Microsoft’s Vision for Global Technology Access Is Looking “UP”

REDMOND, Wash., Aug. 24, 2005 – Computer literacy has become a vital workplace skill, and Microsoft believes that providing technology access and improved technology skills can lay the groundwork for creating social and economic opportunities that can change people’s lives, transform communities and, ultimately, lift up entire nations.

That’s the goal of Microsoft’s Unlimited Potential (UP) program – a global initiative designed to help narrow the technology skills gap, aid global workforce development and broaden digital inclusion. The program supports community technology centers that provide IT skills to young people and adults in underserved communities around the world. Microsoft has made a comprehensive investment through the creation of new curriculum, software donations and an annual competitive grants process.

Working with government agencies and nonprofit organizations, the UP program has funded 500 projects in 95 countries. Since FY03 Microsoft has given more than US$126 million in cash and software for UP programs.



Akhtar Badshah, Senior Director, Microsoft Community Affairs

PressPass spoke with Akhtar Badshah, senior director of Microsoft Community Affairs, who oversees the UP program, about how UP impacts people around the world.

PressPass: What brought you into this line of work, and what professional experiences shaped your commitment to technology access efforts?

Badshah: My kids will tell you I got into this line of work to help me get past my own digital divide. They always say they know so much more about computers than I do. I’m trained as an architect – and not a software architect. I spent a lot of my life working in community development, urban and physical development of inner city neighborhoods, revitalization projects, slum redevelopment, et cetera. So my focus has always been working with impoverished communities.

Over the years, rather than looking at ways to make physical improvements, my focus has changed to economic improvements. And with the explosion of the IT revolution and the digital revolution, the focus then became how information technology knowledge can lead people to economic empowerment. Before joining Microsoft I was the head of Digital Partners, whose goal is to offer an entrepreneurial approach to bringing IT to poor communities around the world.

PressPass: What was the genesis of the UP program?

Badshah: The Unlimited Potential program was developed through the experiences we had supporting nonprofit organizations over the last several years both internationally and in the United States. Two programs we launched in the U.S. five years ago had a significant impact on the development of the UP program.

One was the Club Tech investment that we initiated with Boys & Girls Clubs of America. There are now 3,000 Club Tech programs in the U.S. The fundamental nature of the Boys & Girls Club has changed from a “gym and swim” club to a “point and click” club, a place where kids are coming to get IT skill-building training. Now, kids from underserved communities are developing a whole different set of aspirations. And it is, indeed, helping them to realize their potential.

The same is true with NPower, a Seattle-based organization that now has 14 chapters around the country. NPower helps non-profit organizations to better employ technology, which helps them provide their services in a far more effective way. This is true no matter what type of nonprofit they are: human services, social services, migrant services or environmental services.

Many of these organizations have become far more effective just through technology training. Having looked at the exponential impact of information technology and this tremendous need for the information worker, we expanded our program globally. Our international subsidiary offices also provided a significant level of insight into the kinds of community investment programs that would meet the needs local government leaders were struggling with in a country or region.

We are in 95 countries doing 500 projects. We believe that there are varying needs everywhere. In Africa, for example, the specific needs are centered more around youth. In Korea, Sweden and some of the other Nordic countries it’s more about the needs of the elderly. In other places the concentration is on workforce development. In some cases, women’s empowerment is the focus. So the need is there. We don’t see the need reducing in most parts of the world.

Since FY03 we have given more than $126 million in cash and software for Unlimited Potential programs. Between FY03 and FY05 Microsoft’s worldwide donations – as part of the company’s overall Community Affairs programs – total approximately $950 million, and that also includes our employee matching funds as well as software donations.

PressPass: Microsoft’s UP program is part of a larger corporate vision called “digital inclusion.” Can you describe that vision, and identify how UP fits into it?

Badshah: The 21st century has seen a profound shift in the way people work. The knowledge economy has become key, and individuals who choose to participate in the knowledge-based economy will require IT skills. Digital inclusion reflects Microsoft’s commitment to address the issues that governments and communities face in working to help people participate in this new economy. The company has been developing programs and products to address the specific needs of the emerging markets and developing world. An important part of digital inclusion is digital literacy. We are supporting efforts through Unlimited Potential that help ensure that people have the access and skills needed to succeed in the knowledge economy.

PressPass: Can you provide an example of a recent success story of the UP program, and describe why it is significant?

Badshah: Some of the programs we are supporting are serving individuals who are coming into the United States as immigrants or refugees from impoverished countries. In Seattle, New York and the Bay Area we are supporting various community technology centers where those individuals are developing IT skills that help them get better jobs.

In Washington, D.C., there’s a terrific example of a government housing project that Microsoft and other partners helped support. Technology was installed into every housing unit, with every resident having access to computers. Many young people living there are getting trained.

Getting kids off the streets and into an environment that they enjoy has resulted in a reduction in graffiti and vandalism, and has improved the overall environment. Many of the residents believe that this has led to decreased drug trafficking because technology is focusing people’s lives in a positive way – to create music or to develop other skills. This is just a very small example of how technology is making an impact.

PressPass: The UP program has a stated goal of bringing technology and technology skills to one quarter of a billion people by 2010. What are a few current examples of your efforts to reach that 2010 goal?

Badshah: We’re trying to reach our goal through these large-scale partnerships:

In Washington State, we’re partnering with 12 of the state’s Workforce Investment Boards to integrate the UP curriculum in the public workforce system.

In India, we’re working with Mission 2007 a national program that aims to put a computer into every one of India’s 600,000 villages.

Working in the Philippines, we’re partnering with their Technical Education and Skills Development Authority, which is using our material as their national worker development curriculum.

We’re also partnering with the IT Ministry in Egypt. They’re using our curriculum to help reach five million kids.

PressPass: What are some examples of the type of skills recipients receive through the Community Learning Curriculum?

Badshah: It’s a set of eight courses on eight CDs, and its lessons range from computer fundamentals to word processing skills all the way to Internet, database and Web design. It is now localized in nine different languages, and will soon be in 20 languages. The curriculum is very broad and rich, but it’s also very flexible and it allows people to adapt it for their own use. Our intent was to have a curriculum that could be used by a first-time computer user or by someone who wanted to advance their technology skills.

PressPass: How is UP helping people in developing countries?

Badshah: We could look at it from the perspective of the old analogy: it’s one thing to give people a fish, but another thing to teach them how to fish for themselves. If you help people develop markets and economies using technology, then those to whom you’ve taught technology also know how to market their product, and can therefore create a whole new economy that can enrich the quality of many lives.

Access to knowledge is also empowering people. It’s allowing kids to learn in a far more effective way and become more global citizens; women are getting much more empowered through information that they have at their fingertips; the elderly are able to become more socially included, by using technology to communicate with grandkids or others who may be living continents away.

These are just some of the ways in which our UP program can have a direct influence on helping to change the social fabric of a nation. Technology can have positive impact. It is not a panacea, and there are a lot of other things that need to be put in place. But it can definitely play a positive role in most growing economies.

Also, we need partners to invest with us, whether they’re a nonprofit, another corporation, a development agency or a government entity. We can’t and don’t do our work alone. In some of the least developed countries, the issues are complicated and pressing. Often there is a lack of basic infrastructure that inhibits the ability to help advance those communities. We rely on international agencies that are in the business of community development to tell us what the needs are and how we can assist. We work with local organizations, and in some of the least developed communities, we work with the major development entities such as the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) and the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). We can then rely on their infrastructure and the know-how of their people on the ground. Effective community development is based on partnership.

PressPass: What are some examples of the type of skills recipients receive through the Unlimited Potential Community Learning Curriculum?

Badshah: It’s a set of eight courses on eight CDs, and its lessons range from computer fundamentals to word processing skills all the way to Internet, database and Web design. It is now localized in nine different languages, and will soon be in 20 languages. The curriculum is very broad and rich, but it’s also very flexible and it allows people to adapt it for their own use. Our intent was to have a curriculum that could be used by a first-time computer user or by someone who wanted to advance their technology skills.

PressPass: How does a non-profit organization determine if it is eligible for curriculum, software or cash grants from the UP program, and what does the application process entail?

Badshah: Eligibility and application information for software donations for U.S.-based nonprofits can be found online through our partner, TechSoup. In the U.S., to find out how and when proposals are accepted in each region, or to apply for a grant from Microsoft, contact the Microsoft U.S. field office. Outside the U.S., Microsoft accepts funding proposals from eligible organizations for UP grants through its subsidiary offices located around the world.

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