Connecting where it counts: HP and Aspen Institute team up to supercharge digital equity

A conversation between leaders from HP and Aspen Digital, a program of the Aspen Institute, on how the new Digital Equity Accelerator will help meet the needs of underserved communities affected by the digital divide.

By Angela Matusik — February 9, 2022

HP this week kicked off a new initiative with the Aspen Institute, an international nonprofit organization founded on the heels of WWII to promote the creation of a free, just, and equitable society. 

The digital divide — the widening access gap to the internet, and the tech tools to access and understand how to use it — is a problem that primarily affects people who are already marginalized or underrepresented in other critical ways. For many, being on the excluded side means they will not receive equitable access to a host of fundamental human rights, such as education, healthcare, and opportunities to participate in an increasingly digital global economy.

It’s a complex and nuanced problem that requires casting a wide net to draw upon the on-the-ground insights and experiences of those nonprofits working on key pieces of this puzzle, and then helping them scale.

Vivian Schiller, executive director of the Aspen Digital program at the Aspen Institute.

Vivian Schiller, executive director of the Aspen Digital program at the Aspen Institute.

That’s why the tech giant is lending its forces to a new initiative with Aspen Digital, a program of the Aspen Institute that works at the intersection of technology and equity. The Digital Equity Accelerator supports nonprofits who are using innovation to serve communities affected by the digital divide. 

With applications open through March 21, the Accelerator will give nonprofits in the United States, India, and Morocco a chance to receive not only technology solutions tailored to their needs and more than $100,000 in cash awards, but also hands-on mentorship, comprehensive programming, and access to senior advisors and their networks. 

The initiative brings HP closer to achieving its commitment to accelerating digital equity for 150 million people around the world by 2030, focusing on women and girls; people with disabilities and aging populations; historically excluded groups, including those who are socio-economically marginalized; refugees and internally displaced persons; ethnic, racial, and religious minority populations; and the educators and practitioners who support them. Up to six nonprofits who support these communities in the areas of healthcare, education, and economic opportunity will be selected for the pilot program.

The Garage sat down with two of the leaders behind this initiative, Vivian Schiller, executive director of Aspen Digital, and Michele Malejki, global head of social impact at HP, to talk about this groundbreaking collaboration, its goals, and what digital equity means in 2022.

What is the Digital Equity Accelerator and why are Aspen Digital and HP working together?

VS: We’re really excited to work with HP on this venture to provide mentorship and expertise, and to scale strategies for organizations advancing digital equity in their regions. We’re bringing together a common sensibility and complementary resources and skills that makes this potentially very special. Year one is a pilot year. We'll see what happens, but it will be about learning a lot through investment. Our top priority is making sure we are supporting efforts that directly serve and are led by the impacted communities themselves. 

Michele Malejki, global head of social impact at HP.

Michele Malejki, global head of social impact at HP.

Why is digital equity such an important issue at this moment in time?

MM: Digital equity requires having both access to technology, as well as the skills to use it. We’ve long had a digital divide, but the pandemic has turbocharged it. That's really what brought this to the forefront because it impacted so many people in ways that they weren’t used to. The fact is there were 260 million kids not in school around the world even before the pandemic started. And that is a terrifying number.

What goes into the equation of solving for digital equity? Many may think it’s about connectivity or technology, but it’s more than that, isn’t it?

MM: Hardware and connectivity are two absolutely essential pieces, but true digital equity also requires having access to quality, relevant content. For example, this could come from the free HP LIFE skill-building program from the HP Foundation. It could also come from our partnerships, such as those we have with Girl Rising and NABU, who help bring incredible content to life, whether it’s social or emotional learning, which is hugely important right now. And the final piece is digital literacy. Which means, when you’re in front of your device or when you’re actually connected to the internet, and when you have your materials, do you know how to meaningfully engage and learn from them or use them for your purpose?

Tell us more about how the Accelerator will work. 

VS: The participating nonprofits are going to get hands-on support. Each of the six grantees are going to have access to mentors and senior advisors, who will help them develop networks, do deep dives on specific topics, and coach them through a range of challenges that are bound to come up as they build their digital equity-focused projects. This is in addition to the cash funds and tech solutions that they'll be receiving. We’re going to stay close to each of the grantees throughout the process to make sure they get what they need.

After their four months of programming, we're going to hold a demo day to get them in front of a very targeted group of potential funders and partners to offer constructive feedback and help them scale further — to not only get more financial resources, but also help implement the tools and services that they’re going to be creating.

This program is launching in the US, India, and Morocco. Why these regions?

VS: We wanted to pick three countries that represented different sets of needs and challenges. For example, in the US, there is a lack of affordable and reliable internet access for many communities, but there’s also a severe problem with digital literacy. In India, there’s limited device access, which hinders the adoption of digital tools. It’s a highly mobile society, but they have outdated devices, like feature phones. And in Morocco, it’s a different set of issues: far fewer women have access to digital technologies than men, and rura populations are left out of th digital economy because of high rates of illiteracy. Each of these countries presents a set of challenges, but critically, all three of them represent a clear need and opportunity. They also have some basic underlying infrastructure that will help enable success for the nonprofits that we’re going to be supporting. And between HP and Aspen, we have strong partnerships on the ground in these places.


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What is HP gaining from backing the Accelerator?

MM: We are going to be thinking about what are the opportunities to keep learning from all the different ways we’ve engaged. So from a hardware perspective, was it the right matchup? If it’s a teacher, are they successfully using the device that we gave them? What are the challenges? What are the ways that we can bring them even more opportunities? What’s working well and what’s not? It’s an opportunity for us to step back and think about how we as a company can be innovating differently. 

Looking into a crystal ball, what are your hopes on what we’ll be talking about next year at this time?

VS: I would put things in two categories. One, we hope that these six organizations are tremendously successful, that they are able to scale their efforts, and raise more money to continue their work. The second sign of success is that we would be set up to expand this program to new regions and more nonprofits, and to have an even more exponential impact.

MM: I completely agree. And I think the last piece, just specific to HP, would be that we, as a company, show that we’re authentically delivering on our goal and to think about how we can continue to bridge the digital divide through our core business as part of our overall strategy.


Learn more about the Digital Equality Accelerator and HP’s Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion initiatives. Apply here through March 21.