Technology and Social Impact: What I’ve Learned
Two speakers from our upcoming social impact panel talk about what excites them about tech-powered social change.
By Jessica Stillman (Editor, Women 2.0)
Technology is eating the world, swallowing just about every industry and impacting not only how products get bought and sold, but also how social problems get solved as well.
This interplay between social change and technology is a topic we’re discussing this week in Las Vegas with our panel ‘Social Impact Powered by Technology.’ Moderated by Google[x] executive Megan Smith, the panel will look at how technology innovation is offering those looking to make the world a better place new tools and opportunities to improve lives.
So what impact exactly is tech having? We called up a couple of panelists to ask them what aspect of tech-powered social change they’re most excited to talk about in Vegas, and what they see as the most fundamental shifts in this area worth tracking.
Our first phone call was to Shikoh Gitau in Nairobi, Kenya. She’s the founder of Ummeli, a platform to the help the lower skilled and less connected find and create employment opportunities. As a recipient of the Google Anita Borg award, she also worked on UX design for emerging markets at Google. We asked Shikoh what topics she’s most excited to discuss. She named three:
Talking from an African perspective for me is very important. Talking about what does it mean to build technology in Africa, for Africa. It is a matter of saying that you can actually do it. We can borrow a lot from the Valley, from across the world. But Africa has something to offer.
The second thing is, I know Africa is the most risky place on earth to invest, especially in technology. But we have a lot of smart kids — I meet them on a daily basis – who are doing phenomenal stuff. It might be risky, but [it’s] very cheap compared to San Francisco. In Kenya when I see people pitching, they’re asking for $50-100,000. That will last them almost a year. For one entrepreneur you can invest in in San Francisco, you can invest in three in Africa. Not only are you affecting the entrepreneur’s life, but you’re affecting change in a lot of people’s lives. And I want to assure people that there’s lots of money to be made. I know a startup that was set up three years ago that is making millions – yes, millions of dollars, not millions of shillings.
My third angle is I encourage women to try and solve the problems that tug at your heart. If you solve those problems that you see every day, you might end up solving a problem that is affecting millions of people and changing the world. For example, Ummeli is a project I did because I wanted to solve a problem for 30 women that has grown to affecting, in the next five or so years, almost 10 million lives. That’s how you start. For me, change in my community is getting people out of poverty. But if you’re brought up in the States, don’t apologize for being in the States. Don’t feel like you have to end world hunger. It’s OK, you can affect beauty. You can affect clothing. Just do something that you’re passionate about.
Next we talked to globe-trotting VC Jalak Jobanputra, a founding partner at FuturePerfect Ventures, about how she sees tech-powered social change unfolding and how that vision impacts her investment philosophy:
Over the last few years, we’ve seen how technology can create a lot of connectivity and then result in impact. Twitter and the Arab Spring is, I think, an example of that. I don’t know necessarily that it caused the Arab Spring, but it certainly communicated to the rest of the world what was happening and created some action. Prices have come down and more and more people around the world are going to be able to access the internet through smartphones and tablets. And you have a lot of innovation in the financial services space around mobile money in some parts of the world where people who were unbanked now have access to capital because of the mobile money infrastructure in place.
My thesis is around what I’m calling interruptive intelligence, which is looking for applications that are utilizing all the data that’s being created through all these devices. I always say it’s not just about data but intelligent data and humanizing this data, so the technology is truly seamless with our lives. [FuturePerfect] is not an impact fund per se, one of the things we’ve seen over the last two years is technology can have great impact, and all the areas I’m looking at investing in through this ‘interpretative intelligence,’ there is significant impact that is being created through these applications.
What topics around technology and social impact are you excited to discuss next week?
Jessica Stillman (@entrylevelrebel) is an editor at Women 2.0 and a freelance writer with interests in unconventional career paths, generational differences, and the future of work. She writes a daily column for Inc.com, contributes regularly to Forbes and has blogged for CBS MoneyWatch, GigaOM and Brazen Careerist, among others.