Developer

Geekcorps works to bridge the digital divide

"Monetize!" seems to be the rallying cry for many in the IT sector but not for Ethan Zuckerman, founder of Geekcorps. Bob Weinstein tells his story in this week's Tech Watch.


Ethan Zuckerman is on a mission.

After enjoying considerable success as the founder of Tripod Inc., a Silicon Valley Web hosting and building site, he spun on his heels and launched the Geekcorps, a volunteer group of techies and business professionals who travel to underdeveloped countries to teach e-commerce and technology. The Geekcorps can be likened to a techie Peace Corps or a “dot org,” as Zuckerman calls it.

In less than a year, Zuckerman, 28, and his partner Elisa Korentayer, 25, started the North Adams, MA-based Geekcorps and sent its first group of volunteers to Ghana in September 2000.

Zuckerman bolted to the top of the technology heap by helping launch Tripod in 1994. Tripod was acquired by publicly traded Lycos in 1998 for $58 million.

“I was an accidental millionaire,” Zuckerman said modestly.

He remained at Tripod, but quickly became disillusioned: “I made a lot of money and had a lot of fun, but I questioned whether the work I was doing had any impact on anyone.”

After losing passion for his work, he decided to take some time off to ponder what he should do.

From Ghana comes Geekcorps
He discovered a new passion when he hit upon the concept of the Geekcorps. Zuckerman traces its beginnings to a year he spent at the University of Ghana as a Fulbright visiting scholar of African music after graduating from Williams College with a bachelor’s degree in philosophy. The experience had a powerful impact on him.

“I discovered firsthand the meaning of poverty,” he said. “I saw what it was like to earn $1,000 a year.”

But he also saw potential and hope, planting the seeds for the Geekcorps. Working almost around the clock, he set up a nonprofit organization, assembled a staff, got some seed money, and put six-figures of his own money into the project.

He returned to Ghana to find out how the Geekcorps could do the most good. “Everyone there knew about the Internet, but the level of knowledge was extremely low,” he said. He spoke to business owners and found out what skills and technology were needed.

When he got home, he assembled his first group of six volunteers to launch a pilot effort for the fledgling nonprofit. The idea was not just to send volunteers to Ghana but to match each one to a specific company need. They’d work for the company for free with the promise that the company would put money into a community project.

The corps
The first group consisted of four men and two women from 25 to 30 years old: a graphics designer, a Web site designer, a marketing and public relations expert, and some hard-core geeks, including a software developer expert in C++ and Java.

It wasn’t difficult to find talented professionals. An ad placed on one technical Web site attracted 150 applicants.

“I was looking for people who understood the new economy, had worked for a dot com, had some prior volunteer experience, and were psyched about community service,” Zuckerman said. “But, we also needed people who were flexible and had a sense of humor.”

The candidates had to be able to withstand culture shock, contend with the tropical climate, and live and work in a country plagued by dysentery, cholera, and malaria.

The cost of the corps
It costs more than $12,000 to send one volunteer to Ghana, which includes training, airfare, a $500-a-week stipend, vaccinations, and insurance.

The first group spent three months in Ghana, which is just long enough to get acclimated to the culture. During that time, 'Corps members showed business owners and their employees how to get the most out of technology, teaching them how to use software to better run their businesses, network computers, and access information from the Internet. Zuckerman figured the volunteers would then be ready to return to their jobs. Surprisingly, their U.S. employers had been willing to grant them a sabbatical. They figured the experience would make them more valuable by honing their training and communication skills and giving them a greater understanding of people and the pervasive, global reach of technology.

Zuckerman sees a bright future for the Geekcorps. His goal is to have 500 people working in 15 countries within five years. Eventually, he envisions the Geekcorps as being a matchmaker for funding foreign businesses with venture capital funding.
Does your business find ways to make sure employees have the opportunity to volunteer in your community? Tell us in an e-mail or start a discussion.

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