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Solving from Anywhere Insights: Indigenous Communities and Corporate Innovation Lead the Way to Support Social Impact

MIT Solve’s international community tuned in August 4 for the fourth installment of the interactive Solving from Anywhere webinar series. The conversation dove into the changing dynamics between corporate innovation and nonprofits and took a deeper look into the ways both are pivoting their problem-solving initiatives to address the most pressing challenges in today’s world. Hala Hanna, Managing Director, Community, MIT Solve moderated the conversation with Shaloo Garg, Managing Director, Microsoft for Startups, Microsoft; Gwyneth Gaul, Senior Director, Strategic Partnerships & Community Impact, Comcast NBCUniversal; and Chance Renville, Project Manager, Thunder Valley CDC, Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate and Oceti Sakowin Solve Fellow

To hear the full conversation, watch the webinar recording.

Community-based problem solving

For Renville, who is part of the indigenous Lakota-led Pine Ridge reservation, Covid-19 puts a tangible strain on the vital home ownership, food, mental health, language and cultural services, and resources that Thunder Valley offers his community.

“We do have a very vulnerable population here on the reservation. There’s definitely a lack of hospitals and health care,” Renville said. “It’s very scary and I am worried, especially thinking about our elders and our older generation—who are the knowledge keepers and have the [native] language.”

But Thunder Valley, a 501(c) nonprofit, is taking steps to mitigate the spread of the novel virus on the reservation by setting up checkpoints to monitor those who enter and leave Pine Ridge. Renville also added that a recent partnership with the Seventh Generation Foundation, which pledged to match donations made up to $50,000, is another avenue Thunder Valley has taken to protect the community, along with ensuring that elders in the outlying communities on the reservation get the food and supplies they need.

Thunder Valley’s developing pandemic response on the Pine Ridge reservation is made especially more difficult in light of the systemic issues that have disadvantaged indigenous peoples as a result of centuries of colonization.

Pine Ridge, which is a food desert, is currently fighting a housing shortage as well, something Renville says is unfortunately common across Indian country. But with growing efforts to establish local self-sustainable food systems, a workforce development program for youth, a local language educational initiative, and sustainable housing projects, Thunder Valley continues to make strides forward.

Bridging the divide

As Covid-19 continues to exacerbate systemic inequalities and injustices across the United States and around the world, organizations like Comcast have put forth initiatives to address issues related to widespread disparity in internet connectivity. Since social distancing has forced millions to stay at home, internet access is more essential than ever. In response, Comcast launched an updated version of their “internet essentials offering,” making internet access free to underserved families across the US.

In addition to partnering with school districts to deploy technology and equipment for the transition to remote learning, Comcast also rolled out a $100 million commitment to prioritize social justice, digital equity, small businesses, and entrepreneurship over the course of the next three years.

“How do we think about emerging from this crisis? How do we add a more intentional racial lens to the work that we do?” Gaul asked. “We have had a longstanding commitment to diversity, but I think this moment in time has elevated so many things for so many people, and it’s brought together the various brands to this one collective effort,” Gaul said on what she calls the company’s “symphony approach” to addressing this issue.

At Microsoft for Startups, Garg is working to fill some of the “biggest gaps” social entrepreneurs face—access to capital, grants, and technology—by connecting innovators with the funds and network necessary to reach their communities, especially amid the pandemic. Garg emphasized that one of the main ways for this kind of growth to take place is for large corporations working in skills and employability to take interest in small social impact startups and help scale their work with greater connectivity.

“That’s the conversation we want to have… to connect these entrepreneurs with the large customers,” Garg said. She added that incorporating fast-paced technology into such operations, something the industry calls “digital transformation,” is a critical part of successfully developing these partnerships.

Gaul agreed that for corporations to become more involved with the work of social entrepreneurs and innovators, they have to be more intentional about wanting to make those connections.

“Right now it’s me knocking on the doors of our accelerator saying, ‘we need to get a better pipeline, we need to think about how we create a broader picture to get young people thinking about entrepreneurship and obtaining the skills and training they need to get into one of these accelerators,’” Gaul said, emphasizing how companies can be more proactive in their efforts.

Looking forward

Looking ahead, Renville has a lot to look forward to about the work Thunder Valley CDC will pursue in the coming months. For the Lakota communities of the Pine Ridge reservation, a 34-acre development providing home ownership opportunities for more families is on the way, along with a school, support services for individuals dealing with addiction, and a story-based playground project for Lakota children resembling sacred sites like the Black Hills.

On the corporate plane, Garg says social entrepreneurs will be a driving force in the market in our post-pandemic world. “Post-Covid, it’s all about entrepreneurs,” she said. “If the entrepreneurs in the market, or our customers for that matter, are successful, we’re going to be successful.”

Looking for ways to make your virtual events more engaging? Check out Solve’s tips to host an engaging virtual event.

Solve intern Aidan McGovern contributed to this article.

Hala Hanna, Gwyneth Gaul, Shaloo Garg, and Chance Renville speak during the Solving from Anywhere webinar "Corporate Innovation to Solve World Challenges" on August 4, 2020.

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