In her recent commencement speech (video & text) at Duke University, Melinda Gates talked about “connecting” and technology. While watching the speech, I was particularly struck by her closing sentence: “I hope you will use the tool of technology to do what you already had it in your heart to do … To connect … To make of this world a brotherhood … and a sisterhood …”

Melinda talked about how the generation of the graduating class of 2013 is referred to as Generation C, for Connected. After all, today’s youth are far more engaged with technology than any generation that has come before – the result is that they are constantly “connected” to others via technology.

Melinda’s plea – “to make of this world a brotherhood … and a sisterhood” – is the ultimate dream that we at engageSPARK have for using technology – that we leverage it effectively as a tool to create change in the world. And there is no greater change we can dream of than the one of bringing everyone together, closer to a world where everyone is created equal, without the effects of the Lottery of Birth.

Access to Technology, Particularly Mobile Phone Ownership, Needs to Expand to Women Everywhere

In order to use technology as a tool to bring the world closer, we first need to ensure that everyone has access to technology. Currently, the mobile phone is the only technology closest to achieving universal ownership. However, while mobile phone penetration is extensive, women in rural areas often do not own one. Men are typically the ones who benefit from information and communication conveyed through the phone. Thankfully, in the future as more and more rural women get their own phones, we’ll start seeing a huge spike in the effectiveness of M4D projects– as they say, “teach a man to fish and you feed him, teach a woman to fish and you feed a whole village”.

The next hurdle then is a general lack of tools to interact with mobile phones in developing countries. There simply aren’t any good (i.e., scalable, easy to use, affordable) platforms that youth and other enterprising people can build on top of. That’s where engageSPARK comes in – we’re building the first cloud-based telephony platform, for SMS, Voice, and USSD, that is fully scalable, works across geographies, is easy to use via either a web browser or APIs, is affordable (we’re a not-for-profit social enterprise), and is focused on the need of truly engaging with literate and illiterate people everywhere.

Our mission is to leverage this technology to help organizations around the world connect and engage with and positively impact the lives of people who own mobile phones. We’re building this platform to enable people, technical or non-technical, to interact, converse, and exchange information with people anywhere, especially in developing countries.

To the students at Duke University and everywhere: start your engines and build! And a piece of advice before you get started: the biggest hurdle facing the poor is information poverty – they often lack good, timely information to make better choices to help themselves and their families. Truly connect with people, understand their needs around this problem, and help facilitate a two-way flow of information and dialogue. And don’t forget: Information, be it maternal health messages or crop prices, is power – especially for the poor.