Interview with Dr. Akhtar Badshah

A while ago I had the honor of talking with the keynote for IDEAS, the Senior Director of Global Community Affairs at Microsoft, and an incredible person: Dr. Badshah. Below is a (long-ish) excerpt from my talk with him. Enjoy!

Q:For some background for our readers, as the Senior Director of Global Community Affairs at Microsoft, what do you do?

A:I wear multiple hats. My job is to manage Microsoft Corporate Philanthropy. We have 4 areas. The first is bringing Information Technology to the underserved community through IT training so that they can use the technology for economic empowerment. The second, we use technology with non-profit organizations to help them build their capacity, increase their performance, and create innovation through the use of technology. The third, I work with our employees and our employee and volunteer matching program to encourage our employees to be able to donate their time, their talent, and their pleasure in support of community-related activities. And then we have a program here, in the Washington [where Microsoft is based], which is focused on science/technology/engineering/math to get middle school students or high school students to get much more interested in science/technology/engineering/math out of here. And the larger investment that we would make in our home city, around all sorts of philanthropic needs that go beyond the program that I’ve described, focuses on our social services to the underserved community that focus on a number of difficult matters in our home town.

The three things that I described to you, bringing the power of technology to the underserved community through training is a global program that is operating in over 110 countries. And as of 2003, we have established working partnerships with over 1500 locally-based non-profit organizations. We have set up over 70,000 of these technology learning centers, and have reached over 180 million people.

Q:In your opinion what is our obligation as students, corporate leaders, talented individuals, corporations even, and how can we fulfill that obligation?

A:The way that I look at it is that the obligation of any human individual is to able to function at their full potential. You need to think about it in a perspective of how you can leave behind an environment, a society, a community in better shape than what you inherited it as. So whatever you do, you should think about how you fit back into your community, whether you use your creative skills, whether it is bringing in your skill set that you may have to ensure that [your aid] goes beyond what you initially set out to do and that you become more compassionate of the community that you live in. And I think that’s our obligation. I want you to go and earn a living. I want you to go and do well. I want students to make money. But I want them to also then think of how to use all other things that they have at their disposal to help them change the world to make it better.

MIT, as an institution, has always been at the forefront of getting young people to utilize their minds to solve complex problems. And by solving complex problems, you are actually figuring out the impact of whatever decision you make. The IDEAS competition takes it a step further. It takes it a step further by getting students to focus their knowledge, their skill base, their creativity to areas in which most educational institutions form a direct educational experience to which that ability goes to work. So yes you will learn about engineering, yes you will learn about bioscience, yes you will learn about technology, but you may not necessarily learn about the application of that technology in situations that may be far more different and difficult in which to implement these solutions. And the IDEAS competition is actually taking it there. It is actually taking the skill set that you’ve learned and asking “what can I do to solve water problems for a community in Sub-Saharan Africa?” That’s what makes it so exciting! To take the creativity of young people, new ideas, the drive that people have and channel it in a direction that can lead to creative positions which others cannot necessarily reach.

Q: What advice do you have for students who want to get involved but don’t know how? What kinds of attitudes are necessary to bring about change?

A: For those who don’t know what it is, the best way is to get engaged with an external organization. Find an area that you’re interested in, find your passion. So say your passion was water. Go learn about water and find the right partner with whom you can engage with and learn about and understand the issues that are faced in these situations around water. And then once you figure out or you’ve got yourself some knowledge, then work with them to help them find solutions. So even if you might not get the education in class, there is so much opportunity for people to go out and volunteer, people to go out and travel and spend some time outside. There are so many different organizations that are making this possible. At the end of the day, come out of college, devote your time towards this, go abroad. If you want the best way, use immersion to understand what development is all about.

I’d like to go back to my pet peeve. I’d really like people to stop using the word “passion.” You need to go beyond passion and understand the complexity of the situation one wants to get into if you really want to make change. Because it’s just that easy. To say “I’m passionate about this” and then expect people to say “oh yeah, you must be good [at effecting change].”You need to say, this is me, here’s what I know, here’s what I’ve done, here’s how I can help you. Here’s the demand that I have, the courage that I have, the bravery that I have to really bring about change. What is happening is that all of you come out of high school having done some volunteer work. And everyone is bringing that with them into college. You’re running around doing all sorts of different things, you’ll all come into the working world expecting you can do the same. There are these amazing stream of people, who have all come out of different areas, who are all very smart. They have all the things at their disposal, more than most of us have ever had. They genuinely want to make change. But they struggle simply because they do not take the time to learn what is really needed to make that change. In the same way that students choose a major to learn about a career, you have to learn about development. Simply because one has a passion to bring about change, doesn’t mean they can bring about change. One should understand the culture, one should understand the area of change, one should understand the location. Development is a profession, not a cause.

Check out Dr. Badshah’s blog at the Huffington Post!

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