Partnering to close the digital divide
- Posted on June 9, 2021
- Estimated reading time 5 minutes
When Asam Mahina received a refurbished laptop through the partnership between Avanade and InterConnection, he was able to do his schoolwork during the COVID lockdown. He also taught himself how to code and built an app that demonstrates his emerging talent.
Asam is just one of hundreds of students and families who have benefited from the partnership, which is committed to expanding access to technology for young people in need. In this conversation, Heba Ramzy, global citizenship senior director at Avanade, and Mickey Pierce, head of business development at InterConnection, discuss how the partnership is helping to address the digital divide.
Tell us how the partnership got started.
Mickey: The partnership idea came from a discussion I had with Bob Bruns [Avanade’s Chief Information and Security Officer]. He was on a panel that I was attending, and I spoke with him about taking a category of IT assets – laptops – and doing something with them when they neared their end of life. We’re a Microsoft registered refurbisher so we could clean and refurbish the laptops and make them available to underserved nonprofit organizations and families that didn’t have easy access to technology. There’s also an ancillary benefit in that the equipment is recycled so it doesn’t end up in landfills. In fact, InterConnection was the first U.S.-based nonprofit to earn an R2 [responsible recycling] certification.
Heba: The partnership is a way for us to help close the digital divide. We do that by donating our end-of-life computers, and our Avanade Tech Grant covers the cost for InterConnection to clean and refurbish them. InterConnection has an amazing process to assess different nonprofit organizations, provide them with the machines and then follow through to see the impact for the students and families.
When they assess nonprofits, they consider factors like a focus on young people, whether they’re STEM and learning based, an emphasis on digital literacy and where the beneficiaries wouldn’t otherwise have access to technology. Those factors align perfectly with our citizenship mission, which is to enable young people and their communities to achieve more through the power of our people and digital innovation.
How has the COVID-19 pandemic affected the program?
Mickey: When the pandemic hit and everything went online, it was devastating for students who didn’t have their own laptops or access to technology. We wanted to expand the program and get more machines to students and families. Avanade’s corporate donations allowed us to fill that pipeline even when employees were working from home.
Heba: COVID-19 highlighted the technology gap, especially for students learning remotely for the first time. When InterConnection could no longer hold big events to distribute equipment, we worked with them to shift from providing computers to nonprofits to providing computers directly to students in need through vetted nonprofit organizations. Recipients included children in foster care, students in extracurricular STEM programs and other organizations focused on the positive role technology can play in the lives of young people. For example, we provided machines to students at Cal Poly Pomona, where we sponsor a number of Avanade STEM Scholars.
The partnership started out as a way to get refurbished laptops into the hands of young people and families in need. But it’s evolved into more than that, hasn’t it?
Mickey: It started out as just a glimmer but has really grown into a deeper relationship that has extended to areas like mentoring. For example, Avanade employees created a class to teach high school students how to develop a LinkedIn profile.
Heba: The relationship expanded with our Avanade Tech Grant program, which is run in collaboration with InterConnection. So far, we’ve partnered with 14 nonprofits in and around the Seattle area and further afield, including Kent Youth and Family Services, Choose 180, Mona Bailey Academy, The Big-Brained Superheroes Club and The Museum of Flight, as well as Graham Windham in New York, Black Girls Do Engineer Corporation in Houston and STEM Compass Inc. in Atlanta. The work we’re doing with InterConnection really aligns with Avanade’s purpose to make a genuine human impact.
Have you been able to assess the impact of the partnership so far?
Heba: The impact from the grant program has been significant. During 2020 we served close to 4,000 young people; held nearly 600 classes, workshops, camps and tutoring sessions; and distributed more than 300 laptops. We’re thrilled with the success of the program. In addition to helping nonprofits accelerate their social impact, it’s exciting to see the impact we’re having on the next generation.
And being able to refurbish and recycle equipment at the end of its life is also in line with our new Avanade Environmental Responsibility policy, which stipulates that we reuse and recycle resources where opportunities exist to do so. Sustainability, for our employees, our clients and within our communities, is an important focus for us as a responsible business.
Mickey: We’ve really been able to increase our impact, but it’s not just about the numbers. We also wanted to understand how students were benefiting from the new technology during the pandemic. So together we sponsored the #GeekinOutChallenge, asking the grant recipients to submit a picture or video demonstrating how they put their new technology to use. We received amazing responses from students. Asam, who learned to code and built his own app, was the clear winner.
Where does the partnership go from here?
Mickey: The partnership model with Avanade is a huge success story, and we hope that it serves as an example for how other corporations can work with us in a similar way.
Heba: The model has worked very well for us and we’re replicating it with additional partners to expand to other parts of North America and the world. The ability to bring other nonprofit refurbishers onboard to scale will really increase our impact as we work to close the digital divide by enabling more young people to get and stay connected in today’s digital era.
After 20+ years working in high tech roles within corporations, most recently at Microsoft, Mickey is now using those skills in the nonprofit sector where she is head of business development at InterConnection. In this role, she works with private and public companies showing them the value of repurposing IT assets to bridge the digital divide.