Posted by Brad Smith
General Counsel & Executive Vice President, Legal & Corporate Affairs, Microsoft

Today we are announcing Microsoft YouthSpark, a new company-wide initiative designed to help create new opportunities for 300 million youth in 100 countries over the next three years.

We’re launching this initiative because we’re seeing the emergence of an opportunity divide among young people: a gap between those who are prospering and others who are struggling because they lack the education, skills and opportunities they need to succeed. The evidence is clear. We have more young people on the planet than ever before, but they are experiencing a rate of unemployment that is double that of the rest of the population - in some countries youth unemployment has reached 50 percent.

And, while there are new industries and jobs being created around the world, our existing approach to educating and training young people isn’t keeping pace. It’s estimated that more than 100 million young people lack access to education and only 44 percent of youth worldwide have the chance even to attend secondary school.

Beyond the obvious macro-economic implications, this is becoming a personal crisis for a growing number of young people around the world. They are being left behind.

Tom Friedman summed up the new challenges in his recent column when he said that in today’s high tech and globalized world we needed to be honest that, “if you want a decent job that will lead to a decent life today you have to work harder, regularly reinvent yourself, obtain at least some form of postsecondary education, make sure that you’re engaged in lifelong learning and play by the rules.” Tom also talked about the need to help young people do these things.

As we looked at how our Citizenship work could have the greatest impact, it became apparent that we must help close this opportunity divide facing young people - giving them access to the skills and opportunities to be successful was one of the most important actions we could take. Our next generation of Citizenship needs to focus on the next generation of people. It’s something that won’t just benefit young people, it will benefit everyone.

We have listened to and learned from many others who have dedicated themselves to addressing the issues facing youth today. Based on those insights and our own experience working in communities around the world, we believe there are three core areas where we can have a major impact on reducing the divide:

· Empower youth by helping strengthen education and expand digital inclusion;

· Unleash future innovators by giving youth the inspiration and tools to imagine new opportunities; and

· Help youth realize new opportunities of employability and entrepreneurship.

At Microsoft we pride ourselves on taking on big challenges. Helping young people globally to get a great education, find work or start their own business fits the bill. This marks a new focus for our philanthropy efforts.

Through Microsoft YouthSpark, we’ll dedicate the majority of our philanthropic cash contributions to non-profits that serve the youth population. We’ll also make available Office 365 for EDU – cutting edge tools for students and teachers – available free of charge and we’ll promote Skype in the Classroom which allows teachers to connect their students with others around the world.

We’ve also developed a range of new youth-focused Citizenship initiatives, including:

  • Give For Youth: a global micro-giving marketplace focused specifically on raising funds for nonprofits that support youth causes around the world;
  • Microsoft YouthSpark Hub: an online space where young people can explore and access all of the services, programs and resources provided by Microsoft and select nonprofit partners for education, skills, employment and entrepreneurship;
  • Innovate For Good: a global online community enabling youth to collaborate, inspire and support each other while using technology to make a difference in their communities.

We know we can have the biggest impact when we bring our products, services and partnerships to bear on tackling an issue. Microsoft YouthSpark goes beyond philanthropy. We’re mobilizing our company, bringing together a range of existing global Microsoft programs focused on young people: from Partners in Learning, which provides professional development to help educators with new approaches to teaching and learning, to Skype in the Classroom, a free, global community for teachers to connect their students with other students and guest speakers from around the world.

Make no mistake: this is a complex, large-scale problem that requires brave, long-term, cross-sector investment and partnership. No individual, company, or government can solve the problem by itself. It will take a sustained commitment by many people working together. We’re honored to work with so many partners in the nonprofit community, industry and government to help close the opportunity divide for youth. Together, we believe we can empower young people to imagine and realize their full potential. Together, we can empower them to change their world.

Please find out more about Microsoft YouthSpark here.