Social Impact Heroes: Why & How June Sugiyama Of Vodafone Americas Foundation Is Helping To Change Our World
Go ahead and accept accolades that come your way because people usually mean it and you probably deserve it. I remember my very first experience speaking in front of a large crowd, so many people came up to me afterward and gave me praises, but I was uneasy to humbly accept. In retrospect, I wish I had, because not only would it have been a confidence builder for me but would have been a positive reaction to the person giving me the praises.
As part of my series about “individuals and organizations making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Director of Vodafone Americas Foundation June Sugiyama.
June has been in corporate philanthropy for more than 20 years, specializing in identifying the power of technology for social good. She’s led the Foundation’s transition towards empowering women and girls through technology, because that’s where the gaps were, especially within their own tech sector, and where she felt they can move the needle. She designed the program to align with Vodafone’s expertise in technology, and innovation.
Early on in her career, she developed the Foundation’s Wireless Innovation Project, a competition designed to seek the best wireless technology to address critical global issues, identifying powerful entrepreneurs with technology solutions addressing poverty, health, environment, disaster relief and technology access.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
My path from community to technology. I’ve always been involved in the community, from grade school when I would volunteer at the local special education school, to college where I was very active with the Japanese American community. I also trained to be an educator, so it was a natural trajectory for me to continue my work in the social sector and I’ve been fortunate to have a job that combines the dynamic corporate world with my passion for philanthropy. When I first started at the Vodafone Americas Foundation, we were the traditional corporate grantmaking foundation, but the board members and I felt there was more we that we could do. We thought about how we could leverage our technology expertise and global reach (after all, we are a technology company). It took many iterations, but we developed a unique strategy for the foundation that leverages technology — creating our inaugural Vodafone Americas Foundation Wireless Innovation Project, an annual award launched by the Foundation to find the best technology solution to make the world a better place. I strongly believe that technology can make a huge impact in the nonprofit sector, and I credit the handful of colleagues that guided me in the early stages of this project and pioneered this concept of integrating technology with social impact.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?
The interesting thing about folks in social impact is that we can talk passionately about unique subjects ranging from poverty, climate change, and healthcare to toilets. Yes, toilets. It wouldn’t be surprising to find a group of us in a corner of a cocktail party having an animated conversation about “clean toilets.” Why is this subject so intriguing to us and it should be for everyone? Because an estimated 4.5 billion people in the developing world lack access to adequate sanitation facilities, contributing to millions of deaths every year, not to mention environmental pollution and economic losses as well. This leads me to a story about my visit to Cal Tech, where our incredible winners of our Wireless Innovation Project, Clement Cid, Cody Finke, and Team, created SEVA, a sanitation system or clean toilets that interface with mobile devices. It was a very interesting setup in a converted shipping container with a toilet on one side and a wall separating their pride and joy — a complex conversion system in the back that turns waste into completely usable byproducts like fertilizer and drinkable water. Unlike the common chemical system, SEVA uses an electrical system that safely converts waste and deters pollution. After a tour of their campus, the Team kindly and proudly offered me a chance to use their “facilities,” which as impressed as I was, I hesitantly but politely declined.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
This is something I would consider more of a detour than a mistake. When the Foundation first wet our toes into technology programs, I led a scholarship project with a few leading engineering universities. I would often have to conduct site visits. There, I would be met by leading scientists and engineers who usually scheduled hours of presentations, mostly on complex engineering projects of years in the making, demonstrated by pages of posterboards with complex algorithms and diagrams. One after another, I would pretend to understand them all. However, I’m not an engineer and I would be utterly and completely lost, so much so that “my eyeballs would almost roll over to the back of my head,” but I would prevail with a stiff drink at the end of the day!
This experience would eventually lead us back to the drawing board with serendipitous consequences, which was to evolve our scholarship program into a competition model, allowing us to seek innovations that could make a difference quickly, and this time, the innovation had to come to us rather than me traveling to them. We began by outlining clear goals and criteria, which were simple. First and foremost, the solution had to be presented in a format that we could all comprehend, so it must be in layperson’s terms or as we say, “common speak.” This is particularly important because we need to be able to clearly understand what the innovation is, how it works and ordinary people should be able to understand as well, because if people can relate to their stories, it will generate interest, eventually leading to more people using the product, and perhaps more funding or support. The next criteria were to demonstrate deep knowledge about their constituents — they had to be inclusive. We found that many engineers were developing products without involving the users, which meant their products had to be redesigned at the last minute or were unusable by the time they reached the market. Most importantly, our soul searching led to the realization that we were looking for more than the technology itself, we were also looking for individuals with certain qualities — the determination to see their project through, excitement for their project, as well as passion for the people they are helping. Excitement is infectious and helps to bring garner support. We were able to determine these qualities because we were interacting face to face, allowing us to see the passion firsthand.
Can you describe how you or your organization is making a significant social impact?
- I believe our competition model helped set a trend. These days, organizations and corporations commonly use the competition or the challenge model to find innovations that align with their goals.
- Our strategy to marry technology and social impact is now the norm.
- Finally, the Wireless Innovation Project identified 30 entrepreneurs who are currently impacting over 65 million lives with their out-of-the-box innovations.
Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?
I am indebted to two unbelievable women who are true leaders and pioneers in the field of social innovation. Marnie Webb, Chief Community Impact Officer for TechSoup and leads Caravan Studios, both of which are organizations that connect nonprofits with technology solutions. In the very beginning, Marnie kindly led me to realize what technology for social impact was all about, and patiently through her expertise, listened, questioned, discussed, and finally outlined the best path that we should take.
Deb Levine is currently the Senior Program Officer of Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and Founder of YTH and Surge, who early on used texting to provide health resources to young people. She’s extremely tech-savvy, especially in digital health, and has been recognized by the White House for the development of a campus safety app, Circle of 6. Deb supported me throughout my tech journey and gives me credibility just by standing beside me.
Both Marnie and Deb are extremely intelligent women who pioneered the use of technology to address some of the most difficult challenges in our society like domestic violence, healthcare access, and campus safety — just to name a few. They are both incredibly passionate about their work and continue to create change, and set trends, while selflessly nurturing the next generation of innovators.
Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?
- Listen. I recently had the opportunity to meet Kristin Welch, Founder and Executive Director of Waking, Women Healing. She’s the winner of our Technology for Women Prize through MIT Solve. She’s been tirelessly fighting to give voices to the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women (MMIW) and their families. They’ve been talking, shouting, and demonstrating about these women for years — yet have not been heard. Finally, I believe her innovation, the Story Map Project, will help these stories to be seen and heard When more members of the community/society/politicians start to listen to people like Kristin, the healing can begin.
- Make sure that decision making bodies are diverse. Including women and people of color in your leadership composition will only help your productivity and increase the probability of success. It’s been proven, no research required, and it’s time to act.
- Recognize and credit others. So often, I’ve seen bosses take sole credit for the work of their team. Giving recognition to others doesn’t mean you’re losing power but rather you are multiplying power.
How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?
I believe leadership means not only doing great work yourself but also leading others to do great work by sharing ideas, listening to others, and being willing to take risks on your team. Like I mentioned before, people like Marnie Webb and Deb Levine are true leaders because they’ve not only very accomplished in their field but continue to mentor others.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
- I wish someone told me that mobile would be BIG! I still tell people today that mobile companies never imagined that the mobile phone would be used for anything other than calling someone. I don’t think they even imagined then that we would use mobile phones for mapping, shopping, taking pictures, and eventually, the development of critical life-saving apps that provide healthcare, fight domestic violence, and monitor vaccine delivery. Extraordinary mobile technology innovations became possible, like the M-pesa, a mobile phone-based monetary transaction system, or one of our Wireless Innovation Project Winners’ Frontline SMS: Credit, an open-source messaging system for banking. These innovations are bringing banking systems to the unbanked and are changing the economies of some countries.
- I wish someone would have advised me to tell innovators and entrepreneurs — Don’t reinvent the wheel. We find that some entrepreneurs build solutions that are already in existence rather than researching first and building upon them. I wish they would learn from what’s already been done and scale from there. Frankly, this is something we should all learn early on in our careers.
- Solving together is better than hitting your head against the wall alone. So often, I would tackle projects and problems alone rather than talking to my boss or colleagues. I found that most people, especially in the philanthropy and the innovation field, were genuinely helpful once you build up the courage to ask for assistance.
- Social Innovation, unlike the movie Field of Dreams, is not “build it and they will come,” but rather it’s “listen first then build together.” Social innovation works best when the solutions are inclusive and built with the user in mind. Many of our successful innovations are created by people who are passionate about the people they are helping, truly listen to them, and create holistic solutions that are community-based.
- Go ahead and accept accolades that come your way because people usually mean it and you probably deserve it. I remember my very first experience speaking in front of a large crowd, so many people came up to me afterward and gave me praises, but I was uneasy to humbly accept. In retrospect, I wish I had, because not only would it have been a confidence builder for me but would have been a positive reaction to the person giving me the praises.
You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
There may be some in existence already but I would definitely like to see community investment funds for social innovation, where individuals can come together to invest in small increments which would accumulate enough to make investments like VCs do. This concept would be similar to a giving circle, but with investment returns.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
My own quote is, “use what resonates with you, take your time.” There are many self-help books and TED Talks out there that dish out advice, but that doesn’t mean that you should take it all in outright and that it will work for you. Be selective about what you consume, don’t force anything that doesn’t necessarily work for you, take your time and test it out. Of course, it’s good to take risks and be uncomfortable once and a while, but if it doesn’t feel right for you, then perhaps you can take your own pace, ask someone for help or sign up for training. I was raised by a mom that grew up in Japan where women were discouraged from talking about themselves or speaking up. My mom grew up during a time when women were mostly in the background and vocal women were considered uncouth — that’s how I was raised as a Japanese American. It was seriously difficult for me to “lean in,’” speak up or speak in front of people, but my job required it, so I trained myself to gradually become comfortable with public speaking. Keep in mind that these advisors don’t have the same background as you, the same upbringing, or cultural experiences — they are not you.
Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂
I’m very greedy or perhaps I’m always hungry. I’d like to have a meal with two very special people, but unfortunately, both have passed.
For my personal interest, the person I would have loved to have met would be, Yuri Kochiyama. She was an activist in the sixties, a Japanese American, she and her family were sent to the concentration camp in 1943 under President Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066. She later lived in Harlem, where she actively fought for civil rights and social justice working side by side with Malcolm X and Black Power organizations. She stood up and spoke for justice at a time when women were conditioned to be silent and she stood up for people of all colors I admire her work and her courage and would have loved to just casually talk with her about her journey, her loves and favorite things because all the rest about her life’s work is well-documented.
The second person I would have loved to meet is linked to my career path, he’s Nikola Tesla (1856–1943), not the electric car company, but one of the three “Fathers of Electricity,” the inventor of the alternating current (AC) electrical supply system. I’d like to talk to him, not necessarily about his inventions, but about what he said, “Science is but a perversion of itself unless it has as its ultimate goal the betterment of humanity.” I loved that quote so much that I included it in our challenge brochure. I can’t imagine what he would say about the innovations happening now. I believe he was way ahead of his time.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
I welcome them to connect with me on LinkedIn!
This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!
Social Impact Heroes: Why & How June Sugiyama Of Vodafone Americas Foundation Is Helping To Change… was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.