It looks like a cross between a business call center and a student computer lab, a large well-lighted room with long tables full of young men and women tapping away at computer keyboards. Coffee cups and backpacks are scattered among banks of monitors.
The facility is one of several operated by Digital Divide Data, a 10-year-old organization that offers bright, ambitious — but poor — young people in Cambodia, Laos, and Kenya training, jobs, and support for higher education. They are engaged in digital content conversion — everything from tagging historic newspaper archives and formatting electronic books to managing online marketing campaigns and search engine optimization.
The goal is to give these 17- to 22-year-olds, many of whom grew up in rural poverty, a gateway to a career participating in the global economy. The Rockefeller Foundation describes companies like Digital Divide Data as part of an emerging sector called “impact sourcing,” employing people from the base of the financial pyramid in sustainable roles in business process outsourcing.
High school graduates, ages 17-22, are selected for a 6-month training program including computer skills. They then move into paid jobs within the organization where they will also receive support for about 50% of their college tuition. Most move on after three or four years to higher-paying jobs made possible by their education and experience.
“Every year we survey our graduates,” said Michael Chertok, chief development officer for Digital Divide Data, and a 1992 MBA alumnus of Stanford GSB. “On average they earn $281 a month — a decent livelihood for a young person in a developing country like Cambodia. And their incomes increase as they gain more experience. On average they save $60 per month.” World Bank statistics show that in 2010 the gross-per-capita income in U.S. dollars was $760 for Cambodia, $789 for Kenya, and $1,010 for Laos.
Those selected into the program spend six months in training, which not only includes computer skills but also workplace skills to help them make the transition from the family rice farm or a family supported by operating a street soup cart they may have grown up with. Chertok remembers the start of his professional learning curve in the United States — doing cost accounting data entry. “It was tedious work, but so important to learn basic job skills as a young adult — showing up on time, reporting to a manager, interacting with colleagues, things like that.” The trainees get a small stipend plus food and housing during training.
They then become employees working on projects for clients such as Stanford, Harvard, and Yale Libraries; Fold3, a company publishing military records online; and Ancestry, a web-platform for genealogy research. As employees they earn an hourly salary plus get part of their tuition paid as they pursue college degrees. “One test for enrolling them in the program is whether they would have the opportunity to go to college without DDD,” Chertok said.
The program also has an effect on the participants’ families. “The first thing they do is send money to their families, often to pay for school for their siblings.”
Digital Divide Data started with 20 people and now employs nearly 1,000. The hybrid social enterprise is registered as a not-for-profit in the United States, as a nongovernmental organization in Cambodia, and as a private business in Laos and Kenya. This year, the company expects to realize $3.2 million in earned income plus another $1.5 million in donations.
Earned income supports all the operating expenses of the business, including salaries. Donations fund the training program.
Chertok first heard about the concept for DDD in 2001 when he served as managing director of the Global Catalyst Foundation in Silicon Valley. The foundation gave a $25,000 seed grant to start the new organization. Two years later he volunteered in Cambodia to help replicate the model.
“We prepared our local staff to open a new office in Battambang, a secondary city in Cambodia, and also decided to expand to Vientiane, Laos.” After serving as a board member, Chertok joined DDD full time in January 2010 to help plan for growth. In April 2011, DDD opened another office in Nairobi, Kenya,” he said.
“The goal was to test if our model was replicable in a very different context.” The Kenyan participants differ in two ways. In Cambodia and Laos, students are tutored to strengthen their skills in English. In Nairobi, English is the predominant language so operators don’t need training before they start work. The other difference is that in Kenya, staff members are recruited from urban slum areas, while most of the staff in Cambodia and Laos come from rural areas.
Overall, English skills are strong enough that DDD held an essay competition recently among its staff in all three countries, and it has published an online book called The Confidence to Dream. The collection of short stories, written by DDD staff and graduates, describes their experience before, during, and even after they begin working. It's available as a free download http://www.digitaldividedata.org/anniversary/ as an ebook or PDF.
Today, says Chertok, Digital Divide Data is looking for ways to continue to strengthen its business and expand its existing centers — and ultimately to grow to more countries. “When we began, no one was doing this kind of work in the poorest countries. Now we’re training people interested in this model from places like Ghana and Pakistan.”
In December 2011 Digital Divide Data entertained some visitors from the United States. Their Phnom Penh operations were one of the stops for Stanford MBA students on a “service learning” trip to Cambodia. The students weren’t the first Stanford visitors. In 2010, Matt Miller, MBA ’11, helped DDD with a scenario-planning exercise and then spent a summer in Phnom Penh as part of the business school’s Global Management Immersion Experience program. His work to analyze facility options led to DDD moving into a new 7-story leased office space in Phnom Penh in January 2012.