WEEK 5: In Kansas City, We Witnessed How Human Connections Are Closing the Digital Divide

Open Road — Week Five
By Team IBAM

This post originally appeared on the Michigan Ross website.

Almost one in four Americans doesn’t have internet access in their homes.

This statistic was the focus of our final week on Ross Open Road in Kansas City, working with Connecting for Good, a nonprofit organization leading the charge to close the digital divide in Kansas City.

When you consider how critical the internet is to leading a productive life as an engaged citizen — allowing us to access job opportunities, education, or any kind of information — the idea of the digital divide begins to take shape. We confronted this problem face-to-face in Kansas City.

Since 2011, Connecting for Good has been providing low-cost internet access, refurbished computers, and digital skills training to underserved populations in the Kansas City region to combat the digital divide. They are intentional about providing a holistic, three-pronged approach to address this systemic issue. All three components — providing connectivity, low-cost computers, and digital literacy instruction — are necessary for an individual to truly maximize the benefits of getting online.

In our week with Connecting for Good, we learned about local digital inclusion efforts and Connecting for Good’s services. We spoke with Connecting for Good’s staff, its board of directors, and several local partners. At the end of the week, we reflected back our observations and made recommendations on how Connecting for Good could continue to grow its impact sustainably.

Connecting for Good is part of a larger digital inclusion movement in Kansas City, which was spurred largely by Google’s 2011 announcement that Kansas City would be the first city in the nation to gain access to Google Fiber, the company’s high-speed fiber-optic internet service. Since then, many other organizations — public institutions, large telecom providers, not-for-profit social service groups — have joined forces to maximize the opportunity to close the local digital divide.

But among the many players, one thing stood out to us as a key differentiator at Connecting for Good: They know their clients and their needs better than nearly all other organizations working in this space.

The underserved, under-resourced populations that Connecting for Good works with live in neighborhoods that some shy away from visiting. Their clients face a myriad of obstacles to adopting digital technologies, but Connecting for Good excels at meeting these customers where they are, and providing solutions that meet their unique needs.

In b-school marketing parlance, you might call it understanding the “voice of the customer.” At Connecting for Good, they call it the “empathy quotient.” It primarily has to do with their staff — the CEO and COO, Tom Esselman and Rick Deane, have deep, grassroots connections in the community; other members of the staff are past Connecting for Good clients who have been hired to help train others or assist with operations.

Connecting for Good’s “empathy quotient” is one of those intangibles that doesn’t exist on the balance sheet, but is critical to an organization, especially one providing a social service.

In any business or service organization, this capability is an asset. We saw firsthand how this capability, paired with a passion for making a difference, can positively impact the lives of hundreds of individuals — an example we won’t quickly forget, and one we can only hope to replicate in our futures.

Team IBAM consists of Iris Nguyen, Mikaela Rodkin, Aaron Steiner, and Blake Van Fleteren, members of the Ross MBA Class of 2017.

Open Road is sponsored by the Zell Lurie Institute, the Center for Social Impact, and General Motors.

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