Dec 19, 2023

The Rise of Digital Culture Collective: From Coding Camps to Global Movement

A story of technology, transformation, and the ambitious goal of equipping young minds for a digital future

The Rise of Digital Culture Collective: From Coding Camps to Global Movement

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In a world where digital skills are the new currency, Digital Culture Collective is a name you need to know. It’s not your average tech initiative. It’s a powerhouse of innovation driven by Dr. Melissa Sassi's relentless pursuit of digital equity, especially for those in the global south.

The Collective, powered by Machinelab Ventures, is about enabling youth with the tools they need to thrive in a digital era. Think of it as a tech treasure trove – a collection of free digital tools coupled with a growth mindset – all aimed at transforming how young people harness technology.

Its inception has been a slow, impactful, and methodical burn. Picture this: it’s 2016, and Melissa is at Microsoft, grappling with her teenage daughter's lack of computers in her classroom. This moment wasn't just a wake-up call; it was a catalyst. She dove headfirst into the tech-for-good space, starting with a mission to get computers into her daughter's classroom, which spiraled into launching a youth-led and youth-run nonprofit in Tunisia. And guess what? It all happened, as Melissa puts it, "by accident."

Here's where it gets real. After running, judging, and speaking at 100+ hackathons, coding camps, and digital skilling programs worldwide, Melissa noticed something was off – a gap between learning and earning. Of course, there’s money to be made in tech, but that’s not her point. Right or wrong, people today expect immediate gratification, and most programs ignore the urgent need for youth to start earning now. And, that’s not in three, six, or twelve months…now! Of course, no one is going to go from having zero tech skills to building a tech product from scratch. That’s also not the point. Melissa saw this as an opportunity to flip the switch.

Enter the Digital Culture Collective. It isn't just about teaching kids to code; it's about using what's already out there to make a difference today. It's practical, near-immediate, and exactly what the next generation needs to jumpstart their tech careers and bridge the learn-to-earn gap.

From donating laptops in Tunisia to spearheading national digital creativity days, Melissa's been there and done that. And now, The Collective is taking it global. The goal is big, in a way the world desperately needs: to impact 100 million youth. It's ambitious—and all the best goals are.

So, what's the secret sauce of The Collective? It's simple: give youth the tools, show them how to use them, and watch them turn their digital dreams into reality. This isn't just another tech program; it's designed for big results. And it's led by a woman who turned her trials into a global triumph.

The Collective is a testament to what happens when passion meets purpose. But, let’s begin at the beginning.

The birth of The Collective is a tale of resilience, innovation, and a bit of guerrilla warfare in the corporate world. It's a story that deserves to be on every tech enthusiast's radar, especially those who dream of making a real difference.

Remember those laptops? Melissa, with her partner in crime, Sarah Jorgenson, embarked on a mission to get laptops to a classroom. Sounds simple, right? Here's where the plot thickens. Melissa hustled to get them from anyone who'd offer. She was driven by her daughter's inspiring letter to a Microsoft executive, expressing her wish to become a 'big boss' at Microsoft one day. This letter was the catalyst for what came next. The executive, moved by the letter, made a crucial call that opened the doors she needed, a significant win in the fight for digital equity.

Melissa leveraged this newfound avenue to participate in a Microsoft employee hackathon called Hack for Good, which was the largest private hackathon in the world at that time! The Devices for Good team paved the way for underserved communities to gain access to free devices. This idea wasn't just good; it was award-winning. With upward of 4,000 teams across 75 or more countries, they clinched first place in the Redmond, Washington - Microsoft HQ - round of voting and another first in the 'Inspired Me' category worldwide.

This story is about more than just winning hackathons or coding away the world’s problems. It's about seeing a need – in this case, for accessible technology – and taking practical, relentless steps to meet it. And that is the ethos of Digital Culture Collective.

Picture a massive tent on the Microsoft campus filled with tables, teams, and people: Melissa, in a strategic move, intercepts Satya Nadella, the CEO of Microsoft, not on his planned tour but by positioning herself perfectly en route to his destination. Armed with a 30-second pitch and a t-shirt, she steps in front of one of the most influential figures in the tech world. The stakes are high, the cameras are rolling, and everyone is watching. In those 30 seconds, Melissa doesn't just pitch; she captivates Satya, changing the course of device giving at Microsoft, and setting a worldwide precedent.

This encounter was more than a moment of personal victory; it was a turning point that solidified a path toward impactful digital inclusion work. Her efforts didn't go unnoticed, as evidenced when Vint Cerf, known as one of the fathers of the Internet and Chief Internet Evangelist at Google, sought her out at a UN event. Imagine the scene: IEEE - the largest engineering organization on the planet with 400,000 members - invites Melissa to speak on digital skills and readiness at the UN event. Vint enters the room with all eyes on him. He beelines straight to Melissa’s talk about digital skills, refusing to move when the buzzer signals time's up. Validation from such an internet legend was a sign that Melissa was onto something big.

She achieved her doctorate along this journey, where her research focused on the tie between digital inclusion and solving the most pressing issues of our time. As she worked on her literature review, she noticed a major problem in the world. There was no standard definition and framework for what it means to be digitally skilled. She thought, how can we measure success or failure, and how can we determine if we are achieving digital equity if the world does not have a definition for digital intelligence? Alongside her doctorial thesis, she founded and became Chair of IEEE Digital Skills and Readiness Working Group which led to the creation of the world’s first digital skills standard, The competencies were created by the DQ Institute, approved as an official IEEE Standard in 2021, and endorsed by major global entities like the World Economic Forum and the OECD.

The Collective draws from the combination of this rich experience and Melissa’s grassroots efforts of spending time with local communities and leaders in 60+ countries. It's poised to break new ground, turning digital skills from a privilege into a right, and one that’s accessible to all. The Collective will undoubtedly pave new methods for shaping the next generation of tech-savvy, innovative leaders but also solve immediate and short-term needs.

But there’s even more! In 2020, Melissa found herself in Berlin at the Internet Governance Forum, a flagship UN event held annually. She was among the who's who of digital inclusion standing alongside the woman who would later become the first female head of the International Telecommunication Union (ICT branch of the UN), Doreen Bogdan-Martin. Melissa shared her vision for digital skills with the audience, which led to the meeting Milton Cabral, the leader responsible for digital innovation and digital skills enablement within Cabo Verde Digital, a group within Cape Verde’s Ministry of Digital Economy.

Milton and Melissa paired up to create two national days within the small island state off the west coast of Africa, which included a digital creativity revolution with 100,000 students and 6,000 educators. Cape Verde’s National Day of Code and National Day of Digital Creativity proved to be turning points for The Collective, taking Melissa’s bucket list idea and creating a national movement with youth and women and girls at the center. It birthed a strategy, one involving partnerships with platforms like Canva that brought digital creativity to the forefront. The Collective is now a conduit for tech companies to reach new markets and users, all while enabling true digital equity for all. The Collective is not about chasing grants; it's about creating a sustainable, impactful movement with a solid business model.

Digital Culture Collective’s future work is a blend of Melissa’s remarkable past endeavors and Machinelab’s ability to connect, inspire, and lead. It's about creating platforms for young minds to engage with technology, not just as consumers but as creators and innovators. The Collective aims to build upon this legacy of making technology accessible and meaningful, transforming how the next generation interacts with the digital world.

The Collective stands as a place of opportunity in the digital world, especially for youth in emerging economies. It's an ensemble of free digital tools, but more importantly, it embodies a growth mindset. The initiative's mission is clear: to grow the next generation of digital creators, makers, and doers by introducing them to digital tools, skills, and culture.

It enables Ministries of Education at national levels by bringing together local and global platform members to co-create more inclusive tech ecosystems. Melissa brings her longstanding relationships with government bodies, educational institutions, and international organizations. The Collective aims to impact 100 million youth, introducing them to a suite of 12+ free tools and engaging them in local and global tech platforms with near-term returns that better connect learning and earning.

From the hundreds of laptops in Tunisian schools to the National Day of Code and the National Day of Digital Creativity in Cape Verde, each step in the journey has been a building block for The Collective. The aim is clear: grow the next-gen workforce by introducing digital tools, skills, and culture.

As we look to the future, The Collective will follow a phased approach, starting with markets of 500K+ K-12 students. It's about making each interaction count and enabling each young mind with the skills, tools, and confidence to change the world.

Images courtesy of: Dr. Melissa Sassi

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