Welcome to FNEI Insights, the FiscalNote Executive Institute’s monthly thought leadership blog where we interview executives about top issues affecting companies, including ESG and sustainability; diversity, equity, inclusion, belonging, and accessibility; technological innovation; global risk, and more. This month, we spoke with Brittany Masalosalo, Global Head of Government Affairs and Public Policy at HP, about the importance of promoting digital equity.
Tens of thousands of soldiers and civilians have been killed in Russia’s war against Ukraine — now in its sixth month. Nearly one-third of Ukrainians have fled their homes. And sanctions and blockades have caused global food prices to soar, increasing the risk of starvation for individuals in extreme poverty in distant corners of the world.
The long-term effects of the war will be no less destructive, especially for the millions of Ukrainian children whose education has been put on hold. Academic research suggests that the bill for missing class — in foregone lifetime earnings alone — adds up fast. For example, a Brookings Institution study estimated that the disruptions to U.S. schools in the spring of 2020 will reduce the future income of affected students by $2.5 trillion, or nearly 13 percent of the country’s GDP that year.
In Ukraine, as in America, the worst-affected children are much more likely to come from low-income households that lack access to things like laptops and high-speed broadband internet. Indeed, both war and the pandemic have painfully highlighted the so-called digital divide, as well as the need for urgent action to increase digital equity, says Brittany Masalosalo, Global Head of Government Affairs and Public Policy at HP.
“Digital equity is a state in which everyone has equitable access to digital tools and opportunities. It is not just about access to broadband or hardware; it also refers to access to quality content, as well as to digital literacy,” she says.
Digital Equity Matters
Work, education, and recreation are growing more digital by the day: the digital share of America’s GDP, for example, has risen by a third, to 10 percent, since 2005. Failure to narrow the digital divide will therefore reduce opportunity for a large number of people. A 2019 NLC study, for instance, found that 157 million Americans still have slow, unreliable, internet service. In developing nations, such numbers are far worse.
That’s why promoting digital equity is a key part of HP’s corporate mission, notes Masalosalo. “We believe digital equity can help unlock access to fundamental human rights, such as those related to education, healthcare, and economic opportunity. We also believe that a commitment to digital equity is a core part of our social license to operate,” she says.
To its credit, HP backs up its rhetoric with concrete actions. In Ukraine, for example, the company launched a $30 million partnership with the Global Business Coalition for Education to donate computers and learning materials to students, teachers, and healthcare workers. Other high-impact initiatives include HP LIFE (which has offered free online courses on finance, marketing, communications, and entrepreneurship to over 1 million users since 2012). As of Q3 FY22 HP has reached 8 million individuals through their partnership with Girl Rising.
Make the Business Case, Too
Crucially, HP’s efforts to promote digital equity are integrated deeply into the firm’s DNA. And while advancing digital equity is a socially desirable goal, it goes beyond charity work for HP, explains Masalosalo. “Progress [on digital equity] depends on creating shared value for a business and its stakeholders. A big mistake is to park it in a silo of corporate social responsibility or foundation-only work,” she adds.
Also critical is to adopt “clear, measurable, and transparent reporting goals,” Masalosalo says. In 2015, for instance, HP set a goal to enable better learning outcomes for 100 million people worldwide by 2025. The company is 70 percent of the way there, she estimates. “For our 2030 sustainable-impact commitments, we decided to scale the ‘S’ in our ESG priorities, to also focus on healthcare and economic opportunities, knowing that the digital divide touches on all areas, and globally,” Masalosalo says.
“Governments should view digital equity as a public-policy imperative. They should prioritize digital literacy by funding infrastructure development that enables connectivity to the most remote areas (via broadband and 5G), by working with industry to ensure availability of hardware and devices, by supporting digital-literacy programs, and by identifying the most relevant content for their people,” Masalosalo says.
To expedite the progress on digital equity, governments and firms will need to work even more closely together in the years ahead, she urges, through public-private partnerships. “Much like other DEI [diversity, equity, and inclusion] challenges, addressing the digital divide involves changing systemic issues that affect the same communities disproportionately. We need a lot more collaboration — it’s not on any one industry or organization to solve this problem alone,” Masalosalo adds.