Oberlin Alum Weighs in on Inequality
Social entrepreneur Matthew Utterback, OC ’95, tackled the complications of globalization in his Monday lecture titled, “Can the poorest people in the world benefit from globalization?”
As part of a non-profit organization called Digital Divide Data, Utterback works in Laos and Cambodia to train some of the least advantaged people in the world in information technology and English.
After asking the attending students about the challenges of globalization, Utterback explored the concept of social entrepreneurship, or “business with an aim to do something for the world.” He shared an image of a woman in a third-world country and compared it with one of students sitting on Oberlin’s Memorial Arch. Utterback noted that half of the world’s population lives on less than two dollars a day, while a single day at Oberlin costs students $166.
Exploring the differences between the two pictures, Utterback emphasized that education is the crucial dividing factor, and that the amount Oberlin students pay daily is an investment rather than a cost, which provides opportunities and the capacity to solve problems.
The guiding philosophy of DDD is to follow the three steps: “Recruit & Train,” “Employ & Educate” and “Graduate & Promote.” Working through various NGOs, the organization recruits some of the most disadvantaged people in Laos and Cambodia, including rural migrants, orphans, people with handicaps, and women involved in the sex trade.
Trainees work half of each day, then go to school for the other half, paid for by DDD. Volunteers and graduates of the program help to teach English and technical skills the students will need to do business. The business itself involves the digitization of information, working for publications like Reader’s Digest; digital libraries like those of Harvard, Yale, and Tufts; surveys for the World Bank and UNICEF, academic data entry and records management.
Utterback noted that DDD has a double bottom line, both social and financial. Socially, the results have been excellent, with more than 500 graduated students, earning an average monthly income of $153, compared with the average income in the two countries being between $27 and $33 per month.
When offering advice to students Utterback urged them to “just go somewhere.” He remarked that there is no time in life with more opportunities to do something positive than immediately after college. Even in a changing world, those with social concerns and desires for sustainability can have a positive impact through social entrepreneurship.
He then took questions from students during the “Ask an Expert” segment following his lecture.
In response to a question regarding non-governmental organizations in East Asia Utterback described a woman who runs a program of two-week bike tours across Cambodia. Participants teach English, math and bike repair. They bring along spare bike parts, which are very valuable in a place where bicycles are an important means of transportation.
“It’s easy to just train people,” he continued, explaining that NGOs need sustainable, continuous action to be effective.
Students’ questions turned to Utterback’s personal experience with DDD. He explained that the business could technically run without philanthropy, but such funds allow it to make education a priority. Thanks to philanthropic support, DDD was able to send its Cambodian manager to Tokyo for nine months to complete his MBA.
When asked about the possibilities of students working with DDD over a summer Utterback replied, “To make an impact, you have to be there [Cambodia] for a year… You have to have a clear role.” He explained that there is often a great deal of confusion in communication between DDD’s international branches.
He also addressed student concerns about working in the unsteady entrepreneurial world:
“You’ll make a lot of mistakes… [but the pressure] forces you. You have to make it work.”
Finally, Utterback expanded on the role that DDD plays in Cambodia and Laos, where the average monthly salary is roughly $30. DDD has been a presence in Laos for three years and has 125 Cambodian graduates. Utterback spoke optimistically about offshoots to the growing IT sector in Cambodia, noting that one DDD graduate went on to start his own firm, which now employs 40 people.