/// How social enterprise can succeed in the world of technology
Technology is a great leveller as in this fast-moving world yesterday’s knowledge is often less valuable than what you know today. So why hasn’t it created a level playing field? The reality is that everyone, regardless of their background, can turn their ideas into reality on the web if the enthusiasm to learn is there – but we need to support them.
Balancing social and commercial objectives is not only possible but absolutely vital for the future of tech.
Creating a level playing field in tech means moving away from portraying the industry as overtly academic and specialised, open only to people with computer science degrees.
The fact is that millions of young people are already modifying games, mixing music on YouTube and using Instagram for all sorts of creative projects. Together with the computer science degree student, these are the people who are the future of tech. They have the skills for the new generation of ‘creative technologists’ who have the ability to make digital products that people like them to want to use and buy.
There has been a massive buzz around 19-year-old Nick D’Aloisio selling an app made on his home computer for a whopping £19m. Of course not everyone who decides to make an app is going end up being a millionaire. But the lesson here is that the democratisation of the web has created a wonderfully chaotic and unpredictable marketplace. It is a world where business cannot rely on being an established player, and where anyone can make a mark from the comfort of their own home with a PC, an idea and a basic knowledge of how to remix what already exists on the web to create something new and exciting.
So, tech is a great leveller but to create a level playing field we need to ensure that everyone has access to cutting-edge and practical tech skills that are learnt through doing, not from computer science textbooks. This is where I believe there is a huge role for social enterprise. How do you give everyone, regardless of their background, access to digital skills training while at the same time keeping up with daily advances in a fast-moving industry?
The answer is a social enterprise with attitude, which is what I have created in Freeformers.
On one side, Freeformers has a commercial business that teaches in-demand, high-impact tech courses to executives in global corporations (who have the pick of the field so being ahead of the game is essential). And for every person a corporate pays us to train, we deliver the training to a young person who otherwise would not get the opportunity. It’s a straightforward one-for-one model.
It is important to have the commercial business for three reasons: it is a more sustainable model that does not require or rely on fundraising and grants; it creates checks and balances that the skills we are teaching young people are highly valued and means there is a better chance of our graduates being employable; and bringing the young people we are helping to develop together with corporates starts to remove biases.
The last point is really important. The trainers for the corporate workshops are the young people we have met through the one-for-one programme. As part of their digital skills training, they also learn how to run workshops and teach senior business people, which helps to develop ‘soft’ employment skills that give them the edge.
The corporates see their trainers as talented individuals who have their finger on the pulse of the latest tech development. The reality is that most of the young people who train them would never get through the front door based on academic qualifications so this process alone starts to remove academic bias and opens the door to internships and jobs.
The social and commercial worlds of Freeformers are interconnected and I believe this is crucial to deliver real social change.
In the case of Freeformers, young people gain access to free skills training – the ability to develop an interest into a skill that has a value.
Corporates are buying skills training and having their eyes opened to bright young talent that they would otherwise have no access to, at a time where there is a chronic digital skills shortage. The model provides a neat way to connect their own skills development with meaningful CSR initiatives.
It’s win-win. That is the secret of social enterprise at a time when there is a need to bridge the divide between a growing digital skills gap and a widening pool of undiscovered creative talent.
The Guardian – Gi Fernando, Founder and Chairman at Freeformers