More than one in five Americans don’t have access to the Internet. For the majority of the disconnected, the biggest issue is cost. As CEO of EveryoneOn, a nonprofit working to close the digital divide, NationSwell Council member Chike Aguh lobbies policymakers in Washington, generating awareness of low-cost options for connectivity and partnering with corporations to provide computers and Wi-Fi to American families. Aguh has helped connect 200,000 families in the last four years, and he plans to help 350,000 more by the end of the decade.
NationSwell spoke to him about what he’s learned from serving a disconnected and forgotten group of Americans.
What’s the best advice you have ever been given on leadership?
It comes from a professor I used to have — his name is Harry Spence — when I was in Cambridge. A public manager extraordinaire, he managed a number of public bureaucracies from housing authorities to school districts. I always call him a mix of Peter Drucker [the mind behind modern corporate management] and Confucius [the ancient Chinese philosopher]. The first day of class he said, “Does the staff exist to support the manager, or does the manager exist to support the staff?”
Great managers — and by extension, great leaders — support their staff, not the other way around. Your job is to help them do their job. Particularly as I’ve moved into leadership, I’ve realized more and more that my job is making others better, and in many ways, the work that I do at EveryoneOn for the communities we look to serve is about helping them be better. It’s not about me saving them. This is about giving them the tools to empower and save and change themselves. I think the same is true of leadership, and I want an organization that can operate without me: that is the goal. I think it is very easy, particularly in a very hero-centric view of social change, to see a social entrepreneur or a CEO or a leader as the sole change. That’s not true. It’s a movement of people, not a person.
What’s your favorite book of all-time?
I would probably say “Parting the Waters: America in the King Years, 1954-63,” by Taylor Branch, which is really one of the best histories of the Civil Rights movement that there is. It’s easy to forget where we were 50 years ago as a country. In many ways, it shows us what’s possible and also what’s left to do. The movement was a movement of people, not a person. Of course, Martin Luther King figures very heavily, but there are many other people whose names we forget and don’t say enough.
What’s your proudest accomplishment?
It was as part of my work at EveryoneOn with ConnectHome. One of the communities we work with is the Choctaw Nation in Oklahoma. I think we know, but it’s important to say, Native American communities on reservations are the most underserved parts of our country. So to be able to go there with one of our tech partners, Github, from Silicon Valley and give out 136 computers to families there, take them through digital literacy workshop and have Thanksgiving dinner with them was one of the proudest and most inspiring moments I have ever seen.
What inspires you?
I, in many ways, am a prisoner of my biography. To give you a sense of my background, my parents are from a small, out-of-the-way village in Nigeria that most Nigerians themselves have not been to and will never visit. None of my grandparents went past middle school. My dad grew up one of nine, my mom grew up one of 11. What changed life for both of them was the opportunity to come study here in the United States at public universities. My dad got a once-in-a-lifetime scholarship. He went to the University of Texas in Austin; my mom went to Rutgers. I always say, without education and the economic opportunity of this country, I would not be here, quite literally. I consistently feel like I’ve been given more than I could ever repay, but I’m going to spend the rest of my life trying. It’s what I’ve tried to do and I’m going to continue until I can do it no more.
When I was first taking on this role, I began to think that my country can’t do what it did for my parents for others without the Internet. What has happened over a generation in my family, that’s in many ways because of the American Dream. The only way that’s still possible is with everyone on and having access to the Internet. Eighty percent of kids need the Internet to do homework every night. I can tell you stories of families who go to the parking lots of hospitals or libraries to use the Internet. Ninety percent of job applications are online, particularly as you go up the income scale. Ninety percent of college applications are preferred or required to be done online. So, just with those three data points, if you are not online, you are economically and educationally marginalized. The Internet is the platform on which the wealth of tomorrow is being built through apps and tech companies. For that wealth to be shared by everyone, you need everyone on it: not just as consumers, but as creators.
The next Mark Zuckerberg is a young kid in Albuquerque, in Brooklyn, in L.A. We don’t know who they are, but we’re never going to find them if we don’t give them access to be creators on the Internet.
To learn more about the NationSwell Council, click here.
This interview has been edited and condensed.