Go to Happy Hour. I grew up with the idea that work friends are not your friends. You go to work, do your job and go home. Your social life is outside of work. Go to the happy hour. Drink regular seltzer and hangout if you don’t want to drink! You will never know what relationships could be made from networking.
Digital inequality reinforces existing social disparities, demanding considerable efforts to acknowledge and address this pressing issue. In this interview series, we are talking to business leaders, policymakers, think tanks and experts on this topic to share their insights and stories about “How Companies and Policymakers Are Taking Action and Can Further Contribute to Closing the Digital Divide.” As part of this series, I had the pleasure to interview Kishshana Palmer.
Kishshana Palmer, CFRE, is a Board Advisor for Bloomerang, an international speaker, trainer, and coach with a 20+ year background in fundraising, marketing, and talent management who helps leaders create high performing teams. She is the founder of Kishshana & Co. and The Rooted Collaborative — a global community focused on the growth and development of women leaders of color in the social sector. She’s the host of the podcast “Let’s Take This Offline”, an adjunct professor at Baruch College, a Certified Fundraising Executive (CFRE), a BoardSource Certified Governance Trainer (CGT), A Gallup Certified Strengths Coach and an AFP Master Trainer.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to ‘get to know you’. Can you tell us a bit about how you grew up?
I’m a first-generation American who was raised in a Caribbean neighborhood in Queens, New York. I attended a gifted and talented K-12 program, and through that, I had the amazing opportunity of traveling abroad for an exchange program in Budapest, Hungary, when I was 16.
I was exposed to the digital divide early. I received my first laptop when I began my undergraduate program (and later my MBA program) at Bentley University but realized many people my age had computers since they were in early middle school. This was a formative experience for me.
I started my career in investment banking, but quickly realized no one was going to see my “fly” clothing and shoes, and eventually landed in nonprofit (NPO) leadership and fundraising, where I became a c-suite executive at age 25 for development marketing and policy teams.
Throughout my entire career working with private organizations and NPOs, I learned to embrace technology as much as I could and was determined to catch up on the latest tools and broaden my skillset.
Accessibility to tools is both life changing and lifesaving. I’m a strong advocate for training and for more professionals in organizations to invest back to young minds.
Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?
Two books immediately come to mind.
1. The Coldest Winter Ever series by Sister Souljah — It’s a coming-of-age story about urban teenagers and I connected to it based on my own upbringing in an urban environment. It was salacious at age 14 but taught me about recalibrating and reinventing yourself.
2. A Piece of Mine by J. California Cooper — In the short story collection, I gravitated most towards the stories that talk about people and how we’re all connected through threads. The book captures the essence of humanity and what it means to connect as humans. It gave me a heart for service!
Do you have a favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life or your work?
“Everywhere you go, there you are.”
My mom would say this quote to me, and it allows me to be present with myself and honest with myself. It’s about personal accountability and being fortified on the inside.
This is an anchor quote because, to me, it means you need to have a touchstone. Whatever your belief system is, you must have a touchstone that’s not about yourself. We tend to find this at a later stage in life or never at all. That particular quote allows me to be present with myself and be honest.
Ok, thank you. Now let’s move to the main focus of our interview. How would you define the Digital Divide? Can you explain or give an example?
Let’s go back to the basics of understanding how technology works and what it is. A lot of people have fears and this cuts across social economic status and it’s pronounced for communities that have no resources or education on the hardware and/or software of technology and the how-to (i.e., build, design). For me, the digital divide is a knowledge gap, usage gap, and accelerator gap.
If we look at AI and ChatGPT, it has been around for some time. Those who were in the know, knew what was going on several years ago. But until it became much more public last October, some people did not know what it was and were not participating. This urged me to ask people, “Do you have an Alexa in your house? Do you have Siri on your Apple Watch? If you do, you’re participating.” That’s a knowledge gap. The divide speaks to access, education and activation around resources and leveraging technology to navigate this world.
In another personal example, my daughter’s school supplied students with iPads without asking if they wanted them or not, but they also did not check if every student had access to the internet in their household. It was a gap for communities who are better resourced and showed the disparities.
To further describe the digital divide, it’s about understanding the divide of access, education and resources needed to leverage technology.
Can you tell our readers a bit about your experience working with initiatives to close the digital divide? Can you share a story with us?
From my perspective Comcast is one of the big players that I feel has excelled in their work to close the digital divide over the last few years through their RISE entrepreneurial program. RISE supports small businesses and provides a grant package to access tech and education resources, and creative production (marketing). By having this kind of accessibility, the community can move forward to live their lives. They also have a distribution program for nonprofits and small-sized businesses. In my time engaging with the Comcast impact team through my clients, I’ve witnessed how they figure out to provide access to broadband and tools for businesses to live their life.
At Bloomerang, we are well positioned to be an activator and accelerator to help nonprofits easily activate their missions and solve problems their organizations are designed to address. We have the capacity to step in and determine what tools nonprofits need to do the work. Circling back to education, access, and activation, we’re able to organize and make resources available to customers. I’ve interviewed clients and prospects that ask how to activate a project so they can pass that on to their team members who are small and need to figure out how to make sense of the technological landscape.
This may be obvious to you, but it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you articulate to our readers a few reasons why it is so important to create change in this area?
It’s important to create change because we already have huge economic disparity in our society. I grew up thinking education was the pathway to close the digital divide. Now it’s education plus (+) access and activation. We need to reach the trifecta: education, access, and activation.
Being able to have the trifecta in tandem with having access to software or technology, to me, means people have the tools necessary to do great work and do it effectively and efficiently.
If done adequately, it can reduce burnout and turnover. It can also be a retention tool if leveraged appropriately. We need to close the gap so more people have access, whether local, regional, or global, to create effective and sustainable changes.
What specific actions has your company or organization taken to address the digital divide, and how do you ensure that your efforts are making a positive impact in the communities you serve?
I’ve been having the digital divide conversation with my executive team and we’re coming across new findings in terms of how we can go deeper to make an impact in the communities we serve. Over the last ten years, Bloomerang has had a widespread impact. It’s about crystallizing those learnings and pieces of inputs to produce outcomes. We’re in a learning and accelerated phase right now. I would raise an eyebrow at any company unless they have true longitudinal studies that say more than we’re going to try some things, and to figure out what communities want and how to get it right.
What are some of the challenges that individuals or communities face when trying to bridge the digital divide?
They face the challenge of reducing burnout and retention. With access and education to AI and automation, for instance, I think it can help people move faster but not necessarily make them faster. But AI can be a double-edged sword when it comes to the digital divide. If you do not have the education to understand AI, for example, but have access to AI tools, it won’t support strong outcomes. You’ll end up relying on something you don’t understand. That means you don’t know how to maximize and where to draw the line to step in as a full human versus allowing AI as a tool to help in a situation.
At Bloomerang, the software can’t raise money for nonprofits, but it can create conditions for them to take less time from spinning wheels on different aspects of fundraising activities and donor cycle to make more money. It’s the education and knowledge gap of understanding of what technology can do for you and what you need to know to activate it.
What role do you see technology companies playing in closing the digital divide, and what steps can they take to ensure that their products and services are accessible to all?
You have to start by listening to customers. If you are in a product-based or service-based business, you must start by listening. There is a temptation to believe you already know the answers or what to do, but then you see corporations with CSR teams and initiatives that don’t work as they think they would, for example. It goes back to my personal experience with schools sending out iPads before checking if certain students have the resources to use the technology. Therefore, you have to live in it, which means you have to listen to customers and understand who they are.
Further, take a step back from knowing the answers and have the beginner’s mind of listening to hear what others are saying and not saying. This helps refine ideas and introduces other ways for everyone to walk forward together to close the gaps.
Because of investment coming from the federal government, we have funding for great access to infrastructure and digital skills training. In your view, what other policy changes are needed to address the digital divide? How can companies and policymakers work together to implement these changes?
Addressing the digital divide at policy level is fine, but how do we activate these policies locally where they can create true change?
If I have a choice, as an executive or CEO of an organization, between applying for digital skills training as a grant and applying for something else that will hit my general aid to make sure my team members can go out and execute on the programs committed for communities, I’m going to pick the latter not the former (RFP). Once these programs move from policy to an RFP grant, they go to intermediaries where they can get lost. From there it goes to capacity building but that’s not always defined; as a result, a set of parameters are issued for who can apply for grants. It gets really murky. What happens is money is left behind since it goes from something simple to being complicated.
For addressing the digital divide and implementing changes, I emphasize education again here. Accountability and education for intermediaries, for example, needs to be clearly expressed so people have the desire to take an extra step for grant writing. If I understood that digital skills training was a retention tool for my team members while I was facing an attrition rate at 43%, and that training could drop it to 20%? That’s an investment I need to make. If I don’t see it that way, it becomes a nice to have but not a must have. A lot of organizations are struggling to get things done but they find a way or make one. They’ll do it anyway even if the path doesn’t lead to less resistance.
We are already in Web3.0. What should we be doing as leaders to ensure the next iteration(s) of the Web are green, accessible and beneficial to as many people as possible?
For leaders, it’s going back to the basics. We have to question if the knowledge and know-how are in place to ensure individuals are able to get connected. Do they have the 101 information about connectivity and access to the internet to get over the hump of the unknown that is Web3?
I feel that people see Web3 as nebulous, and because of this, there are people who take advantage of the tech, while it doesn’t feel real to other people at the same time. By the time it “feels real”, we’ll be back at the digital divide again with new technology in place.
As a best way forward, getting earlier adopters using Web3, especially those who might not have been historically early adopters, can help. People who are currently invested in Web3 have a high tolerance for risk, while communities that are marginalized and trying to solve critical problems don’t necessarily find Web3 critical because of the high risk.
This is the signature question we ask in most of our interviews. What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why?
1. Look Up. As a self-proclaimed nerd, being first in class and getting my MBA by the age of 21, I’ve been heads down in the books, doing work for most of my life. The advice I would give myself is to look up and not live by the textbook 24/7, especially as technology continues to evolve. Having tunnel vision doesn’t allow you to experience your career fully. When you look up, you see opportunities and new doors.
2. Go to Happy Hour. I grew up with the idea that work friends are not your friends. You go to work, do your job and go home. Your social life is outside of work. Go to the happy hour. Drink regular seltzer and hangout if you don’t want to drink! You will never know what relationships could be made from networking.
3. Your MBA is not for knowledge, it’s for connection. I did my first year in the MBA when I was a senior in college and during my second year as an undergraduate. I was the last person picked for kickball on team projects because I was super young at a time when the average age for full-time MBA students was 27. At the time, I didn’t understand the gift of being in a program where you’re able to learn, create, and co-create with others. Many of my friends who pursued MBA programs after receiving their undergraduate degrees have different experiences.
4. Travel More. I’m well-traveled and have traveled since I was a child. It came to a screeching halt once I went to college. Once you start working full time, you’re “off to the races” and there’s less time to stop. Traveling early on in your career or life gives you a global view of problem-solving. It also teaches you about intercultural and interpersonal communications, and provides a broader perspective around people and elevates EQ.
5. Do it anyway! I’ve often had thoughts or ideas that I never acted on; for example, moving to London or starting my own business. I stopped myself by thinking about the obligations I had and the opportunities I would derail by starting over. If I had just done what I wanted to do earlier, I wonder where my life would have taken me. My path has always been my path, but I do wonder what mistakes and triumphs I would have had from persisting and “doing” these things anyway.
What role can individuals play in closing the digital divide, and what steps can they take to support these efforts?
1. Get involved in the community where you live or work and get involved with young people. Lend your time (if not time, money) and resources so that organizations focused on empowering young people to learn are able to achieve their mission.
2. Think about how to be educated and not wasteful with technology. I have an earlier model of the iPhone that works fine but there are young people who don’t have cellphones and need pre-paid SIMs. There are organizations that support that type of work and facilitate technology donations.
3. Three out of five people are unhoused or at risk being unhoused in NYC. If you are a caregiver and you have school-aged children, if your child has five friends, some of them are young people who don’t know where their next meal will come from or if they’ll have a roof over their head. Understanding that many people are in tenuous situations is the first step to identifying those who need help and offering your support to get involved.
How can our readers follow you online?
This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!
About the Interviewer: Monica Sanders JD, LL.M, is the founder of “The Undivide Project”, an organization dedicated to creating climate resilience in underserved communities using good tech and the power of the Internet. She holds faculty roles at the Georgetown University Law Center and the Tulane University Disaster Resilience Leadership Academy. Professor Sanders also serves on several UN agency working groups. As an attorney, Monica has held senior roles in all three branches of government, private industry, and nonprofits. In her previous life, she was a journalist for seven years and the recipient of several awards, including an Emmy. Now the New Orleans native spends her time in solidarity with and championing change for those on the frontlines of climate change and digital divestment. Learn more about how to join her at: www.theundivideproject.org.