Getting in the Arena: Digital Divide, Then and Now

Throughout our 20th year, we will be focusing not only on those heeding our call to the “Get In The Arena” in 2017, but also on how important we have found this principle in all the work the Case Foundation has led throughout its history. And no initiative is more emblematic of this than our work to close the digital divide.

But to bring this lesson to life, we have to go back more than 20 years…

It was the 1990’s. Late one afternoon I sat in my office at America Online and waited while my assistant transferred the call. It was another teacher on the line and I knew why she was calling. I had been receiving a growing number of calls and letters from parents and teachers around the country who mostly shared the same tale: they were deeply concerned about the growing digital divide among neighborhoods and classrooms that left some children advantaged, while others were being left behind. Teachers would point out that some kids in class were using the Internet extensively to prepare papers or augment their classroom learning, often turning in professional-looking reports and homework that had been crafted with best-in-class technology in their homes, while others students were still struggling with the literal “old school” preparation—handwriting, limited resource material to reference, no fancy charts or pictures for their reports. “It’s not fair,” the teacher would plead. “Can’t AOL do something to help these students and families that don’t have access?”

The world has changed a lot since then and, even if you are old enough to remember that period, it is hard to remember what life was like in the 1990’s as the Internet began to explode on the scene. We had introduced America Online to world in late 1989 and then in 1992, it became legal to connect to the Internet—then better known as the World Wide Web—which had previously been accessible only to those in government or academia. We had seen firsthand the divide this teacher was so concerned about and we shared that concern. We set out to engage in a number of initiatives at AOL, including “Net Day” in 1995, designed to wire our nation’s schools to expand access.

But it wasn’t until after I left AOL and co-founded The Case Foundation with my husband, Steve Case, that we finally arrived at what we believed was a big idea—to break down the barriers to access by bringing internet access to key underserved communities.

Not surprisingly, one of the Case Foundation’s first major initiatives was PowerUp, an alliance formed alongside many in the tech industry to create and equip 1000 after school technology centers in low income urban neighborhoods, rural communities and even Indian Reservations. The effort really targeted those we knew had been left out of the tech boom. The Case Foundation provided an initial grant of $10 million to establish PowerUp with half of the grant covering all staff and administrative costs for the program and the other $5 million in the form of direct grants to the community and school based organizations that were the key to the effort’s success. In the end, PowerUp—working not only with the Case Foundation but also with AOL, Cisco Systems, HP, the Waitt Family Foundation and partners like the Boys & Girls Clubs, YMCA, National Urban League and America’s Promise—equipped 957 technology centers covering all 50 states. The collaboration among these many different groups ensured that PowerUp was able to pull the right tools together to meet the unique needs of each community and that each partner—from the community organization to the tech giant—played to their strengths.

And the effort touched millions of lives. 75 percent of the students involved did not have a computer at home, 82 percent of the children who participated were youth-of-color. In the end, this collaborative helped break down the barriers of access and created safe learning spaces where many of the centers reported the children were not only succeeding, but were also bringing their parents in so they could also learn the computer skills they needed to compete and succeed.

This work, along with the work of many others, helped close the digital divide. Almost nine-in-ten American adults now use the internet, with near-saturation usage among those living in households earning $75,000 or more (98 percent), young adults ages 18-29 (99 percent), and those with college degrees (98 percent).

Our work at PowerUp showed we could make a real impact. And we are very proud of the extraordinary inroads that have been made since we kicked off this effort in 1999 as it shows the power of what citizens, institutions and companies can do when they make a big bet, use entrepreneurial approaches and collaborate together to achieve a goal.

While we made great progress, we never forget that the picture is not perfect as disparities remain. Today, internet usage in rural communities lags significantly behind suburban and urban communities (81 percent compared to 90 percent and 89 percent, respectively) and elderly and lower income citizens have less access to the internet than others—with only 64 percent of those over 65 and 79 percent of those earning less than $30,000 a year using the internet according research conducted in 2016 by the Pew Research Center.  And internet speeds in over 25 percent of the country lag so drastically that multiple students in these mostly rural communities cannot be online at the same time in some classrooms and people congregate outside libraries and stores that have high speed connections in scenes similar to what one sees in Cuba.

But today’s more significant divide can be seen in developing countries.  Just last year, the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), estimated that 53 percent of the world’s population—3.9 billion people—were not using the Internet, with almost 75 percent of the people of Africa not online. The ITU’s 2016 report goes on to state: “In Asia and the Pacific and the Arab States, the percentage of the population that is not using the Internet is very similar: 58.1 and 58.4 percent, respectively.” In our ever more interconnected world, these statistics show over half the world’s population is unable to take advantage of the information and opportunities we consider commonplace.

And, while this data is concerning, I am heartened by all the new players who are now applying many of the strategies we deployed in the United States to close the digital divide in the developing world. As I mentioned in my examination of the importance of the entrepreneurial spirit, the role the private sector is playing to increase accessibility in frontier markets is impressive.

A great example of this can be seen in the work that Vint Cerf described at SXSW earlier this month. Cerf played a key role in developing the early internet while at the Department of Defense, but he is now the chief internet evangelist at Google and co-founder of the People Centered Internet. He uses his leadership role to engage corporations and public entities to collaborate more effectively to bring connectivity to more people. For example, Cerf is pushing the World Bank to make Internet development a key part of their global infrastructure development efforts. This would not only increase investment in internet infrastructure in underserved regions, but also ensure that when a World Bank funded infrastructure or agriculture project is built, fiber optic cabling and internet accessibility are incorporated in the plan. When combined with his role at Google, where they are experimenting with innovative ways to deliver connectivity such as floating specialized balloons at 60,000 feet to deliver wireless Internet in areas where infrastructure development is less feasible, Cerf has turned from being an inventor of the World Wide Web to a convener of multiple companies, institutions and technologies to expand access to those who have been overlooked.

And there are examples all over the world of unlikely pairings coming together to bridge the digital divide, from non-profits, the government and companies like Cisco working together in Mexico, to the Indian government’s commitment to increase mobile usage nationwide to the work being done in multiple countries across the continent of Africa. Also just as exciting are new innovators that are using new models to overcome traditional barriers, like Jana, a mobile advertising company that provides free Internet access and apps in return for viewers watching advertisements. They now have over 1,000 apps and serve millions of users in Africa, Southeast Asia and Latin America.

We have come a long way in the last 20 years. And the lessons we learned in shrinking the digital divide in the United States can provide useful insights to those tackling these challenges in developing regions like Africa, Southeast Asia and Latin America. To move the needle, we will need a diverse group of actors to Get In The Arena and for industry, government, NGOs, Philanthropy and citizens to collaborate in ways that may initially make some uncomfortable. We have already seen signs that this is happening and will continue to call for even more players to #GetInTheArena and help play a role in addressing the final frontiers of the digital divide.

A Message From SXSW: The Undiscovered Next Big Thing

For many years, SXSW has been the place to go to see the new thing, the new product, the new trend. Market leading products like Twitter took off when they launched at the annual Austin conference and hit shows like Game of Thrones and stars like Jay Z have flocked to Austin to join in the fun and be associated with the newest trends.

Each year as I head to SXSW, I can’t help but wonder what the “next big thing” might be that will have the conference abuzz. This year, it wasn’t a product and it wasn’t a personality. Instead, it was a powerful idea: double down on the secret sauce that has made America great by expanding the pool of entrepreneurs who are building great companies and bringing new innovations. And while the idea itself may seem simple, the potential for transformative impact is extraordinary. And for any investor, this idea represents a potential new source of innovation, talent and access to untapped markets.

This was my message and the message of the Case Foundation as we went to SXSW, but we didn’t expect to find similar sentiments echoing from the SXSW stage throughout the conference, in hallway conversations and at cocktail parties. And it was the central message in my fireside chat with Reena Ninan of CBS News. Like any “hot” issue, there is usually some arresting set of facts that serves to ignite passions. In this case, the data is so stark that it provides a great entrée for the topic more broadly. Consider this data on the state of venture capital investing in the United States:

At the same time, women owned firms are growing 5 times faster than the national average. And a growing body of data reports that both women-run firms and firms with diverse teams, outperform their counterparts. First Round Capital, for instance, reported when it separated out performance in its portfolio of companies, it found that female-led firms outperformed their counterparts by 60%. Traditional investing is starting to realize that perhaps diversifying leadership is a business imperative to boost performance, with the point driven home most clearly from State Street Global Advisors, with trillions of dollars of assets under management, State Street placed a bronze statue of a young girl staring down Wall Street’s bull, and matched it with a message that they will use their proxy power if needed to ensure those firms in their portfolio diversify leadership. Sure, investing in more women and people of color is a social justice issue, but it is also a powerful economic opportunity for investors and for our nation.

This was the topic of a Ted Talk I gave a few months ago and it was great to see the SXSW attendees engage so eagerly on this subject—from world-class investors looking for paths to these untapped segments, to reporters hearing from more diverse voices and perspectives on the panels they led, to entrepreneurs from these segments asking how they can find the funders who get this and are willing to listen to good ideas, no matter the gender, color of skin or geography.

And I was not alone at SXSW in talking about these issues.

  • Beth Comstock, Vice Chair of GE, spoke eloquently about the efforts GE was taking to look for great ideas in more diverse places and how they were building more flexible workplace rules so all could succeed at GE.
  • Aspect Ventures founding partner Theresia Gouw, BBG Ventures President and managing partner Susan Lyne, and Joyus founder/CEO and angel investor Sukhinder Singh Cassidy joined Fortune senior editor Kristen Bellstrom on a panel on Monday to talk about the lack of diversity in VC funding for women and share suggestions about steps to take to change the status quo.
  • Dan Lyons, a tech journalist, former Silicon Valley screenwriter and author of the New York Times best-seller, “Disrupted: My Misadventure in the Startup Bubble” spoke in his SXSW panel about how “bro culture” and bias were holding back the industry and how we had to change the way they thought about hiring and promoting to ensure our most actively funded companies did not become too insular.
  • And Case Foundation chairman (and my husband), Steve Case, talked about the “Rise of the Rest” initiative that he runs separately from the Foundation, spotlighting and funding entrepreneurs across America, from places between the coasts that investors often ignore, but where the vast majority of our Fortune 500 companies in America were started.

And the programing and general conversation around SXSW supported this yearning for more leadership and support for a wider community of innovators. At the National Geographic venue on 6th street, National Geographic Explorers who came from non-traditional backgrounds were greeted by thousands of SXSW attendees. These included Albert Yu-Min Lin, who spoke about maintaining his passion for exploration after losing a limb, and how those in the field have the responsibility to tell the stories and make a difference. David Lang, who is designing and building underwater robots that are being used by citizens to explore oceans, rivers and lakes in ways that have never been accessible to non-academic and government officials; and Erika Bergman, who leads Google Hangouts as she pilots her submarine so all can get the chance to see the discoveries she is making thousands of feet underwater. All of these Explorers leveraged their unique backgrounds and passions to explore in ways that were outside the norm, bringing new perspectives to their work and opening doors to citizen science that had previously been closed.

Finally, this call for a wider pool of innovators was echoed by Vice President Biden as he made an impassioned plea at SXSW to support cancer research. He called on SXSW attendees to use their diverse skills and backgrounds to participate in cancer research, trials and to lend their minds and access to improve detection, prevention and treatment of cancer. In calling on more innovative thinking and engaging more diverse participants, Vice President Biden said “If we did nothing more than break down the silos preventing greater collaboration because of the way the system has been built up—not intentionally—over the last 50 years, we can extend the life of a lot of people with cancer.”

While SXSW is often known for opening our eyes to new products, this year’s SXSW was a venue where the message was clear: the next undiscovered big thing is people and the innovations that those not traditionally in the mainstream can bring to the table. Frankly, it was a breath of fresh air and we, at the Case Foundation, stand ready to keep the momentum started at SXSW going so we can see real change in the faces and ideas of the innovators who power the next generation of ideas.

What’s Trending—Using Your Business as a Force for Good

This blog post is co-bylined by Sheila Herrling, SVP, Social Innovation at the Case Foundation and Hardik Savalia, Senior Associate, Standards, at B Lab—a nonprofit organization dedicated to using the power of business to solve social and environmental problems.

It’s undeniable; entrepreneurship is experiencing a culture shift. Everyday we hear more stories about the power of business to be a force for good. It’s no longer enough for an enterprise to earn a good profit. There’s a growing expectation that it will contribute to society and to a sustainable future. In his State of the Union Address, even President Obama articulated the need for businesses to get serious about improving their social and environmental impact. He stressed how businesses can do right by their workers, customers and communities, in addition to generating great profits.

Heeding the Call–Corporations committed to positive impact

Urgent social needs—access to energy, education, healthcare, clean water—don’t show signs of decline, making it clear that philanthropic and government resources alone won’t be sufficient to address them all. Communities around the world will need committed entrepreneurs and investors to help drive the next wave of great social change and environmental conservation.

Luckily, more than 1,600 companies including Patagonia and Warby Parker have taken the lead in this growing movement, by completing an extensive certification process to become B Corps. Yet, we believe that if we’re going to make real progress on social and environmental issues, we have to empower all companies, no matter the industry, location or size, with the tools to benchmark, measure and compare their positive impact on workers, communities and the environment. After all, how can any business start to improve their impact, without first knowing where they stand?

Through our partnership, we at B Lab and the Case Foundation have created the B Impact Assessment to do just this, and it’s already being used by more than 40,000 businesses in 80 countries. We’ve also recently released an enhanced, more user-friendly version of the Assessment to make it easier for any team member—ranging from CEO, to intern, to manager—to start this exercise confidentially for their business.

Ready to see it for yourself? Check out the new assessment!

B Impact Assessment SH

The Assessment takes users on a step-by-step journey through a variety of best practices that have already been adopted by leading companies. For example, what percent of the company’s workers receive a living wage? The tool provides examples from companies like Ben & Jerry’s on how they’ve successfully implemented a living wage program for all of their employees.

We believe there’s no single way to build a better business and the initial baseline assessment is the first step on a pathway to improvement. After completing the first, quick assessment, which on average takes about 30 minutes, we encourage companies to come back and use the built-in tools to set goals, create an action plan and start implementing those best practices to realize better social outcomes.

B Impact Report

Join the Movement–Use your business to drive social change.

The B Corps community and the Case Foundation, together are proud that more than 1,600 companies have fully committed to do their part as certified B Crops—redefining success for business—and that another 40,000 companies have shown an interest in doing better. We’re excited to invite all businesses to join this movement, and measure your ability to build stronger communities, create environmentally sustainable operations or cultivate empowering employment opportunities. We invite you to use business as a force for good.

Join our upcoming webinar, Increasing Your Impact & Improving Your Score on the B Impact Assessment, to learn more about how business can measure and improve their impact.

5 Tips for Attracting (and Keeping) Millennial Employees

Millennials (those born between 1980-2000) are now the largest generation in the U.S. workforce and represent more than one in three workers according to Pew Research Center. And while this generation is growing in size, influence and power within the workplace, many employers, managers and HR departments still find it difficult to recruit and retain next gen talent.

For many leaders at organizations around the country, the challenge is in more effectively engaging Millennial employees and in understanding that their passions, interests and ideas are part of their identity—not just at home or with friends, but also at the office. Through the Millennial Impact Project, we have learned that one key way employers can tap into those interests is by integrating them into the organization’s cause- and service-related issues and projects, which resonate well with this generation. The 2014 Millennial Impact Report, which focused primarily on Millennials’ preferences in the workplace, identified the linkage between a company’s cause-related efforts and the interest of and desire by their Millennial employees to engage in those efforts as part of their employment.

In the newly released report by Achieve titled, “Cause, Influence & the Next Generation Workforce – Six-Month Research Update,” researchers built upon their 2014 and 2015 surveys of Millennials and engagement in the workplace and looked specifically at data on company size and cause work programs as a means to foster workplace engagement. Researchers wanted to know in this six-month update: how participation in company cause work programs are influenced by the existing and structuring of such programs; why companies should consider incorporating cause work initiatives earlier in an employee’s tenure; and the importance of companies preventing participation fatigue. (Note: Reports referenced above are sponsored by the Case Foundation.)

My big takeaway for organizations interested in deeper engagement is that offering service opportunities alone is not enough. Organizations that take their engagement a step further and tailor those opportunities with and for next gen employees are more successful at engaging Millennial employees over the long term.

Based on the findings of this research, here are five practical tips that any team manager or leader who wants to better engage their next gen employees can put into practice—today:

Tip #1: Companies should look to establish service initiatives and volunteer opportunities for Millennial employees—not only to be a socially responsible company, but also to foster a service oriented culture that can align with the employees’ passions and will ultimately help to retain Millennial employees and managers.

Tip #2: Executives and managers should make sure to promote the service-related opportunities and foster awareness about those programs available. This will help to ensure that Millennial employees have the opportunity to be fully engaged.

Tip #3: Consider offering incentives to those who participate in the service-related programs. Make sure that they are incentives that would be appreciated by the employees and managers alike, and are aligned with the service opportunity (e.g., time allowances for staff to volunteer with an organization of their choice).

Tip #4: Consult team members at all professional levels to ensure that the organization’s engagement strategies and offerings resonate with the next gen employees. Suggesting employees donate to an organization selected by the company—without input from the staff—could likely result in disinterested participation and lackluster support from next gen team members.

Tip #5: Engage with employees and involve them early on during their careers with your organization (e.g., orientation or within the first few months). When leaders did not engage employees early on, it often took one to two years for employees to become involved with cause related activities led by the employer.

And finally, as noted in the report: “To truly engage—and retain—their Millennial employees and managers in cause work initiatives for years to come, employers must take the time to learn about what causes employees value, how they want to make an impact, what influences them and what challenges them to continue participating.”

Do you have a tip for how to attract and retain Millennial talent through service related activities? Share it with us on Twitter using @CaseFoundation and #Millennials.

Jean Case Elected Chairman of the National Geographic Society

Today, we are excited to announce that our CEO, Jean Case, has been elected chairman of the Board of Trustees of the National Geographic Society. We could not be more proud of our CEO as she steps into this role with such an iconic organization.

Jean joins a successful line of stewards who have guided National Geographic to great heights over the course of its rich 128-year history. From her leadership at the Case Foundation to her pioneering efforts at AOL, Jean has worked tirelessly to create opportunities that enrich people’s lives and the planet on which we live. We marvel at her innate ability to be both a student of the world and history, all the while fearlessly looking forward and forging an intrepid path.

For more than a decade, the Case Foundation has been proud to partner with and support the important work of National Geographic. The Foundation has long believed in the power of leveraging innovative business models to tackle global challenges, transform communities and drive social change. As one of the world’s longest standing social enterprises, National Geographic has been a natural partner for the Case Foundation in our work to lift up fearless, bold and visionary changemakers.

And while Jean may be spending a bit more time at the National Geographic headquarters just steps away from our office here in Washington, she is more committed than ever to the mission of the Case Foundation and our investments in people and ideas that can change the world. As Jean steps into this new role today, we encourage you to read her thoughts on Medium about the incredible journey ahead.