Listening & Learning in South Africa

IESC_iswc_2h14_3_womenAs part of Intel® She Will Connect, a team of five employees from Intel’s Mobile & Communications Group are spending two weeks in South Africa meeting with women aged 15-24 to learn about their digital aspirations.

Walden Kirsch, a member of Intel’s employee communications group and former television news reporter, is embedded with the team and has been providing updates through the new inspired by platform powered by CafeGive. Walden’s initial report from the field follows.

In Africa, Intel puts feet on the ground—to start getting millions of young women online

By Walden Kirsch

“Why don’t you just try Bluetooth?”

That was the simple question that just a few hours ago I overheard Thelma Madonsela ask Chirona Silverstein.

So? There’s backstory I’d like to share with you—at the end of a remarkable day I just experienced.

Chirona Silverstein is a whip-smart engineer based in Oregon whose expertise is materials engineering for smartphones and tablets. She and a few other Intel teammates (more on this in a moment) were struggling a bit with some technical issues as they tried to cobble together a quick WiFi network so they could shuttle some data between a laptop and some tablets, and onto a big monitor.

Thelma Madonsela does not work at Intel. Nor is she an engineer. Nor has she ever been to college. This morning at 9 a.m. she walked down a dusty unpaved road in the sprawling Thokoza township, about an hour’s drive south of Johannesburg South Africa, and into a squat single-story brown brick building called the Thokoza Computer Training Centre.

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Intel VP Margaret Burgraff with women at the Thokoza Computer Training Centre.

I watched as 24 other young women filed in to ground-floor meeting room and took a chair. The floor was tile, the small square windows were barred. This is where the lives of Thelma Madonsela and Chirona Silverstein crossed for the first time.

Chirona is one of five Intel employees—all with the Mobile and Communications Group—who are the first team under the auspices of the ongoing Intel Education Service Corps (IESC) to head into the field to begin tackling a new and audacious goal. This goal is distant from Intel’s core chip-making biz, but the company is dead-serious set on it. I’ve joined the team for a bit here in South Africa.

Brian Krzanich had been Intel CEO for barely four months last September when Intel announced the Intel® She Will Connect effort—a global push to close a staggering technology gender-gap that largely afflicts young women in developing nations. In these parts of the world, 200 million fewer women than men are able to readily get online.

Here in sub-Saharan Africa, men are twice as likely to be able to get online as women.

Intel’s goal—starting here in Africa—is to bring the broad economic, social, health, and community-building promise of the Internet to millions of young women who today may not use the Internet—or, even if they do have G-mail addresses, who barely benefit from the ‘net.

That was exactly the deal I saw here today here in Thokoza, the second-biggest black township in South Africa after Soweto. On the sign-in sheet where the young women carefully block-printed their names—more than 40% of the residents here spoke Zulu as their first language—every single woman listed an email address, generally either at Google or Yahoo.

“We want to learn about you, about what you want from technology, and about your wildest dreams for the future,” Margaret Burgraff told the young women once they’d settled into their purple padded metal chairs. Burgraff, who is an Intel VP, is volunteering on this service corps trip along with project manager Susan Kenney, engineers Aline Sadate and Julie Regairaz, and Silverstein.

What I learned quickly is that this particular IESC mission—unlike IESC service trips elsewhere in the world—is purely a listening tour. Kenney’s team did not fly in with a bundle of technology to hand out or install.

In the (new) Intel spirit of paying exceptionally close attention to what people want or need—versus what we just decide to sell—I heard again and again today Kenney, Burgraff, Sadate, Regairaz, and Silverstein all asking the young women to say more, explain more, tell me what you mean, what’s on your mind.

The trip’s aim is to gather high-quality data from young women in computer training centers across South Africa on what kinds of technology they use now—but much more importantly, where they feel their skills lie, what tech they would like, how they see their future, and what they truly dream of doing with their lives. The data will be used, in part, to create training materials.

Perhaps naively so, but my eyes were certainly opened. Despite the extremely modest economic conditions that surround them, almost all the young women volunteered, with zero coaching or coaxing, specific and often ambitious career goals.

In one of several small-group discussions, I heard Xoli Ngobese tell the other women that she wants to become a psychologist. “I want to be a very very successful businesswoman…I want to take care of people,” she said.

Another young woman said her eyes are set on becoming a filmmaker or perhaps a businesswoman who sells locally-made shoes. Presented with these stories and others, the Intel team asked the young women about—or discussed—the ways in which technology of various kinds, or access to the Internet, might help them further their ambitions.

There had been a local flyer announcing the Intel team’s visit to Thokoza—which lasted from 9 to almost 4—and many of the young women arrived dressed up, or in semi-business-style attire. When it was time to go, nearly all the young women wanted their photos taken—or took selfies in endless combos—with the 5 women on the Intel team. There were plenty of hugs, too.

Tomorrow, and for the rest of this week and next, I’ll be accompanying the Intel team as they visit other computer training centers in this part of South Africa.

Oh, and that Bluetooth suggestion from Thelma Madonsela? It was spot on, Chirona Silverstein told me. She admitted it hadn’t immediately occurred to her to use Bluetooth instead of WiFi to share a photo. This is the exactly the kind thing that can happen she said, smiling, when you listen to your customer.

#MCG @IntelInvolved @IESC

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Women exploring content on an Intel tablet as part of IESC workshop.

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