Michael Phelps, Kylian Mbappé, and Serena Williams. What do these sports legends have in common? They each captivated the world as teenagers; with Williams winning her first Grand Slam at age 17, Phelps earning his first Olympic gold medal at age 19, and Mbappé, also at 19, becoming the second-youngest player ever to score in a world cup final.
As well as sports, however, young people and teenagers worldwide are out there applying their talents, brains, and zeal to addressing some of the world's most urgent challenges — from climate change, to inequalities, to hunger and food insecurity, to lack of education access.
One of these determined activists is US highschooler Ayush Agarwal, who moved to the US from India aged three. Now aged 17 and in the 11th grade, Agarwal is the CEO and co-founder of nonprofit ClosingTheDivide (CTD).
Alongside the group of fellow highschoolers that make up the CTD team in the US and in countries around the world, Agarwal works to close what’s known as the “digital divide” — or the unequal access globally to resources like technology, computers, the internet, and digital literacy. In Northern Europe, for example, 98% of the population have access to the internet, whereas in Middle and Eastern Africa, it’s 25% and 26% respectively.
The team does this through both mobilizing the donations of computers to low-income families across the US and globally, as well as providing coding classes for students to increase digital literacy. What’s more, they also aim to cut down environmental pollution by diverting e-waste from landfills, to instead be refurbished for a new lease of life.
CTD exchanging devices with partner TechExchange in June of 2021
Closing the digital divide globally is important, because with access to computers and the internet comes vastly improved access to things like education and health care via remote platforms, employment opportunities, and lots more. The COVID-19 pandemic particularly put the digital divide in the spotlight — with children all around the world facing school closures yet not able to access the resources necessary to continue their education online.
Now, just over a year after it launched in March 2021, CTD has expanded from an aspiring Bay Area nonprofit to an organization reporting a presence in over 29 countries and US states — with over 950 computers donated and 10 computer labs constructed or in construction.
We spoke with Agarwal to find out more about the digital divide, the incredible activism of young people, his work with CTD, and what comes next.
Ayush, what do you do in a sentence?
CTD in a sentence is essentially tackling digital inequity and divide by providing low-income families and schools with devices, internet, and digital literacy access, so that they can succeed in the future, especially in STEM [science, technology, engineering, and mathematics] roles.
So what is the digital divide?
The digital divide can be broken down in a few ways. The first is the internet digital divide because no matter how many devices you give out to people, there's also the issue of them needing the internet and the broadband, the fast broadband, to access the internet on that device.
So that is very key because, along with just providing the device, we have to also provide the internet necessary to use that device to leverage new STEM opportunities. So that's one part of the digital divide.
ClosingTheDivide receiving 20 devices monthly from their partner in Alameda County, Computer Technology and Resource Center (CTRC)
Another part of the digital divide isthe device itself. Many low-income people barely have enough money for their necessities, so purchasing a device is the last thing on their minds. We want to provide that free option for these families who aren't able to purchase them.
Then there is the digital literacy divide. Even if you give people devices with the internet, they’ll still need to learn how to use it to advance their career paths, get a high quality education, and get a high paying job.
And that is where digital literacy becomes very important, which is why we supplement our device donations with teaching basic stem skills, teaching basic computer skills, and getting people excited about coding, about engineering, and other science fields. So, they're using that device to get a high quality job.
And those are the three parts of the digital divide in the sense of what exactly it is. Still, in terms of where its impacts are felt around the world, that's a separate conversation because, for example, there's the global digital divide between developed and still developing countries.
What is the background story behind CTD?
CTD has a quite interesting background story. It started quite a while ago when I was in seventh grade and was in Boy Scouts.
We used to do a thing called “scouting for food drives” — a food drive where we go around the neighborhood, hang up flyers, and say, “Hey, we're collecting any food. We're gonna donate it to a food bank. We'll be coming back this week at the same time. So just leave any food that you might have outside, and we'll come to pick it up and drop it off at food banks.”
So when we went back the following week, we realized that many people were not so much interested in donating food but were much more interested in giving us computers, laptops, and old devices they had lying around. And they would say, “Hey, we know many of our friends who have the same problem. We just have a bunch of devices lying around. We don't know what to do with them because, when the new iPhone came out, we bought that one. And now we just have the old one laying around at our home.”
So that was when I first came across the issue of e-waste, which is the idea that high-income and middle-income families have an excess of devices. They don't know what to do with them, so they just throw them away and they end up in landfills, further polluting the environment.
CTD set up around 10-20 devices from their inventory for a group shot!
During the pandemic, we found out that even in Silicon Valley, considered the global center for technological innovation, many of my classmates living in more minority-based, low-income, and underprivileged areas couldn't get online to get an education.
So I decided to connect those two issues — e-waste and the digital divide. We started taking these devices from high- and middle-income families, refurbishing, and then donating them to low-income families and students.
Why do you think it’s so crucial to close or bridge that digital divide?
There are many reasons. One of the key ones is automation because it will only get worse over the next 10 to 15 years. In fact, there's an estimate that this can cause hundreds of millions of jobs globally — tens of millions just in the United States — to disappear. Robots are much more efficient at hand and labor-based tasks than humans, and once constructed and programmed, you don't need to pay them a wage.
CTD donating 15 chromebooks to Elmhurst United Middle School in Oakland, California
So one of the reasons that the digital divide is so vital to combat right now is because if we can provide these people who are going to lose their job in the future due to automation or who are losing their job right now due to automation with the digital literacy, with the device, with the internet, then they can start that job training in STEM education early on and prevent themselves from being in any terrible financial situation in the future.
In the 21st century, without technology, it is very difficult to get anything done right, and this can even come down to health reasons. For example, telehealth has seen a huge increase in use during the pandemic. In fact, I just met with a doctor a few days ago, who said even now, 80 to 90% of her work is all through telehealth.
And, for those who don't know what telehealth is, it's essentially seeing your doctor through video calls. You just zoom them up and talk to them almost anytime versus going to an in-person appointment. And the reason this all relates to a digital divide is that if I have a device, access to the internet, and the digital literacy skills to join a zoom meeting, I can use telehealth.
ClosingTheDivide's booth at another non-profit's (One School at a Time) event. CTD plans to work with OSAAT to construct computer labs in rural Indian villages
I'm able to book that online meeting with my doctor. However, if I'm not, then I still have to go in person, and I still have to take the time out of my minimum wage paying work schedule to go in person. And let's say that takes an hour or two. You know, that's a critical part of my salary that I'm losing.
And during the pandemic, it’s even more than just money, right? Because during the pandemic, it meant that those who had access to technologies like telehealth were much safer because they didn't have to go outside as much as those who did not.
CTD has accomplished a lot since last year. Can you break down the most significant impacts?
I would say it's the construction of all of our 10 computer labs — all based in underprivileged schools with a high low-income student and minority enrollment. Each of these labs, equipped with 15+ laptops and digital literacy training by CTD, allows students in those schools to get excited about technology/STEM and develop a passion for going into that field.
So far, we’re currently working on six in Tanzania, we’ve constructed three in California, and then we constructed one in Cambodia. The Cambodia one was pretty honestly impactful for us, not because it was more memorable than the other nine, but because we did it just a month into the organization.
So we started in March 2021 and constructed the Cambodia one around April/May. And, you know, by then, we were still basically an infant, but we could still do that by getting about 25 devices we donated to them. So we could still get those through our e-waste program, refurbish them, and then create that Cambodia lab in partnership with Mission to the World.
CTD recycling e-waste through a partner organization, NorCal Recycling Center to ethically and sustainably recycle old, worn-down electronics
To this day, the students in that Cambodian missionary are using the lab to continue to develop a STEM education for the first time, which we hope will empower them in the future to get high-paying STEM jobs.
We thought the California computer labs would also be pretty impactful just because they were set up in 99% minority enrollment schools in Oakland and San Jose, which are considered two of the poorest zip codes and poorest regions in the entire United States.
So, when schools reopen back up in August, we can start digital literacy programs in those schools. We're hoping that'll significantly impact them and inspire them to pursue STEM in the future.
Lots of young people want to help take action for their communities but aren’t sure how. What would you say to them?
Everybody tells you to think big at the beginning. My advice to you is honestly, start by thinking small and realistically; that way, you meet your expectations. And when you meet your goals for the first time, you're gonna feel really good.
CTD speaking at a OSAAT event about their efforts in combating the digital divide
And then you keep setting goals that are a little bit higher, a little bit higher, and you keep on accomplishing them. And when you gradually continue to keep on meeting these small goals for yourself, you look back, and you think, wow, I'm already accomplishing what I thought I could never accomplish just by not setting out to achieve that huge thing right away, but taking smaller tasks to accomplish it.
I would also tell them, don't worry about the numbers. Don't worry about the statistics. Don't worry about the long-term goals; focus on what you just have to do every day or what you have to do every week. And eventually, you'll see a much bigger impact than you think you could.
What kind of support do you think CTD will need going forward?
I think in terms of what CTD will need going forward, we've realized that most of the time, it's not about just financial support, but rather, there's a different kind of support called in-kind.
In-kind support is where a company, the government, or some other institution is not just directly donating to your finances, they're helping you with what your organization needs regarding resources. For example, our organization relies on computers, right? Because that's what our primary focus is, donating these devices.
CTD is incredibly grateful to donors such as Computer Technology and Resource Center (CTRC)
And we realize that's a much better strategy and support than just getting straight cash. For example, we got a hundred routers from ABB, a Swiss-based company in San Jose. So, we realized that the support we need is not necessarily just giving us money.
How about policy-wise?
I think policy-wise, what would be fantastic is setting up policies on both the state and the national level that encourage starting nonprofits like ours. And a really good example of this is a government partnership that we recently got involved in, which is the San Jose Digital Inclusion Project — a fund set up by the city of San Jose in which they offer grants to nonprofits like ours that are closing the digital divide and they also give these same grants to individuals.
Ayush talking with a California State Assembly Member, Ash Kalra, about the digital Divide at the California State Capitol
And I think if the government does that on a large scale — nationally or on the state level, or even internationally with intergovernmental organizations — I think that would make a significant impact, because that'll inspire hundreds of thousands, if not millions of people to actually pursue that opportunity, to obtain the funds from the government and then make an impact towards closing the digital divide all over the world.
Right now, what gives you hope to continue to do more?
What gives me hope right now is knowing that this issue can be closed in the future. Also, seeing all of the other great people out there doing extraordinary work in combating the digital divide, like, One School at a Time (OSAAT) and Closing The Gap.
Nonprofit OSAAT gives me a lot of hope because they're founded completely by Indian immigrants who came to the United States when they were young. The organization, so far, has created about 70 full-fledged schools in India, which are adequately equipped with qualified teachers, devices, and laptops. So that's also really inspiring.