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What steps can the private sector take to close the digital divide, and how are young people a critical part of the solution?
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What steps can the private sector take to close the digital divide, and how are young people a critical part of the solution?

4-H's leaders and partners addressing the biggest questions in tech

Jennifer Sirangelo

President & CEO, National 4-H Council

In a 2021 survey commissioned by 4-H and Harris Poll, 73% of suburban, urban and rural teens agreed that digital skills are critical for getting the best jobs for their generation. Most Gen Z youth are more tech savvy than previous generations, but still millions of them do not have the reliable broadband or technical skills to thrive in an increasingly complex world.

While the private sector is already investing in ways to close the digital divide, it can do more to accelerate digital equity.

Specifically, corporations can partner with nonprofit organizations to empower young people to improve their digital literacy and pass that knowledge onto others. This is the mission of the 4-H Tech Changemakers program. With the support of corporate partners, the nation's land-grant universities and the Cooperative Extension system's 4-H program, this national initiative engages teens to enhance their digital skills and in turn teach adults how to use technology to grow their businesses and more. This year alone, 4-H teens will educate more than 50,000 adults across 18 states. By introducing these skills early, we are helping to build the pipeline of young people who will be ready for today's jobs — but more than that, we're encouraging economic growth in underserved communities and ensuring that all generations are part of the solution to achieving digital equity.

Young people have the knowledge, drive and passion to improve their communities for the better — and they know that digital skills are the key to success in today's world. It's up to us to come together and create the opportunities for them.

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Rose Stuckey Kirk

SVP and Chief Corporate Social Responsibility Officer, Verizon

All people — no matter their background or zip code — deserve equal access to tech tools, resources and training to help them prosper and thrive in today's digital world. To accomplish this, private companies need to work collaboratively with public entities and nonprofit leaders to build the tech-enabled systems and structures that will move us toward a more equitable and equal future.

At Verizon, we're committed to this mission, working with key partners to make a difference and, most importantly, engaging young people to serve as part of the solution.

An example of how that approach comes to life is Verizon's work preparing rural communities with the digital skills needed to thrive in today's post-COVID economy. Rural adults remain less likely to have home broadband access and own a smartphone, tablet computer or traditional computer than suburban adults. However, job preparedness and upward mobility are dependent on the ability to use these tools efficiently. To solve this, we have partnered with the National 4-H Council, historically black colleges and universities and high speed internet providers across the country to expand the reach of its 4-H Tech Changemakers program, which credentials teens to empower and teach 50,000 adults in rural communities on the latest digital skills.

Together, we work to lift up young rural leaders to engage with adults in their communities, while also teaching them leadership, communication and relationship-building skills, and fostering a deeper investment in the thriving communities where they live.

Mary Snapp

VP, Strategic Initiatives, Microsoft

The digital divide leaves millions of people in America on the wrong side of the opportunity gap, especially those living in rural parts of the country. We need all hands on deck to extend opportunity to everyone, and that means engaging all levels of government, the private sector, nonprofits and community leaders. Companies like Microsoft have a responsibility to help.

It all starts with connectivity: without a broadband connection, communities cannot thrive in the digital era, which is why our Airband Initiative is working to build 21st century broadband infrastructure. But once a community has access to broadband, our work isn't finished: we need to ensure that people have digital and technology skills, and that they have computing devices to use broadband in a meaningful way, whether to start new businesses, use telemedicine or, as the pandemic has proven necessary, allow children to learn online and connect positively with each other.

Young people are our future, which is why we're supporting digital education opportunities through programs like 4-H Tech Changemakers, where club members learn about digital skills and teach adults in their communities, along with our Technology Education and Literacy in Schools program, which helps build computer science programs in schools around the country. By investing in digital education opportunities, we're helping the next generation develop new ideas, new ways of doing business and new ways to help out their neighbors.

By working together and sharing our learnings across all sectors, we can accelerate change and drive systemic solutions to finally close the digital divide.

Mary Winn Pilkington

SVP, Investor Relations and Public Relations, Tractor Supply Company

Tractor Supply doesn't just serve communities that live and love the rural lifestyle — we are part of those communities, underscoring the importance of prioritizing the causes and concerns that impact them most. As our communities comprise those most negatively impacted by the digital divide across rural America, we have a responsibility to improve access to high-speed internet and equip our neighbors with the skills they need to take advantage of better technology.

Simply providing free Wi-Fi in the parking lots of nearly 1,700 of our stores, which would likely go unnoticed in some parts of the country, can truly be lifechanging in these areas. These hotspots provide a gateway to a new job, a completed homework assignment or even treatment for a health concern.

But access is only half of the battle. Without having had high-speed internet, many of our neighbors still don't know how to use these tools to truly realize their potential. We believe the solution is in the hands of our youth.

Tractor Supply has been investing in the next generation for years through our work with 4-H. We are expanding our investment in young people by supporting 4-H Tech Changemakers so that teens can hone their leadership skills by teaching their older neighbors how to use new technology, and in the process, build meaningful relationships, creating new opportunities for every generation in our rural communities to grow and thrive.

Tina May

VP, Rural Services and Chief of Staff to the CEO, Land O'Lakes

As our everyday lives have become increasingly dependent on technology and the internet connectivity that enables it, a lack of access to these resources can mean being cut off from basic needs, career opportunities and services. That's why closing the digital divide is critically important and why Land O'Lakes, through the American Connection Project, has used its full force to tackle this issue.

This coalition of more than 170 companies across a diverse landscape of industries is working to advocate for public and private investment in high-speed internet and the infrastructure necessary to support growth. We've also taken a boots-on-the-ground approach by opening free, public Wi-Fi locations across the country and deployed a first-of-its-kind public service program called the American Connection Corps. Through the ACC, more than 50 fellows across the country are working to increase digital access and inclusion in their communities by coordinating with local partners to access federal and state resources for broadband access or delivering digital literacy to marginalized members of the community.

These young leaders are tackling the challenges of today to improve future circumstances of communities across the country. It's this type of bold action that the private sector can continue to lead the way on and why efforts like the 4-H Tech Changemakers program are so important as we leverage the skills of young people to help create opportunity for all.