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A Social Enterprise Helps Young People Realize Their Dreams

"Everything I have now is because of working at DDD. Before DDD, I thought the world was not fair to poor people like me. But when I started to work at DDD, everything began to change in my education and my family life."

Masy Sou, DDD beneficiary

Fredrick Nzioka Soo, Masy Sou, and Thip Nouansyvong grew up in different countries, but faced the same challenges: poverty and lack of opportunity. Digital Divide Data (DDD) fueled their future with training, scholarships, and data management jobs.

Millions of young people struggle to survive

More than 341 million unemployed youth live in developing countries, barely subsisting on less than US$2 a day, and with hope of finding meaningful work about as fleeting as hope for three meals a day.

Fredrick Nzioka Soo’s father died when he was young, and after two years of hard labor in his Kenyan village, he decided it was best to relocate to Mathare, a slum in Nairobi with about half a million residents.

“It was atrocious,” Fredrick recalls. “I lived in a small sheet-iron makeshift. Even in daytime, it was the equivalent of a cave in terms of darkness. I knew all was well when the day ended without chaos.”

Masy Sou’s father died before she was born, leaving mother and daughter to fend for themselves in Cambodia. When her mother became ill and had to be hospitalized, Masy needed to find a way to feed herself, and bought fruit to sell at the market.

“While sitting there, I knew I did not want to be a seller,” she says. Her mother had told her, “I don’t have any assets to give you. So, knowledge is very important. When you have knowledge, everything is yours.”

Thip Nouansyvong was born into a poor Laotian family. “I didn’t see any opportunity to step foot into a university.” But, she says, “I realized I would make a mistake if I didn’t motivate myself.”  

A business model that changes lives

All three found their way to DDD, a social enterprise founded in 2001 to create better opportunities for low-income youth—including young women and people with disabilities—by providing them with the work experience, English, and computer skills that could lead to successful, sustainable careers.

DDD recruits young people living in poverty and trains them to deliver services like data entry, digitization, document conversion, and web research to clients worldwide, via centers in Kenya, Cambodia, and Laos.

Potential recruits undergo skills testing, home visits (to confirm their families' level of poverty), motivational interviews, skills training, typing practice, counseling—and eventually placement.

Youth selected to participate in the work/study program serve as data management operators and work 6-hour shifts. The income they receive is higher than most opportunities for youth.

Since 2010, Cisco has provided a combination of cash grants, donations of Cisco technology, and technical assistance to help DDD improve its technology infrastructure and expand its programs.

Cisco grants have allowed the organization to expand its workforce in Nairobi, improve its service line, and invest in new services, such as eBook production.

Education and Internet, two great equalizers

Although Thip, Fredrick, and Masy came from impoverished backgrounds, all three knew that the way to a better life could be possible by gaining a better education and computer skills.

Thip had heard about Digital Divide Data from her neighbor, whose daughter worked there. “I knew that DDD gave free scholarships to students. I was not confident that I would be selected because I believed DDD gave scholarships to the best students only, and I knew nothing about English and computers,” she says.

“But, my neighbor’s daughter told me everyone studying at DDD was a disadvantaged student, so I would have an equal opportunity. I decided to go for an interview and got selected.”

“My recruitment to DDD came as a surprise,” recalls Fredrick. “A stranger came and asked my friend casually, ‘Are you interested in applying for a job?’ My friend was not ready, and I said I would give it a chance. I started the vital training and tests. It was a wonderful day for me.”

Long before the day she found herself sitting in a market selling fruit, Masy knew she wanted to work for an organization that used computers. “It was the first goal that I set for myself, to learn about computers and to have a job when I could use them.”

Shortly after Masy’s mother’s health improved, she saw a roadside announcement that Digital Divide Data was seeking volunteers. “I never hoped that I could work at DDD, but luckily I became a trainee in 2006. I liked the work; it helped me improve my computer skills.”

After a probation period, youth are eligible to receive scholarships to pursue higher education while they work. Operators typically work at Digital Divide Data for about four years until they earn degrees, building their experience in technology-related work and receiving support for their personal development, soft job skills, and leadership.

By the time they finish their degrees, operators’ work experience and education make them competitive for well-compensated, dignified work opportunities.

Dreams realized, futures bright

More than 2500 youth have participated in Digital Divide Data’s skills training, employment, and education program since inception. Of those, 1000 have graduated from the program with a college degree. As many as 50 percent of program participants are women, and about 10 percent are disabled.

After their tenure with Digital Divide Data, they are able elevate themselves from poverty to the middle class, and become role models for their families and their peers. DDD graduates are earning six times the average income of high school graduates and four times the average income of college graduates.  

In fact, DDD’s programs have helped to increase the projected lifetime of the youth with whom they work by more than US$300M in total, with an average US$175,000 increase in lifetime earnings per individual DDD graduate. More than 75% of DDD’s revenue is derived from earned income.

Through their work to provide underserved youth with the skills they need to pursue meaningful careers and become economically self-sufficient, Digital Divide Data is a true global problem solver.

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