Tech as a Tool for Change: Njideka Harry and the Youth for Technology Foundation

In the second semester of my junior year (Spring 2013), I had the opportunity to compete in Northern Illinois University's second ever Social Venture Competition Course.  16 students from disciplines across campus were selected to form four teams for the competition. Each of the teams was tasked with creating a business model for a financially sustainable social venture, write a business plan for that social venture, and then present that business plan at the finals to panel of social entrepreneur judges.

My teammates and I developed a business plan for a social enterprise we called Vitalert - a mobile and web based platform that would allow users to submit reports about dangerous situations, aggregate that data, and then send alerts to users in identified risk zones. Our proposed launch market for Vitalert was Nigeria because of the incredible violence the country's citizens have been subject to in recent years. My team was fortunate, and we won $10,000 to donate to a charity of our choice (the donation was funded by Dennis and Stacey Barsema).

My team and I recently chose the Youth for Technology Foundation (YTF) as the recipient of the $10,000 donation. YTF works with disadvantaged youth in developing countries to provide technology training and help young people launch entrepreneurial endeavors in an effort to stimulate economies in developing countries. Following is an executive summary and three significant takeaways from an article I read recently written by YTF's founder and and Chief Executive, Njideka Harry, titled "Driven by Passion."

Executive Summary

Njideka Harry opens by explaining that she started YTF in 2001 while working on the Corporate Strategy team for Microsoft because she "felt a constant thirst to give back and make a difference in the world, no matter how small." She ultimately decided to make technology the focus of her way to give back because she grew up in the developing world and saw first-hand how large the gap is in technological education and development between the developed world and the developing world.  She goes on to explain that she decided that she wanted to work with young people, aged 10-24 (a target market 1.7 billion people strong, 86% of which live in developing countries), because they have the largest potential to use technology training to stimulate their local economies. It's a novel concept, considering that this age group is considered part of "the problem" by many in developing countries such as Nigeria (the country YTF launched in).  She then expresses that social entrepreneurs, such as herself, are a unique, emerging group that's driven by passion for positive change, not financial gains. Finally, she expresses her appreciation for being named Social Entrepreneur of the Year by the Schwab Foundation, but deflects the credit for YTF's success in creating a positive impact  to those who have been part of the YTF team for the last 12 years. Humbly, she also expresses gratitude towards the young people who have graduated from YTF's programs and leveraged what they've learned to make tangible differences in their local communities.

My Three Takeaways

1. Everyone can make a positive impact. Njideka Harry is an extreme example of someone who has dedicated her life to creating positive change in the lives of others, but all of us can play an active role in helping others. I feel that especially those of us who were fortunate enough to be born in the developed world, have a duty in some way or another to help other people in a way that we're passionate about. People born in the developed world are fortunate to have access to a large number of opportunity sets that people in the developing world just simply never have access to (there are also large opportunity gaps between different groups of people born in the developed world).  You don't have to quit an extremely lucrative career at Microsoft to go out and launch your own social venture like Njideka Harry, but anyone reading this can volunteer their time or make small financial contributions to a cause that you are passionate about. I challenge you to just get started in whatever small way that you can. I think you'll be surprised at how rewarding of an experience you'll find helping others to be.

2. Technology will be a key economic driver for the developing world.  I know I at least, take for granted how ingrained technology has become in my life. I can't imagine going a day without my Iphone, access to email, or access to the internet. So much of what I do is reliant on being technology literate and having access to technology, it's not even funny.  It's crazy to think that so many people in the world not only go without access to the technology I'm reliant on, but also to quality education, health care, clean water, and electricity.  YTF's work and the work of many other social enterprises clearly illustrate that technology can be used as a tool to address problems in the developing world at a large scale. A large part of the appeal of donating to YTF was the possibility that investing in technology education for young people could lead to long term breakthroughs that could be massive.  It will be exciting to see how technology flips the script in the developing world in the years to come.

3. Njideka Harry is an awesome inspiration.  She overcame tremendous odds to make her way to the US from the developing world and earn degrees from Amherst, Northwestern's Kellogg School of Management, and Stanford.  I know quite a few people who would go to extreme measures to have the career that Njideka had at Microsoft. I don't know too many who would walk away solely because they wanted to make a difference in other people's lives.  Just reading about her makes me want to be a better person.  What she has done with YTF is incredible. Her program modelling is brilliant; to partake in YTF's programs, young people can pay a small fee, work on a community service project 3-5 hours per week, or be sponsored by a local business with an agreement that the program participant will intern with said local business upon completion of a given program. None of YTF's programming is "free." Participants have to demonstrate a commitment to the programming and really earn it. I think that's a really integral part of what YTF does, and its a brilliant way to go about creating real commitment from the young people it works with.   In the one in a billion chance that Njideka ever reads this, I just want to say thank you for doing what you do and for being a true inspiration. The world be a much greater place if each of us tackled life with a fraction of the commitment to making a difference that you do.

This post was written by NIU CAUSE President Zach Fiegel. You can reach Zach at zfiegel9 at gmail!