The empowerment of women is going to require more intentional efforts to close the gender gap across all sectors of society. In the technology industry, corporate philanthropy has the potential to play a significant role in driving solutions to gender inequality.
On May 8th, 2019, the Vodafone Americas Foundation announced its new commitment to empowering women and girls through technology, utilizing new corporate philosophy, employee support, and a partnership with MIT Solve.
This is not Vodafone’s first foray into philanthropy: for the past ten years, the Foundation has committed itself to transforming communities around the world with technology solutions.
Philanthropy Women spoke with June Sugiyama, the Director of the Vodafone Americas Foundation, to learn more about the Foundation’s new programs, their partnership with MIT Solve, and her hopes for the future of social change through technology.
“Most people might not know this,” says June, “but to make lasting impact, it’s just as important to understand corporate culture and philosophy as well as the diverse needs of the community.”
June Sugiyama has been the Director at Vodafone Americas Foundation for the last twenty years. She is responsible for leading and providing strategic direction for Vodafone’s corporate foundation in the United States. As part of her role, she supports projects that advance the use of technology for social good by assessing community and nonprofit needs.
“For the last ten years, the Vodafone Americas Foundation has focused on affecting communities through technological solutions,” she says. “Throughout our work, we found that half the population is disproportionately at risk across the developing world. There are every day challenges for women to access resources such as clean water, sufficient nutrition, adequate healthcare and financial security, among other necessities. In order to find solutions, we have supported innovative startups that focus on empowering women through technology. ”
June’s team works within two different worlds: the corporate world, where she balances market concerns, shareholder values, and revenue with all the intricacies of running a business, and the social world, where the Vodafone Americas Foundation deals with issues ranging from equal rights to poverty to transforming and saving lives through social change.
“I see our job as the connector of the two,” says June. “We believed in the importance of passion so much that when we created the application for our Wireless Innovation Project (the competition to find the best technology for social impact), we actually flipped the model to search for true passion first from the applicant, with the technology coming in second.”
This flipped model has helped shape Vodafone’s plans for future competitions. As part of its new mission, Vodafone unveiled its partnership with MIT Solve, a program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology that promotes successful technology solutions through four Global Challenges. Teams of “Solvers” submit possible solutions in an international competition, and the most promising Solver teams are awarded grants and other funding opportunities to make their technology solutions a reality.
The Vodafone Americas Foundation Innovation for Women Prize is a new award category for MIT Solve competitors, offering up to $75,000 in grants for up to three Solver teams who demonstrate exemplary opportunities to improve the lives of women and girls through innovative technology.
“We believe investing in solutions that empower women and girls through technology is directly investing in change and our ability to make a social impact globally,” says June. “Through [the MIT Solve] partnership and our grant-making program, the Foundation will have a more focused approach, supporting advocacy and gender work for women in and through technology in order to elevate women’s voices and create positive and sustainable change within their communities. Furthermore, we seek to make a collective difference around the globe, which means activating and supporting our employees to make an impact within their own communities as well.”
While the Foundation has always been focused on improving lives through technology, this new focus on the empowerment of women and girls represents a forward-thinking shift for Vodafone.
“We are choosing to concentrate our efforts on women because we have seen that there is a huge opportunity to devote attention to critical issues facing women and girls, address the gaps in funding, bring [the voices of] female entrepreneurs to the forefront, and finally, multiply positive outcomes,” says June. “There is incredible value in supporting women and girls in their ventures. Aligned with our new strategic mission of empowering women and girls through technology, the Innovation for Women Prize will award a solution that uses technology to do just that –improve and enrich the lives of women and girls.”
When planning for this new mission, Vodafone’s team searched for collaboration opportunities that would align with their values. When they discovered MIT Solve, June’s team realized they’d found the perfect partner.
“We wanted an organization with a strong reputation and a wide network to support our winners. [MIT Solve had] principles that were similar to ours; an inclusive and cross-collaborative nature of the competition was very important to us.” June added, “Most of all, we searched for someone that recognized the importance of passion and cross-disciplinary teamwork. As a distinguished leader in their field, MIT Solve helps advance lasting solutions from technology entrepreneurs to address the world’s most pressing problems. We saw a natural fit to work together with Solve at as we share many of the same core values including optimism, partnership, open innovation, human-centered solutions and inclusive technology – and our hope is that by working together, we can be even stronger and more effective in our efforts to solve the greatest problems facing our world today.”
So far, the partnership has been a solid one.
“Right from the beginning, we were lucky to find that Vodafone Americas Foundation and MIT Solve shared the same goals and vision around supporting women and girls through technology,” says June. “This synergy made our process seamless and helped us solidify that when two organizations with a shared vision come together, we can provide a greater impact and provide even better support. The only challenge I found,” she adds, “if it could even be called a challenge, was the task of familiarizing ourselves with MIT Solve’s vast networks and resources.”
Ultimately, the Vodafone Americas Foundation aims to use its new mission and partnership to improve the lives of women and girls around the world. Their passion for the cause forms the backbone of their mission — and shapes the ways they plan to move forward.
To Solver teams with their eye on the Innovation for Women Prize, June offers this advice: “Think outside the box, ask questions, and explore the Challenges for this year.” But most importantly, June’s mission is all about that passion.
“Passion in general is the crux of our work,” she says. “I know that is what drives me every morning when I wake up.” Similarly, passion for women’s empowerment through technology is rising to new levels at Vodafone Americas Foundation with its commitment to the Innovation for Women Prize.
To learn more about the Vodafone Americas Foundation and their plans for corporate philosophy, visit their website to read about their mission for social change.
To hear more about other new sources of feminist philanthropy, read about the ways powerful men can contribute their voices to feminist campaigns, or discover how gender lens funding is offering a new framework for collaboration in Israel.