High-tech Training in the Developing World

LaosWhen Yon Meakchan isn?t converting publications into electronic form for customers like Stanford University, he pedals his bicycle 10 miles south from his office to the rural edges of this city of 2 million to help his family, pulling weeds in rice paddies, tending to banana trees, wading into a murky river to bathe oxen.

Yon, 22, now has a shot at a life beyond poverty thanks to Digital Divide Data, a 10-year-old nonprofit with roots in Silicon Valley that trains disadvantaged workers in the developing world for entry-level technology jobs. In the developing world ? Digital Divide has operations in Laos and Kenya as well as Cambodia ? a small amount of training can be the difference between grinding poverty and a comfortable life.

While the organization pulled in about $2.3 million in revenue last year, its core mission is to train and educate those like Yon, who works six-hour shifts while also attending a university.

During the five-year training program, he and other employees earn $85 a month, a good salary for part-time employment in Cambodia?s impoverished economy. They also get a college scholarship worth at least 65 percent of costs, health care insurance and extensive English lessons.

Graduates leave well on their way to a better life. They earn two to three times the $150 average monthly salary of Cambodian university graduates, the organization says.

The training gives them hope in a world where dreams are often crushed, said Mai Siriphongpanh, a Digital Divide Data board member.

Digital Divide Data was launched with donations from Silicon Valley venture capitalists and receives funding from the Palo Alto, Calif.-based Skoll Foundation and support from companies like San Jose networking giant Cisco Systems. Its client list includes universities around the globe and publishers who use the nonprofit to digitize books for the iPad, Kindle and Sony Reader. Google hired the nonprofit to manage its AdWords campaign in Africa.

?We?ve got kids living in the slums at night and managing AdWords during the day,? said CEO Jeremy Hockenstein, a former McKinsey consultant who co-founded the organization. ?If it can work there, it can work in other countries with slums and office towers.?

Governments in developing countries recognize the enormous potential of outsourcing companies to provide jobs, but they are usually for ?the more educated and affluent people,? said Susan Kagondu, a researcher in the Rockefeller Foundation?s Africa office, which supports Digital Divide Data.

A report in June funded by the Rockefeller Foundation estimated income of workers like Yon can soar as much as 200 percent when employed by outsourcing operations such as Digital Divide Data, which has about 750 trainees and full-time employees and another 400 alumni. The study said that by 2015, nearly 800,000 bottom-of-the-pyramid workers could be employed in regions like Southeast Asia and Africa, representing 11 percent of the $178 billion global market for so-called business process outsourcing.

While the report notes that global outsourcing trends are draining the United States of some jobs, Hockenstein said the work done by his employees ? tedious and time-consuming data entry and database creation and management ? would be prohibitively expensive to do in the United States.

?A university couldn?t afford to spend several million dollars to digitize a library, but it can afford to spend a few hundred thousand dollars? by hiring organizations like his, he said. His model is to spread some of the work to areas of the world beyond India, China and the Philippines, which he said represent about 80 percent of the outsourcing industry. ?If we can harness a huge flow of revenue that is already out there, we could get more people out of poverty.?

Many of Digital Divide Data?s services do not require a lot of analytical skills. Nonetheless, they are critical, said Cathy Aster, project manager at Stanford?s digital library systems and services department. ?They are helping to make a larger portion of our cultural heritage available in an online environment to a population from around the world,? she said.

G. Leonard Baker Jr., managing director of Sutter Hill Ventures in Palo Alto and a longtime financial supporter of Digital Divide Data, was taken by the vision of Harvard-educated Hockenstein and his model to create an organization less dependent on donations by generating its own income. ?It?s an incredibly cost-efficient use of charitable dollars,? Baker said. ?It?s truly amazing.?

Cynthia Hauck, a former Silicon Valley programmer who is the organization?s chief operating officer, keeps an eye on revenue and gross margins. But, she said, Digital Divide Data?s bottom line is ?to use the profits to reinvest in our social mission.? That includes encouraging some of her best trainees to look for work elsewhere in hopes of becoming business and government leaders.

At 5:45 a.m., the first shift shows up at Digital Divide Data, which is housed in a former apartment building in a warren of cramped offices crammed with Dell computers on multiple floors connected with narrow and steep stairs. Smiling employees bound into the office, happy to work in air-conditioned rooms and in what seems to them a professional setting.

Operators work on tasks such as creating e-books by converting text into an industry-standard format for e-readers, or categorizing information with HTML tags. To ensure the accuracy of the inputting information, often in languages the workers do not understand, two data entry operators are assigned to each project and, using software, flag discrepancies.

?It?s rare that two people will make the same mistake,? said Kunthy Kann, 33, general manager of the Phnom Penh office. He rose through the ranks after joining the program in 2001, when he faced a life of being a poor farmer. He now consults with clients, oversees the organization?s ranks of young tech workers and has traveled abroad.

?You can plan for your future,? he said of the opportunities the organization gave him. ?It means more than words can say.?


?The beginning: Founded in 2001 with a grant from the foundation created by the principals of Redwood City, Calif.-based venture capital firm Global Catalyst Partners; www.digitaldividedata.org.

?Its mission: To train disadvantaged workers in the developing world for entry-level tech jobs.

?Its clients: Provides outsourcing work, such as digitizing libraries, for institutions such as Stanford University.

Source: MCT Information Services