizing these important collections; on the other hand, you’re making this content accessible for the rest of the world, content that usually wouldn’t reach a country like Kenya, for example. It’s a complex and well-rounded inclusion case.
What we try to do –apart from making the program sustainable, from the perspective of generating enough work, enough returns from a particular project, which go to subsidizing a social program– is running a work-study model. We select people who are earning less than $5 a day and they come and join our program. We train them on a set of skills, we provide them with full-time jobs, international assistance, and scholarships for their education, their undergraduate education; healthcare, fair wage, and benefits, etc.
The kind of projects we pitch for, that we get selected for, have a heavy social impact, heavy development, capacity building. It’s not just about generating a socially sustainable program. We’re often invited to go into areas no other company will go into, especially in Africa or East Asia, which are not the typical outsourcing hubs. A lot of our focus is in local capacity building, local training, and development.
The National Museum of Kenya Project was very interesting –there are commercial elements to it, but for us, it’s equally important to have all the latest technology around cloud computing and the latest hardware, etc. We actually trained the museum personnel to use these things, to take the project forward, and we also provided them with physical infrastructure –-training rooms, classrooms, computer labs, all of which we built using the funds that were given to us for this project. There’s a lot of focus on capacity building along with infrastructure building, which typically you would not see in a commercial arrangement.
Q: Is this part of what you call the Impact Sourcing Model?
Yes. Impact Sourcing is, basically, using the concept of social impact in communities where traditionally there are low levels of employment opportunities, low levels of access to opportunities. We take care of the standard paradigm around outsourcing, which is that certain regions do certain tasks better, at a much cheaper cost and with comparable levels of quality. Instead of doing this only within a commercially sustainable model, we also do it from a socially sustainable perspective. We select people to join who are socially disadvantaged, who have less opportunities, so that’s why we operate in areas where typically there’s less commercial activity when it comes to outsourcing.
In the western market, there’s a demand and supply in balance with certain technology. Especially when it comes to things like cloud computing, machine learning, data, cybersecurity, where the jobs are in the western market, but there aren’t enough skill sets. We train people in this skill sets, and then we provide those to the technology companies we work with. And we connect the dots from the western market, where there’s work but no labor, to our markets where there is qualified labor but less access to opportunities.
We see ourselves as mediators that take care of impact, inclusion, capacity building.
It’s very important for our associates to build skill sets that will be commercially sustainable in the future –five, ten years from now–, and that’s why we focus on technology. We differentiate it clearly as the space we want to work in, because it’s where we can add the most value; so when we teach our associates to cloud computing, data labeling or machine learning, the goal is that it will be a stepping stone for the person to get access to the global digital economy, with a set of certified skills that they can then build on over their careers. We perform as an intervention mechanism, taking their lives and their trajectory from point A to point B and then giving them the skill set to build on that and thrive.
Q: How does it work? They come and train with you, graduate and move on, and then you start working with another group?
Yes. We typically work with other nonprofits at the selection and recruitment level. In Nairobi, Kenya we work with a lot of organizations that work in slums, community-based. We do have a very rigorous impact analysis –right from financial impact to community impact, and we can decide to include people from a particular community. Following our social model, they come and work with us for three to four years in which they’re full-time employees at DDD, earning a fair wage. We teach them the latest skills in technology, and cloud computing, etc. They work with us for about 35 hours a week, and then we also provide them financial assistance and scholarships so they can complete the graduate program.
These are people from the ages of 18 to 25, and 50 or 60% of them are women –just because we believe they need more access to these opportunities. We also have a cohort, coming from rural to urban areas, and they need that kind of structure to move forward. That’s some of the data that we have.
At the end of the program, once they graduate, they’re either placed into other jobs, or they can continue in DDD if there are openings. Many of our senior executives are people who joined our program at the associate level, and they’re now the vice president, senior vice president, etc. It makes us very proud to see people success inside the company, but also the ones who graduate and have found success in other endeavors –either setting up their own businesses or working for other corporations like banks, etc. That’s how the program works, and every year we have an incoming cohort across our different offices.
Q: Can you share any results on the impact that you’ve had on these communities?
Yes, we conduct studies all the time. Broadly, the impact we look to measure is in the earning potential after graduating from DDD. That’s the key indicator that shows our success as an intervention mechanism: what’s the earning potential, and what career tracks do these people have. Before joining DDD a typical associate is earning around $125 a month, and five years after graduating they’re making, on an average, $750 a month. Their compensation increases six times. Then, when we project this forward, our internal data shows that the earning potential of these individuals goes up to almost $175,000. For us, that’s an amazing achievement. Our challenge now is to scale this program to be a lot bigger and see what intervention mechanisms we can experiment with.
There are many programs that have intervention mechanisms, but our differentiator is that we focus on deep learning, deep intervention. The associates work with us for almost four years. We’ve also experimented with programs where there’s a much shorter term, a couple of months, but we’ve found we’re most successful when providing a deep, immersive environment for people to go from their current environment to have enough time to discover themselves, to build their confidence, to understand what it means to work in a team, in a project; to show up at 9:00 every morning. A lot of these things are learned behaviors that we take for granted, but for the kind of audience we work with it takes a lot longer to get them to a stage where they can be put on a different path.
Q: Since you work in different areas like Southeast Asia and Africa, do you need to adapt the program to each locality or does it stay the same?
We do need to tweak our program for different audiences. In Southeast Asia, we work in Cambodia and Laos, and in Africa, we work in Kenya. The choices that are available in these countries also differ in terms of educational options, employment opportunities, post-education too. In Cambodia, for example, higher education is relatively affordable; so the issue isn’t so much affording the education, as it is finding jobs, so we tweak the program a little more there. In Kenya, on the other hand, if you want to get into a top tier school you need to be on a certain level financially.
We have a social impact team that works with these associates through the four years, and a lot of these things are also customized and personalized to what the associates need at one point in time. And it goes way beyond the skills related to the work –it’s also about having interventions with their families when there are issues or they can’t show up at work because of some reason. That way, we help the community focus on the importance of the program, and the importance to stay on course. It’s a 360-degree change in environment and it’s deep, immersive and sustainable.
The programs are customized to each region. We are currently exploring, expanding to other parts of Africa, which means we’ll probably need to tweak the model there too.
Q: Do you see any positive trends in terms of bridging the digital gap?
Yes. The biggest change we’ve seen is the responsiveness from larger employers, corporations, in terms of being aware of social impact, environmental footprint, supply chain –who are we working with, etc. There’s a lot of positive outcomes and momentum about building awareness. Our work is, in some ways, is a niche, but now we’ve seen there’s a lot more conversation about this in boardrooms and at senior levels, as something that needs to be done, needs to be invested in. The whole arena around social impact and supply chain, specifically around skill development, etc. We’re becoming a lot more mainstream –five years ago we had to spend at least five minutes explaining what we were doing, but now it’s becoming much more common in business vocabulary.
Q: And key partners are important because they’re the ones that fund your program?
Actually, because of the way we structure our program, this year we would be breaking even commercially. This means the revenue that we generate from providing services would underwrite the cost of our operations, and that’s a big thing for us because it takes us away from the more typical nonprofit model, more dependent on donors, funders, etc. They do play a big part in what we do — and going forward, the socially sustainable part of our business would run on funding, which is great.