Closing the Digital Divide: How Comcast-NBCUniversal Does Community Impact

One way to measure inequality in the country is through the digital divide. A Pew Research Center article revealed that even as lower-income Americans make gains in tech adoption, the divide persists. Around 29 percent of adults with household incomes below $30,000 a year don’t own a smartphone and more than four-in-ten don’t have home broadband services (44 percent) or a traditional computer (46 percent). Meanwhile, higher-income Americans are also more likely to have multiple devices that enable them to go online. This divide also impacts children, including fostering a so-called the “homework gap”—the gap between school-aged children who have access to high-speed Internet at home and those who do not.

Philanthropy has been one ally in helping narrow this divide. The Knight Foundation has taken an interest in bridging the digital divide since at least 2002. And not too long ago, Knight and Google linked up to invest in free Wi-Fi for households in New York City. Meanwhile, Microsoft Philanthropies has made expanding access to technology and digital skills the centerpiece of its global work.

Comcast-NBCUniversal also has an interest in this space. At Social Innovation Summit 2019 recently held in L.A., I connected with Dalila Wilson-Scott, Senior Vice President of Community Impact for Comcast Corporation and President of the Comcast NBCUniversal Foundation, to find out more about its work in this area and its overall philanthropic strategy.

Like many corporations, Comcast-NBCUniversal’s giving mainly takes place in cities where it has a presence—though it also extends beyond that. Like many companies, too, this one looks to engage its employees in its philanthropic efforts. Wilson-Scott explains that: “Employees can structure projects for the company in and around issues we support. But an employee can also say he or she’s been involved with this charter school, for instance, and would love to do a special project here, or want to do coding bootcamp there. Employees can really get engaged and structure a project and we give them the supplies and resources to make that happen and make grants to the nonprofits that are involved as well.”

Wilson-Scott calls digital inclusion is a huge priority for Comcast-NBCUniversal’s philanthropy, tying the digital divide to overall issues of opportunity. “Connecting in home to the Internet to do homework or apply for jobs is a huge difference. Most skills that you need for any job, not just in the tech industry, require digital skills.”

As for how the company helps, Wilson-Scott says: “We work on everything from outfitting a lab in a community center that’s going to be used by people who aren’t normally connected to the internet, and also providing people with the right equipment whether it’s laptops and other devices.”

In terms of impact, Wilson-Scott tells me about Naomi Maldonado, who started in a program in Camden, New Jersey with a partner organization called Hopeworks, which uses social entrepreneurship in website development & GIS to transform youth and bring success. “What makes them unique is that they work with employers to find out what their tech issues are and then they train kids and young adults on those specific issues,” Wilson-Scott says. And today, Naomi is a certified Salesforce Administrator, and an Analyst, working at Comcast in Philadelphia. “Knowing that we were able to support her, and that she wasn’t initially even interested in technology… now she’s a top performer, an inspiration to youth, and she’s been great energy that gets people jazzed,” Wilson-Scott adds.

Comcast-NBC Universal also runs a program called Project Innovation, which is tied to regions with NBC-owned stations around the country. “What we do is work with our teams on the ground to source projects in a few areas that we care about—civic engagement, STEAM/STEM education, storytelling—and we source a lot of these great ideas and nonprofit partners that have some record of evidence that are putting on some of these programs,” Wilson-Scott explains.

Now in year two, in 2019, the program will award $2.5 million in grants to local non-profit organizations that are addressing local community issues through innovative solutions in the areas of storytelling, community engagement, culture of inclusion and youth education. 

The foundation also runs several scholarship programs including Leaders and Achievers, a $2500 scholarship given to students around the country who have been leaders in their communities. Comcast NBCUniversal anticipates awarding over 800 scholarships for the 2019 – 2020 school year. Dalia-Wilson Scott emphasizes to me that being a strong leader, not just having good grades, is how to stand out:

Maybe they led a volunteer campaign or ran for office. Leadership here is just as important as academics. So they write a short essay talking about their experience, get letters of support from administrators, and other people in their lives. We’ve made close to $30 million in scholarships to date. This is something we’re really proud of and something we started in honor of our founder Ralph Roberts.

When I asked Wilson-Scott what her biggest hope was for the foundation in the coming years, she talks about pushing the status quo: “We’re always trying to move forward. We’re never going to completely fix all the issues we’re trying to get at, but together with the right partners, making sure that we’re up to date with the best ways to support our partners, we can continue to get better at what we’re doing. But we can’t do that alone. So always having open ears, listening to different ideas and partnering with communities, rather than just dropping a program into that community without listening. So that’s something I think we strive to achieve.”

Dalila Wilson-Scott was one of some 120 featured speakers at this year’s Social Innovation Summit held at the Intercontinental Hotel in Downtown Los Angeles. Wilson-Scott is keen on the annual forum and its power to bring together a range of community leaders committed to social change: “What’s nice about the summit is that you have corporate community coming together with innovators and entrepreneurs. You have people who are working within their foundations but also outside of it. People are thinking beyond traditional boundaries, with veterans and newbies coming together and saying all ideas are valid.”

Related: The Digital Divide Persists, Which Is Why These Funders Are Bankrolling Free Wi-Fi