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Major tech upgrades help WE empower more young people to change the world

More than 20 years ago, inspired by a news story on child slavery, WE began with Craig Kielburger and his dream to help break the cycle of poverty overseas. Since then, WE has grown into a global movement that brings young people together to change the world.

WE is a unique family of organizations helping to create change around the world by providing young people and families with tools and resources to make an impact through everyday actions. WE is made up of WE Charity, empowering domestic and international change; ME to WE, a social enterprise that creates socially conscious products and experiences to help support the charity; and WE Day, an event that fills stadiums around the world for the greatest celebration of social good.

“WE makes doing good doable,” said Craig Kielburger, who co-founded the Toronto-based WE organization more than 20 years ago as a tween along with his older brother Marc. “Anyone can drive change every day. Everyone can make an impact.”

In the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom, WE Schools provides free, comprehensive service learning programs to more than 12,300 schools, empowering young change-makers to make a positive impact in their local communities and the world.

Through WE Schools, young people earn their ticket to WE Day events – which take place in cities all over the world. Headlined by celebrities, activists and thought leaders like Russell Wilson, Malala Yousafzai, Selena Gomez and Alicia Keys, the energetic annual events celebrate young people and their incredible local and global actions to make the world a better place. Since its founding, the WE Charity has reached more than 3.4 million young people.

WE Day Seattle. (Photo courtesy of WE)

Microsoft Philanthropies played a key role in bringing WE Day events to the U.S. for the first time in 2013, sponsoring the events in California and Seattle. Microsoft North America added their support in 2016, helping expand the reach of WE Day to include Chicago and New York.

Microsoft’s sponsorship also helps bring the WE Schools program to students across the U.S. Through WE Schools curriculum on Microsoft OneNote, and connected service-learning campaigns, young people develop the life skills for success and work to make a positive impact on the world.

That’s exactly what Microsoft’s partnership with WE is all about: identifying where the organization wants to go and developing a plan to use technology to scale their work, empowering even more young people to change the world.

This summer is a big step in that direction. Selena Gomez, Alicia Keys, Demi Lovato and many others will join Craig and Marc Kielburger on Aug. 4 in the third national WE Day Special in the U.S. Through the broadcast, WE hopes to encourage millions of young people and their families to come together and make a deeper impact locally and globally. Following the WE Day Special, the WE School program will prepare students for their arrival at school this fall with a powerful curriculum to empower them with new tools to make a difference.

WE’s appeal lies in its simple but powerful ability to bring people together and give them the tools to change the world.

Community member posing for a picture in Kenya. (Photo courtesy of WE)

Erin Barton joined WE as a youth member in Toronto in 1999, when the organization was still a homegrown collective of young people who wanted to make a difference in the world.

In those days, staff members had to ask for phone books from the U.S. so they could contact schools and educators, since many of those organizations weren’t online. They used their own personal email accounts, and over the years they added a business server and Wi-Fi in the field for their laptops so they didn’t need to be tethered to desktops to work.

Erin Barton pauses to hold a child while overseeing project development in Haiti. (Photo courtesy of WE)

“It was an awesome patchwork of a whole bunch of custom built systems,” Barton said. “We hacked technology to make it work for us.”

But they also knew things had to change as they grew.

“In taking inventory a few years ago, we took a really hard look at what our limitations were to grow. We realized that where there are risks, there are opportunities,” Barton said. “A big aspect emerged for us, that we needed to take a very big leap and clean up antiquated systems. We need to streamline, get better at using data and get much more sophisticated with our technology.”

WE’s ongoing steps to modernize include using some of today’s new and powerful solutions like cloud services such as Microsoft Azure and Office 365 (donated by Microsoft Philanthropies through its free and discounted offerings for nonprofits), Microsoft Dynamics and Power BI. Now WE’s chief development officer of partnerships, Barton can look forward to the organization’s next chapter.

“We are going to continue to transform,” Barton said. “We’re doing a full needs assessment with Microsoft Consulting, and we’re going to put it all on the table. They’ll help untangle the web to make great sense of things and look at how we can better employ technology, what are better solutions for us overall.”

WE co-founder Craig Kielburger participating in the Microsoft Design Experience through Skype for Business. (Photo by Devon Young)

To help them along their journey, Microsoft gathered about 12 members of WE’s senior leadership and other employees at both Microsoft and WE to participate in a two-day user-focused design experience in Redmond, Washington headed by three Microsoft facilitators. This process is one way Microsoft helps businesses and organizations rethink their strategies to achieve their digital dreams.

“We try to focus on a specific problem and ask them to spend some time as a leadership team to identify key frictions as the first piece of homework,” said Steve Sweetman, who works in the Microsoft Digital, Services and Success CTO Office. “Then we asked them to communicate that with us, so we could do pre-research.”

Sweetman and his co-facilitators, Phillip Joe and Dan Mehaffey, spent time in Canada, the U.S. and the U.K. talking to educators and students who work with WE to identify their needs and create the customer personas they’d work with in the sessions.

“We get to lead transformational conversations and take customers on a journey with us,” Sweetman said. “Our whole goal is to put the customer at the center of the conversation and come out of that journey with a story board and turn it into an agile approach.”

Kelvin Kang, chief technology officer at WE, at the Microsoft Design Experience. (Photo by Devon Young)

WE came into the experience focused on their newer programs in social enterprise, which include ways to fund social change, such as helping people in developing nations create marketplaces. When people buy products on ME to WE’s online shop, they can sign up to track the impact of their purchase on different projects through the Track Your Impact program. Rafikis, handmade artisan bracelets, are some of their most popular products. Those who buy them help provide an alternative income source to women around the world.

An example of the merchandise available through ME to WE. (Photo courtesy of WE)

“You can shop with your wallet and make a positive impact,” Craig Kielburger said, via Skype video from Toronto, to his teammates attending the session in Redmond. “Technology has enabled transformation. It can track packages, lunch deliveries, so why can’t I track charitable donations? It’s a transparent way to track impact and could create a large stable pool for funding the charity’s work.”

WE needed help in making its website’s sign-up process more seamless and engaging for their users. They’d use the sessions to identify areas, technologies and innovative approaches to help build a consumer database. They would find new ways to engage people more deeply, and build buzz and interest in interacting with the Track Your Impact program.

WE at the Microsoft Design Experience. (Photo by Devon Young)

As for his expectations for the design experience, Kielburger said, “We see this as potentially game changing, so we’re dreaming very big. We also want to understand what is not possible, to help us make tough choices. We want to understand the process of digital transformation we’re going through and go as deep as possible to create a roadmap.”

Over two days, the group took over a room in the Windows design team building, specifically chosen for this experience, covering whiteboards, post-its and blank sheets of paper taped throughout the room like wallpaper with their brainstorming. Ideas flew fast and furious as they broke into small groups, created storyboards of customers’ experiences, gave each other feedback and generated promising developments that would evolve into a prototype after they returned to their offices.

“We’ve taken big steps to ensure that as we continue to grow, we continue to think and act like a smart business, offering a different value proposition than a traditional nonprofit thinking about a beneficiary,” Barton said during the experience. “We need sustainable revenue to support our international development programs.”

The group focused on consumers who identify as socially conscious, who can make an impact through their daily routines, without going out of their way.

WE’s Hugh Nettar. (Photo courtesy of WE)

Hugh Nettar, associate director of digital product management at WE, participated in the sessions and a few weeks later, reflected on the experience.

“The exercise at Microsoft was important so that we could identify the actual customer we’re designing for, as well as diving into the whole idea of prototyping,” he says. “We asked, is this true, what’s the data to back it up, is this a viable solution to bring to market? Always placing the customer first is something we’re learning.”

He says that when he arrived at WE last year, he found “off the shelf solutions,” by a youth-led organization. Since then, he’s developed an understanding of how to automate services, and why taking WE’s message to a mass scale audience is where they need to go in the future.

“We are in an exciting time in the organization’s history, a little organization growing up,” Nettar said. “It has to do things differently if it wants to see what impacts can be made over the next 21 years.”

Barton emerged from the design experience with more than a few takeaways, too, including the notion of going to market to fail-test ideas.

“That’s a big thing to ask of us,” Barton said. “But I think that is where we can see the greatest innovations happen, when we’re actually developing solutions that are on the same path with the consumer.”

She called the two days in Redmond a “bonding experience” for a leadership team that isn’t often able to be in the same room at the same time. And it made them more focused than ever to move forward with their digital transformation.

“This is no longer a moment in time where we can talk about building the plane as we’re flying it,” Barton said. “We are getting ahead of the curve and have a runway for this plane to land on.”

Lead image: Microsoft’s Judson Althoff joins youth entrepreneur Maia Dua onstage at WE Day Seattle. (Photo courtesy of WE)