By Haresh Khoobchandani, Managing Director, Microsoft Thailand

In northeastern Thailand sits the province Buriram, a home for sprawling rice fields, exquisite Khmer ruins and beautiful traditional festivals. Locals approach their lives, no matter how difficult they might be, with a sense of ‘sanuk’ (fun).

Yet, I still find a sense of tragic irony in the name “city of happiness”.

 Microsoft Thailand volunteer takes on the role of a teacher in the classroom for the first time!

Buriram is one of the country’s poorest provinces and a major supplier of able-bodied men and women workers to urban centres. You can typically see them toiling in low-paid and often exploitative jobs in labour-intensive and under-regulated industries in cities, especially in the capital of Bangkok. The severe social problems that have developed from this out-migration, both locally and in their destination cities, plague the headlines of local newspapers daily.

Microsoft Thailand approached the nonprofit The Population and Community Development Association (PDA) for discussions on how our office could best match our resources with local needs through our corporate volunteering programme. PDA has one of the country’s most extensive networks of community centres, and was founded in 1974 by Mechai Viravaidya, who has contributed to alleviating poverty via family planning campaigns.

We decided that we could best contribute through the very skills and expertise that we have at Microsoft: technology, marketing and accounting. Basic literacy in these areas would enable locals to manage their small businesses better. Most locals engage in agricultural activities as a livelihood, which they supplement with small-scale production of sellable items such as silk, mats and herbal products. Their sales and livelihoods, however, are restricted by limited local demand. We also decided to teach students more advanced use of basic software.

This is why, on 12 February 2014, 150 Microsoft Thailand employees headed for Buriram, where 20 PDA employees joined us to help coordinate the activities at Mechai Pattana School (also a poverty alleviation project by Mr Viravaidya).

imageOur team split up into groups to conduct various trainings for 180 locals. The marketing team held sessions on promotion of products through social media and other online channels. The accounting team provided training on basic accounting concepts, such as calculating deposit and interest, and how these functions could be simplified by using Microsoft Excel. Our programme managers taught students and teachers how videos and presentations could be conjured up through simple software. We also took the chance to show educators how they could maximise Microsoft’s free Partners in Learning resources; these were especially useful for teachers from Mechai Pattana School, which focuses on self-directed teaching.

The high “trainer-to-student” ratio enabled us to work with each participant to focus on the particular learning or business problems the individual faced.

Visiting Buriram and interacting with the locals allowed us deeper understanding of the social and digital divide, and gave us better insight as to how we could achieve more sustainable and meaningful impact through other Microsoft initiatives, such as YouthSpark and Imagine Cup.