November, 2010

  • Elevate America helps U.S. veterans to find employment

    The US elections are just over and the major concern and worry we all share is the economy and the future of our jobs. With the overall unemployment numbers still very high this anxiety is real. Often when I speak with colleagues about training programs they roll their eyes and ask me why start another training program when there are no jobs available.

    If we follow their logic there is nothing we can do. However, as I travel the country and meet people from all walks of life, I hear a different story. People still want new skills that will increase their opportunities for a job. A little while ago Linda Arellano tweeted after we launched our Elevate America program thanking us for this support. She has been unemployed for over two years and believes that training will help her.

    While the overall unemployment rate for the U.S. remains steady at 9.6 percent, veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars return home to face an unemployment rate 20 percent greater than that of civilians. This got us thinking and just under a year ago Microsoft gathered a group of experts together to start a series of discussions about the issues and challenges facing our nation’s veterans, particularly concerning the transition to civilian employment. We wanted to understand how we could extend our Elevate America program to support them. We saw that in under two years after the introduction of the Elevate America program over 900,000 people signed up for training. We felt that for our veterans we need to have a different program and that there was a lot to learn. We were right on both counts.

    Last month, we reconvened this original group, plus six additional organizations at our headquarters in Redmond, Washington, to talk about how we could put what we’ve learned into action. It was both heartwarming to hear how these organizations are facing up to the challenge to support our returning veterans but also concerning when you hear the breadth of challenges they face. The discussion centered on what we could collectively do to support them in a manner whereby the benefits are tangible and real. The result is the Elevate America veterans initiative.

    The Elevate America veterans initiative builds on our Elevate America program to address our veterans - a community typically underserved with the support they need to make the leap from the military to civilian workforce. More than half of today’s jobs require some technology skills, and the Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that will reach 77 percent in the next decade.

    We have been fortunate to work with an advisory group - the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA), The American Legion, Paralyzed Veterans of America, United Service Organizations (USO), and the Wounded Warrior Project – who were able to bring the benefit of their direct experience with veterans across the country into our planning around this program. The veterans initiative goes beyond our existing Elevate America programs because it couples technology skills training with ancillary services such as career counseling, job placement, childcare, transportation, and housing services.

    Today, we are proud to announce result of this work. There are six nonprofit recipients of our Elevate America veterans initiative grants who will provide new education, job training and placement programs to help give veterans and their spouses the skills and resources they need to be successful in today’s civilian work force. Through these grants, Microsoft is providing $2 million in cash and up to $6 million in software and information technology (IT) skills training curriculum to the following organizations:

    • Able-Disabled Advocacy, Inc., San Diego, CA; San Diego VetWORKS
    • Bellevue College, Bellevue, WA; Project Succeed
    • Goodwill Industries of the Southern Piedmont Inc, Charlotte, NC; Elevate America's veterans initiative
    • Gulf Coast Workforce Board, Panama City, FL; Mission: 21st Century (M:21c)
    • Per Scholas INC., New York, NY; Microsoft Veterans Employment Project
    • Veterans Inc., Worcester, MA; Veterans Inc. Employment & Training Program

    Each of these organizations and their partners represent a unique program and service model, serving veterans and spouses across the country. Together, we hope that we can learn best practices, share models that work well and ultimately help scale these efforts broadly to meet the needs of the thousands of veterans and spouses who could benefit from this type of support.

    As we approach Veterans Day we hope that our work with these organizations goes a small way towards recognizing the contributions and sacrifices of our veterans. They deserve all the support we can provide.

     

    More veterans resources:

  • Asking for help is strength, not weakness

    By Andrew Coughlan

    Note: This post is part of a weeklong celebration of U.S. military veterans. You can find more stories and resources at the Microsoft Citizenship website.

    On July 19, 2004, I didn’t die. I can talk now about what happened that day, but it’s enough to know that I lost friends in a mortar attack in Baghdad. PFC Charles Persing, who had pushed me away and took the brunt of the blast from the mortar, and Sgt Dale Lloyd, my team leader who had run to help, both died that day. Two other friends, Sgt Mike Ramirez and Spc James O’Leary and my team leader Ssg Keith Adams were injured.

    Physically, I was unhurt, but I was living with the loss of my friends, recurring nightmares of the events of the day, and an overwhelming guilt for being alive. I’m not even really sure you could call it living. I felt worthless; and although I was newly married with a daughter, I thought about suicide.

    I didn’t know what to call it then, but I was suffering from survivor guilt and post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The only people I could listen to were those that had been there with me. Hearing from them that they cared for me, and that I could be proud of myself and my service, meant so much more somehow than hearing it from my family, who love you in spite of a turmoil they don’t understand. I had to get better not only to care for my family but to honor the friends we had lost by living full life.

    I underwent treatment at the VA, which involved group therapy sessions, and meeting with counselors. But the thing that broke through more than any session, was talking one on one with veterans of the Vietnam War. Those guys put me on a personal mission. “Don’t let your generation become like ours” they told me. “Make your buddies aware, make the public aware”.

    I could tell them things; one guy in particular. With all the doctors and social workers and other vets there, this big tough Vietnam vet chose me to share a story that though half a world and four decades apart, was a lot like mine, and as he was supposed to help me, I was helping him too.

    “All those killed and I was never touched. I had survivor’s guilt, anger, and nightmares,” says Andrew of surviving an explosion that killed two of his friends.

    This offered me a starting point. I didn’t have to open up completely then. But I could start, little by little, to unload the weight of my emotions and experiences. If this set me on an upward slope, I reached a peak at a combat stress retreat run through Wounded Warrior Project. I didn’t say as much as I could have, and I can’t really explain what that week meant to me. I learnt to look at things a different way and to process my feelings differently.

    I won’t say that I was cured that week. There is no cure for Post Traumatic Stress or survivor guilt just as there is no way to bring Lloyd or Persing back. But I have fewer, less intense nightmares. When I have a flashback, I know how to ground myself back into my surrounding reality. I have learned to control my symptoms, rather than letting them control me.

    A lot of combat veterans believe that asking for help is a sign of weakness. I will admit that I once felt the same. But reaching out saved my life. The help doesn’t need to come from a doctor. It can be another vet, or just someone you can trust. It can be hard to talk. But just take one thing out at a time, something small. You don’t have to dump it all out….just lighten your load, bit by bit, you’ll get there.

    PTSD is a wound. Like any other wound, it will fester and spread if you don’t treat it. Just like you would with a wound to your arm or leg – you treat it, you stop the infection. It may not work quite as it did before, and you may have a scar, but you will start to heal and find strength and ability to do things you didn’t before.

    I am pursuing my education now through the TRACK program, working out and loving my wife and daughter. I won’t waste the life that was spared on July 19, 2004 and I will honor the friends that I lost by living a better life.

    Andrew Thompson on behalf of Wounded Warrior Project.

    Find out more about the Wounded Warrior Project.

     

    More veterans resources:

  • Helping NGOs Crowd-Source Solutions from Students

    The Imagine Cup is Microsoft’s annual student technology competition that asks students from around the world to combine their creativity and passion for technology to help solve the toughest problems.  Personally, it’s one of my favorite events that Microsoft puts on for students. Every year I am blown away by the quality and sophistication of the students’ projects and the inspiration the competition evokes to improve lives around the world.

     

    The Imagine Cup 2011 competition is already in full swing. Students are beginning to assemble their teams and thinking about their projects and the problems they want to solve. 

     

    This year we are launching a new program called Imagine Cup Solve This” to provide additional inspiration for students looking for project ideas. “Imagine Cup Solve This” takes the concept of solving the world’s toughest problems a step further by connecting students with specific, real problems that inter-governmental organizations (IGOs) and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) need help solving. Students can access a library of problems submitted by the organizations on imaginecup.com to find issues that matter most to them and then put their ideas into action as they create technology solutions in several different categories of competition.

     

    For example, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) is looking for technology solutions to promote and assist organizations and educators that foster early reading and literacy among young children, and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) wants a knowledge management system, or “online campus,” with virtual classrooms that allows teachers to interact, collaborate and share information with their students. NetHope is also participating, and we plan to extend this program over time to include submissions from all IGOs and NGOs from around the world that are interested in participating.

     

    The Imagine Cup started in 2003 with only 1,000 competitors from 25 countries. In the first few years, interest grew modestly. As the competition developed, we decided a great source of inspiration would be to focus on solving societal issues. Leveraging the United Nations Millennial Development Goals as a guide, registration soared.

     

    In 2010, more than 325,000 students from 100 countries and regions entered the competition. It became evident to us that students care deeply about major issues such as improving education, combating diseases, and ensuring environmental sustainability, and want to do their part to save the world.

     

     

    Students can register their team today at www.imaginecup.com.

    What a better way to connect real-world problems with real-world problem-solvers. We see “Imagine Cup Solve This” as just the beginning of a new approach to how NGOs and other organizations can tap into students’ creativity and technology savvy.

  • The Truly Global Nature of Washington State

    Is it our location on the fringe of the lower 48, our bustling ports, our proximity to Asia, or our inspiring natural surroundings that give the state of Washington such an orientation toward global development issues? I don’t really know, but there is no denying that something is in motion here.

    Last week, we sponsored the 2nd annual Global Washington conference on our campus here in Redmond, WA. Having supported Global Washington as an organization over the past three years, it has been great to see the organization gain such momentum in a relatively short time. With 450 registered attendees, the conference entitled “Bridges to Breakthroughs” focused on the role of partnerships and innovation in the rapidly-changing global development sector. The amazing level of interest, quality of speakers, and engaging hallway discussions further supported my theory that Washington State has become a nexus of international development second in the US only to the other Washington.

    Speaking of the other Washington, the conference was kicked off by Ambassador-at-Large for Women’s Issues Melanne Verveer, who also recognizes the unique confluence of organizations based on Washington state working on international development issues, many empowering women and girls in both direct and indirect ways. The Ambassador noted a recent visit to one of the Community Technology Centers Microsoft sponsors near Beijing that trains primarily young immigrant women who face unbelievable hurdles after arriving in the city. With new skills, including in the use of basic information technology, the odds of success for these women increase significantly. Noting this as just one example of great work being done by a Washington-based organization, the Ambassador spoke of the refreshing and inspiring atmosphere in the Pacific Northwest and that Washington DC might just have something to learn from this corner of the country.

    The conference also provided space for some of the smaller organizations who often struggle to make the speaking circuit. Through a video competition, organizations based in Washington submitted short videos highlighting the work they do, the partnerships they formed and innovations they have applied. The winners were highlighted during lunch on the first day of the conference, including a set up and pitch by a representative from each organization. But recognition of one special video was held until day two, when Jessica Markowitz and Grace Mutesi presented a video about Richard’s Rwanda. Both just 15 years old, these young women are simply amazing – Jessica, as the President of the organization, has more poise, presence and depth than most people three times her age. Grace, who was born as the genocide was just beginning, studies at Myamata High School in Rwanda and spoke of her dream to set an example for other young women and study medicine so that she can give back to her community.

    Throughout the conference there were many examples of innovation originating from our state, from health care to mobile banking. Concurrent panels on technology solutions, commercial strategies for development, women and girls, and environment were compelling in content and highly interactive. And all indications from social media and traditional press have been largely positive. At Microsoft we are proud to be a part of this community and to offer our resources as a meeting and collaboration space because we believe that only by working together can we solve some of the biggest problems faced by the world.

  • The Silver Lining in the Fight against Poverty

    Pictured Above: Grameen Koota borrowers gather to repay their loans at a Kendra (Center) Meeting in Karnataka State

    It was that awkward shuffle. I was standing in the aisle as our flight was loading. Despite repeated requests at the check-in desk, my wife and I did not get seats together, so I was faced with attempting to convince a fellow passenger to trade seats with me. I was optimistic as I had a highly-sought after aisle location to offer.   

    Attempt #1: failure. I could not overcome the language barrier with a shy Vietnamese woman.  Attempt #2: Again, a failure. I approached the woman who had the seat assignment next to me.  I offered the comfort of an aisle seat near the front but no deal. I was left with one final option: shuffling around all four seats in our row without displacing the first woman who had refused to move.  My last hope strolled onto the jet, and I worked my best pitch. Just as they announced the closing of the cabin door, I got a gentleman on his way home to Bangalore, India to switch seats with me.   An exhausting way to embark on the first of two nine-hour legs to New Delhi.

    Vikrum, the kind gentleman who had switched his seat, and I struck up a conversation across the aisle. He asked the obligatory question, “What do you do?” – A simple question that often gives me pause. My job is not easily explained in a simple sentence, at least for me.  I respond, “I am helping to solve world poverty.”  He paused and replied, “Now that’s a grand goal. I work for a software company.”

    We soon discovered that our careers were more aligned than we might have expected.  Vikrum works in Marketing and Sales for Microsoft Azure, the software company’s cloud computing platform.  An ironic synergy considering that I was headed to New Delhi for the Microfinance Leadership Summit, an event my organization – the Grameen Foundation – planned in partnership with Microsoft and Access Development Services, a local microfinance association.  The Summit will help microfinance institutes (MFIs) understand how cloud computing and other technologies can help them accelerate growth and increase transparency.  A serendipitous seat change indeed...  We exchanged business cards and sat back as the plane took off.

    Four hours into the flight, Vikrum invited me to join him to stretch our legs. Huddled in the corner of the plane, we discussed the tremendous upswing in the adoption of cloud computing.  With more than 13 data centers worldwide, Microsoft is seeing businesses shifting to cloud computing on the basis of cost savings and convenience, among other reasons.  Vikrum’s recent travel history serves a good indicator of the rising demand for this emerging computing approach.

     

    Vikrum asked why we are holding the Summit in India, and I explained that the Grameen Foundation has spent more than a decade solidifying and accelerating microfinance in India. Providing loans to poor women has proven time and again to empower women to uplift themselves and their families to a better future.  Yet less than 15% of the world’s poor have used microfinance due to inability to scale. Grameen Foundation understands that technology is key to unlocking the scale needed, a belief we share with Microsoft.  (And also the very reason I’m on the plane having this chance meeting with Vikrum). Pictured above left: Grameen Koota client selling goods from her store, funded by micro-loans from Grameen Koota. 

    Technology is a hurdle for microfinance institutes. They attempt to develop their own custom solutions or indebt themselves by indulging in over-engineered banking platforms. There are too many failures, too many resources spent, and too much time wasted. I tell Vikrum that the market needs more cost-effective approaches that meet the needs of emerging NGOs and scale up to support those organizations serving millions of clients.

    “Why not serve up technology in the cloud?” he asks.  In fact, we are. 

    Grameen Foundation’s Technology Center has been working on IT solutions to help MFIs, including the Mifos Cloud solution now available in India.  In addition, we have been working with Microsoft to ensure MFIs can access donated or low-cost resources that the company makes available to NGOs, and holding events like the Microfinance Leadership Summit to make sure they have the know-how and support to strategically invest in technology.  Mifos Cloud is a hosted management information service delivered for a subscription fee from the Grameen Foundation. It increases operational efficiency for MFIs while providing more transparent financial and social performance reporting. The Summit will also highlight Windows Live and Office Web Apps cloud computing applications. For many of the MFIs that attend, access to these online tools will help them avoid costly IT infrastructure investments and focus on what matters most – bringing microfinance to more of those living in poverty. 

    Cloud computing means less upfront, capital expense and reduced IT overhead. It removes the burden from the MFI to manage the servers and systems themselves, allowing them to focus on mission instead.  As an operating cost, MFIs can more appropriately budget a cloud-based technology investment as a percentage of ongoing operations.  According to Vikrum, this is also the premier selling point for the commercial sector to shift to cloud computing!

    Along with diminished costs comes the ability to add value as each institution scales. Innovation is created once, then shared by many.  Cloud-based access provides transparency across an organization and with outside stakeholders. This provides insight not only into operation and financial data, but also social measurement.  It is hoped that this clarity will unlock the ideal sources of capital to fuel MFIs to continue their valuable work in serving the poor.

    We both agreed, at an altitude of 30,000 feet, that cloud solutions hold a silver lining in the fight against poverty. I invited him to become involved with our community and join us in helping to bring microfinance to more of the poor in India.  Our spontaneous collaboration reinvigorates me for our event with Microsoft to bring IT resources to MFIs, and makes all the seat changing antics at the start of a long flight well worth the effort.

     

    Matt Duncan is the Director of Market Development, Technology for Microfinance Initiative for Grameen Foundation’s Technology Center based in Seattle, Washington.  He has been collaborating with Microsoft Community Affairs to plan the Microfinance Leadership Summit in India, where microfinance institutes will learn about cloud solutions and other technology tools that will help them serve more people in poverty. 

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