Njideka Harry ’12 MBA is a vice president and fellow at Ashoka, a nonprofit that supports social entrepreneurs worldwide, and the founder of the nonprofit Youth for Technology Foundation, which works to narrow the digital divide between disadvantaged youth and women living in developing countries and in the developed world. Below is an edited excerpt of Harry’s recent conversation with Dean Francesca Cornelli, in which they discussed her pivot from the tech world to focusing on social innovation.
Cornelli: How has the pandemic affected the digital divide in schools in developing countries?
Harry: COVID has exacerbated the digital gender gap not just in developing countries but also in the U.S., in communities where children’s parents had to drive them to parking lots at McDonald’s to access Wi-Fi to download their homework. It took a little over a decade and a half for a pandemic to hit for us to understand the real impact of the digital divide.
That gap will continue to increase unless more efforts are taken not just by one organization but by multiple organizations and hundreds of social innovators around the world who believe that access to technology should be a fundamental human right. Everyone should have access to that technology because access affords opportunity, which affords good livelihoods and a better world for all.
Cornelli: You work in developing countries, but what insights do you think we could apply in the United States?
Harry: It’s a global issue that requires a global response. Yes, the pandemic left millions of children in developing countries out of school. For the whole year of 2020, schools were closed in Kenya, so students had to repeat a grade. When we look at how the pandemic exacerbated this inequality, the data has shown that countries have missed out on about as much as $1 trillion in GDP due to women’s exclusion in the digital world. The loss in GDP was somewhere around $126 billion in 2020 due to the pandemic and people not being able to work or be online or produce services and products as usual.
We’ve also seen pivoting in the classroom, where education has been turned on its head. The teachers are no longer the sage on the stage. There’s more directed learning from the students themselves. Well, do they know how to self-direct? Do they know how to help lead their own learning? Technology hasn’t replaced the teacher, but technology has certainly influenced the classroom. Basic digital skills are more important now than ever because we have seen that access is critical.
Cornelli: How do you advise MBA students at Kellogg on creating a positive impact in their personal and professional lives?
Harry: All of us, irrespective of who we are, can make change. There are massive issues the world is faced with today — gender equality, climate change, food security — that desperately need our attention. There’s an opportunity to step into one’s own bigness, and it requires a mindset shift. It requires humble audacity. Having earned our MBAs from Kellogg, we’re smart people, but I think there’s something to be said for saying, “I don’t know how. I don’t know the answer. Can you help me?” I’ve learned to do that. Success is not linear and failure is not fatal. The valleys of our lives prepare us to take the mountain and to reach the top.