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Tech workers looking to make a difference in the world should donate their skills

TechCrunch TechCrunch 13/04/2016 Arjuna Costa

In 2011, the Chelsea soccer club had one of the best goalkeepers in the world, Petr Čech, but he’d been plagued by injuries.

They needed to develop an eventual replacement for the 29-year old Czech, but wanted to keep him as starting goalie for a few more years, so they signed 19-year-old Thibaut Courtois from Belgium, and immediately loaned him out to Atlético Madrid.

That may sound strange to American sports fans, but it’s not unusual for English Premier League teams. By loaning out their players, soccer clubs give them opportunities to develop outside the organization. In return, the “borrowing team” gets access to top talent without signing an expensive, lengthy contract.

When Courtois returned from Atlético—where he’d started for three seasons—to replace Čech, the two goalkeepers hoisted the 2015 League Cup together.

In the Harvard Business Review, researchers point to soccer clubs as a case for loaning out your best talent. You just need an organization like the English Premier League to act as a broker. That’s exactly what nonprofits like Catchafire.org and RippleWorks do for tech talent.

Both organizations match volunteers with projects based on their professional skills. Catchafire matches professionals with charities and RippleWorks connects Silicon Valley entrepreneurs with startups in emerging markets.

Tech workers get an opportunity to help change the world; charities or social entrepreneurs in Africa, India, Latin America, and Southeast Asia get access to star-expertise to help them scale their business.

Loaning Out the Best Minds of a Generation

Tech workers may be well-paid, but they’re not necessarily more fulfilled than anyone else. Tiny Pulse, a firm that analyzes employee attitudes, surveyed 5,000 tech workers and found that only 19% were happy at work, compared to 22% of non-tech workers.

Like anyone else, tech workers want to put their skills to work in meaningful ways. They want to solve challenging problems alongside other smart, innovative people.

Sometimes, that means they need an opportunity to grow outside their company. Facebook data scientist Jeffrey Hammerbacher famously said, “The best minds of my generation are thinking about how to make people click ads,” when he left Facebook to found Cloudera, a big data platform for enterprises.

There’s no shortage of inspiring challenges to work on. Startups in emerging markets are pioneering solutions with the potential for massive social impact, such as free microinsurance tied to mobile phone subscriptions, high-quality schools for $5 a month, and pay-as-you-go solar power.

These ideas are emerging from new tech hubs in Bangalore, Lagos, Manila, Medellín, Nairobi, and a dozen other emerging markets. Cheap cloud computing and smartphones have made it easier for socially minded entrepreneurs to turn their ideas into reality. But as we found in a 2014 GSMA report, “launching a new mobile product or service is easier than ever, [but] scaling one is not.”

In surveys, dozens of incubators, funders, and emerging market startups told GSMA that, “once startups expand beyond early-adopter customers, local resources are often insufficient to support further scale.”

This doesn’t mean funding. Rather, what most entrepreneurs lacked was experience with business issues such as data-driven user acquisition, talent retention, knowing when to upgrade legacy infrastructure, or expanding across borders.

An Abundance of (Intangible) Riches

A lot has been written about the “secret sauce” that makes Silicon Valley the world’s most successful tech hub. But it is this clustering of very precise knowledge and experience that is fundamental to the sauce.

The CEO of Ruma, Aldi Haryopratomo, one of the companies in our FinTech portfolio, told us that just by hanging out in a Silicon Valley coffee shop, founders could find the solution to complicated technical problems.

In Silicon Valley, Aldi was employee #7 at Kiva.org, before moving to Indonesia to launch Ruma, and the difference in growing a tech company in both markets was striking. The easy access to expertise in the latest technologies, and the “been-there-done-that” business acumen, are key ingredients to success in Silicon Valley—and the first things missed anywhere else.

If Silicon Valley’s secret sauce could be bottled and sold, tech workers wouldn’t be coming here from all over the world. But what if we could turn the migration around—just for a couple of months at a time—and loan out talent who’ve built successful businesses here to share their know-how and work alongside their technologist peers in emerging markets?

The World’s Most Exciting Technology Challenges

RippleWorks partners with host entrepreneurs to create “bite-sized” projects that busy full-time tech leaders can take on as a volunteering activity, without setting aside their career—and still contributing to a vital stage in the host company’s development.

For that, RippleWorks identifies the problem to be solved and selects the right talent among its star-volunteers to solve it in a 3-4 month engagement, which includes a paid 1–2 week trip to the country of the host company. The foundation only selects applicants who’ve demonstrated exceptional success in their field, and ventures with market tractions as well as social purpose. They carefully match volunteers to host companies on projects structured with specific goals and milestones.

As part of RippleWorks’ first wave of projects, a volunteer went to Indonesia to help Aldi upgrade his technology platform to meet fast-growing demand, and serve 15 times more customers in the next five years.

Loaning themselves out gives volunteers the opportunity to strengthen their skills, broaden their networks, break out of a career rut, and find new meaning in their jobs—benefits that come back to employers in the form of increased engagement and retention.

Volunteering tech expertise with organizations like Catchafire.org or RippleWorks is a meaningful experience for Silicon Valley’s most passionate disruptors. It offers a genuine opportunity to put their skills to good use by solving some of the most exciting technology challenges today, while helping entrepreneurs in emerging markets scale solutions that could potentially change the world.

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