When Estella Pyfrom left a career in teaching she wasn’t ready to retire — or “sit in a rocking chair,” as she likes to say. Instead, she cashed out her retirement savings, bought a bus, outfitted it with computers and began bringing technology to kids in underserved communities.
In 2008 Braylon O’Neill was born without tibia or fibula bones in his legs, but his strong spirit prevailed. Today, thanks to help from his prosthetics, O’Neill loves to run, play tee-ball, golf and build forts in the snow, just like a lot of other 6-year-olds.
Estella and Braylon are the stars of Microsoft’s two 60-second Super Bowl commercials, airing during Sunday’s game. Both ads, as well as extended versions of the stories they tell, are available online.
“We found two really heroic and inspiring individuals doing amazing things with our technology. Estella and Braylon’s stories are the kind we want to magnify,” says Kathleen Hall, corporate vice president, Microsoft Global Advertising and Media.
Microsoft’s 2014 Super Bowl ad featured stories about people’s lives being changed by technology, including a cameo from Braylon, and former NFL player Steve Gleason, who’s battling ALS and uses eye tracking on his Surface to communicate.
This year’s spots “continue to support and lay proof to the philosophy of empowering people to do amazing things. It’s not about what we build, but what people do with it,” says Hall.
The Super Bowl is “one of the greatest, most highly viewed forums in the U.S.,” she adds. “We had a fair amount of success last year making a statement and connecting with people. We wanted to take that opportunity again.”
Estella, now 78, grew up and taught in the south Florida region she now crisscrosses in her bus. She knows the families of many of the children she meets — she taught their parents and their grandparents.
Many of these kids don’t have computers at home, she explains, and low-income families don’t have transportation to get to where the computers are located. Estella, whose parents were migrant farm workers, worked in the fields herself as a child, picking baskets of beans up and down the East Coast.
She says she learned from her father that education is key to a better life. “And technology is one of the best tools we have out there,” Estella adds. “The earlier we get kids to learn technology the better off they will be.”
“When kids get on this bus, they’re able to learn about the world and connect with the world with Microsoft technology,” she says. “And I can empower them to make their lives better.”
Adults are also welcome on the Brilliant Bus, where everyone learns how to use a computer and navigate the Internet. The program is designed to improve educational and economic opportunity for all who participate.
That goal is in line with Microsoft’s YouthSpark initiative, which aims to close the opportunity divide between those who have technology and those who do not by providing education, employment and entrepreneurial opportunities to youth around the world. Estella originally created her mobile learning center outfitted with computers that ran Microsoft technology. A few years later, she used a grant from Microsoft YouthSpark to retrofit it. Now, nearly two years later, the company is helping her upgrade her bus once again to make it even more brilliant.
“Our work with Estella is a stellar example of how we’re aligning our YouthSpark initiatives with the community,” says Michelle Thomas, director of the Southeast region for Microsoft Citizenship and Public Affairs. “The fact that someone is a retired educator and takes her own money to start a mobile learning bus, illustrates her commitment to youth and to the community.”
“I am grateful for all of the contributions that they’ve given me to help grow this,” Estella says of Microsoft YouthSpark. “I feel so blessed because I have been fortunate enough to have people step up to the plate and say, ‘Let me help you do what you’re doing because I believe in your cause.’”
Estella aims to reach a million kids by the end of next year. “My vision is to have one bus in every city in the United States,” she says.
For Estella, the fact that the ad is airing during the Super Bowl seems like a dream.
“The realization of all of this will catch up with me a day in a day or two,” she says. “My husband and daughters are having fits. They’re saying, ‘This is huge!’ I’m saying, ‘Is this really happening?’ I’m really excited.”
Braylon’s family plans to surprise him with the Super Bowl ad, letting him watch it live when it airs during Sunday’s game. “He was over the moon last year,” remembers his mom, Kelli O’Neill. “He was a local celebrity.”
This year, Braylon, who lives with his parents in Rhode Island and wears a Tom Brady jersey to school on Fridays, will be rooting for the New England Patriots.
Kelli calls the technology that enables her son to walk, run and play a “game-changer.”
“We feel so blessed to be a part of this campaign and for our son’s story to be told, especially in relation to the power of technology,” she says. “I can’t imagine Braylon being born into a world without it. From the technology used in his legs, to the technology used to make sure they’re running at an optimal performance, it enables him to live life like any other kid.”
“As a parent, you’re always hoping the world is there for your child to achieve what they want,” Kelli adds. “Because of this technology, the world is there for Braylon. He is going to be able to do what he chooses to do — if he works hard.”
Both Super Bowl spots are produced, not by a traditional agency, but by a “SWAT team of talented people,” says Microsoft’s Hall, “some internal, some external, working to take our advertising to the next level.”
The ads are narrated by songwriter and performing artist Common, using words originally spoken by Microsoft Chief Executive Officer Satya Nadella. Hall explains that they are the first in a series of advertisements Microsoft plans to roll out that are focused on empowerment, as well as “amazing people and what they do with our products.”