What does “relevance” mean in the age of digital access?
The world is changing and future jobs require that we take action to democratize access to digital skills. Possibly now more than ever, The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the opportunity cost of the digital divide. It’s time we did something about it.
What my journey taught me
I want to start by telling you my story. When I was growing up in the early ’80s, there was, of course, no Internet. The information available was limited and restricted. At that time, there was a predetermined path to get an education, earn a living and become successful.
In school, I was praised for being a conforming, star student. I colored within the lines of the predetermined box and got a degree in mathematics—not because it was my passion, but because I thought it would make me look smart. I continued to follow the script I’d inherited without realizing that the world was changing very fast, and that the script I was following was becoming outdated and irrelevant.
By my mid-thirties, I felt like I was failing in almost every aspect of my life. While trying to figure out what I needed to do, I read and read until something clicked while reading Daniel Pink’s book, A Whole New Mind. Reading Pink led me to question whether I had just become a gear in the larger machine. Could I, as Pink suggests, live a life filled with passion, meaning and purpose?
I was still working in banking at the time, but I was looking for a venture larger than myself where I could help unlock the potential of other Africans like me. I found that I wasn’t alone and I connected with other women who were also on this path of self-discovery. It’s now been six years since I co-founded a network with these like-minded women where we examined what holds us back.
I began to acknowledge the chasm that divided me from where I was and where I wanted to be. For me, I needed to lean in, be willing to make mistakes, and adapt to technology.
I saw that technology was the missing link, and here, I want to introduce the problem of the digital divide.
The digital divide
We are now embracing technology like never before. We use it to connect with our loved ones and to work productively from our remote locations. I see how my teenage niece and nephew use technology. My niece, Dimuna, is creating different content and testing out new ways to monetize it. My nephew, Malambo, has discovered his passion for gaming and is now enrolled in a school to study gaming design. At 16, they are clear about what they want to do because they’ve had a consistent chance to test, refine, and share their ideas with the world.
Did I have that level of clarity about what I wanted to do when I was 16? Definitely not. But what we are seeing now is that technology can be an equalizer that, when leveraged, unlocks value.
The way in which the world is changing requires us to understand and prioritize the importance of digital access. Let’s face it: there is a stark difference between someone who has grown up with consistent access to technology and someone who has not. The digital divide is increasing the inequality gap and it’s presenting a barrier that keeps marginalized populations like women, girls, and underserved communities locked out of opportunities that give them a more dignified life. This can create a vicious cycle that extends to the next generation.
This is not a simple problem to fix. It requires the collective effort of government, development agencies, and the private sector to mobilize resources for a sustainable solution.
I asked myself, “What can I do to be part of the solution?”
The step I took was to change my career path and become a technologist. I joined an organization that focuses on connecting brilliance with opportunity and worked closely within the learning community to set individuals up for success with technical skills training.
I moved from feeling stuck to gaining more clarity. I started building a career centered around something bigger than myself.
In practical terms, let me tell you about the story of Bouteina, a primary school teacher in Tunisia. Bouteina was able to overcome the obstacles of a zero coding background and the absence of computers in her school to learn new skills and use those skills to teach her students how to program.
And then there’s Paul, a software engineer in Kenya. Not long ago, Paul was a cleaner, who used his spare time to learn something new.
Paul and Bouteina are among the 80,000 Africans who have gone through training in coding, problem-solving and communication skills, and are now better equipped to become productive contributors in today’s workforce.
Bouteina and Paul are role models, and anyone who hears their story is invited to reimagine new possibilities in their lives. From my perspective, digital skills and access is less about technology and more about cultivating hope and confidence. And I believe everyone is entitled to this.
What are some steps you can take to move forward in your journey?
What steps you take next depends on who you are. If you are like my niece or nephew who have been raised with access to technology, continue to lean in with all the curiosity in the world and explore everything to determine how you can become a productive member of society.
If you see yourself in my story, ask questions and learn from younger people. The next generation makes up 65% of our population and 100% of your future employees.
If you influence policy, you have a responsibility to make bold decisions that will give our children the access they need to become creators of their futures.
Together we must leverage technology to unlock value. As Jim Loree says, “there is only one way to continue to be relevant, and that’s continuing to innovate with purpose, openness, and ever-increasing speed.”