When Ginni Rometty, executive chairman and former president and CEO of IBM, was growing up, her family relied on food stamps to get by. It’s a personal story she shared in a conversation she had with musician, businessman, and philanthropist will.i.am, best known as the frontman of the Black Eyed Peas. Like Rometty, will.i.am’s family struggled with poverty in his youth, a fact he didn’t realize until his high school organized a charity food drive targeting the apparently underprivileged East L.A. neighborhood he called home.
The unlikely pair shared this conversation as part of IBM Think Digital, a two-virtual event that explored new ways of working, stabilizing, and transforming organizations amidst the evolving impacts of Covid-19.
Providing an environment to thrive
Diving into their shared upbringing, Rometty and will.i.am spoke about the need to develop technologies that promote inclusivity. Due to varying access to knowledge, resources, and skills, people face different paths and different opportunities in life.
During the event, technology was framed as the silver thread that runs through everything, with the potential to equalize a world of inequality. In this utopic vision, those with the right skills are assured of a role in society in this digital era.
IBM aims to inculcate this thread through their six-year complementary school program called P-TECH, where students are taught the tech skills needed in today’s world. The framework is flexible and iterative, allowing for enough leeway to keep pace with rapid changes in technologies and workplaces. The company also recently launched Open P-TECH, a free digital education platform focused on workplace learning and digital skills. The platform—with content in English, Portuguese, and Spanish—equips 14 to 20-year old learners and educators with foundational technology competencies such as AI and cybersecurity, along with professional skills, like Design Thinking.
“We’re a builder of tech, but it’s our job to also prepare society to interact with that technology,” Rometty said. “That’s responsible stewardship.”
One of the beneficiaries of that stewardship is Itzel Becerril, a first-generation American graduating with an Associate Degree in Web Development, the first one in her family to do so. “I have been very fortunate to have tools like Open P-TECH,” Becerril said. “It allows me to continue reinventing myself by learning new skills.”
will.i.am, on his part, launched the i.am.angel Foundation in 2009 to administer charitable activities and programs targeted towards providing college scholarships, college preparation, and opportunities in STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Mathematics) education.
The philanthropist talked about the importance of education and imparting the importance of growth. “A lot of times when you have kids in the hood… what’s an A when they’re dealing with crime, drugs, peer pressure? [They’re thinking] ‘what’s an A going to do for me right now when there’s drug dealers telling me to do something for them and I can get $5000. right now?’ You have to inspire a kid, entice a kid, bring mentors to the table to let them know the value of an A.”
One of the more than 700 kids being nurtured by i.am.angel is Mariano Bonilla, who is off to the University of Southern California to study physics and computer science. Having worked at IBM the past summer, he’s realized that there’s a big difference between learning in a classroom setting from applying what you know at a large company. “I learned that clients have changing needs,” Bonilla said. “It’s important to adapt to those needs and think about problems efficiently.”
Being more human in this digital era
will.i.am gave an impassioned statement on what this unusual time has taught him: “What I learned is that the world is super fragile. A couple of months ago, we thought life was uninterrupted. We thought that you could sit in traffic, be rude to people, and take for granted the freedom of going where you want to go when you want to go. You took for granted people at the supermarket, people that clean the streets and take out the garbage. You took for granted the delivery service folks. You took for granted the people that work in stock. And it turns out that those people are the most important people in society.”
“I love technology, love it,” he continued. “But let’s make sure that those jobs aren’t taken as the digital world gets more advanced. Like, what did we all stay at home and be behaved for? [It’s to] protect life, to protect humanity. In this digital age, what I learned is that we have to be more human. It’s smacking us in the face, saying, humans need to be more human. We have to be more empathetic… Covid-19 was a shake-up, a wake-up call because the machine is around the corner and the machine is not going to rule us.”
Rometty shared that her role at IBM is to stress that everyone matters. She is optimistic that there will be a better future for more people if we all work on the right things together. “There is an opportunity for everyone to be involved here. IBM has P-TECH and will.i.am has i.am.angel but it doesn’t really matter which foundation you choose to support,” she said. “If we work together on the right things, this will be an inclusive era.”