What would it mean to be young, gifted and Black in a digitally equitable world? Or to experience learning using advanced holographic technology and other cutting-edge tools no matter where you lived? 

Access to digital technology has been described as a basic human right — and it should be. But it hasn’t always been that way for historically marginalized communities, women and girls. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 36% of Black households lack computer devices and a broadband subscription. Since 2013, the number of women and girls unable to access digital technology increased from 11% to 17% in 2019. With new digital tools being introduced almost daily, a boundless tech-infused realm — where everyone is free to imagine a future with full agency and access to the digital tools that are redefining work and learning, how we access and invest our money and much more — isn’t even close to being fully realized. 

During the pandemic, as educators, health care providers and businesses made the sudden shift to virtual, people living in low-income households and remote areas were further disconnected from the resources and knowledge base that a digital future demands for them to thrive. 

“COVID-19 didn’t make our systems fail; it showed us the failure of our systems,” Zaki Barzinji, Program Director for Aspen Digital, said during the first virtual PATH Summit, hosted by HP and SXSW. 

HP developed PATH (Partnerships for Technology and Humanity) as an initiative to accelerate digital equity for 150 million people by 2030, focusing on BIPOC communities and women and girls. Here’s why:

 The Great Disconnect

During spring semester 2020, a Black eighth-grade girl from Quincy, Florida, missed more than 50 class assignments after she had to resort to remote learning from a trailer home located in a rural community. She has Wi-Fi at home, but her devices are an outdated, slow, virus-ridden computer and an iPhone with bad cellular reception. And because her mother is a single parent working two jobs, she also had the responsibility of caring for her 10-year-old and 8-month-old sisters during virtual school hours. 

A thousand miles away in Chicago, a Black male student was at risk of failing the fourth grade two months into the pandemic. Despite his school providing him with a laptop and having access to high-speed internet, he struggled with transitioning to remote learning. When his aunt sought to incentivize an improvement in his academics, she asked, “What do you want your reward to be for getting good grades?” The boy replied, “A teacher.” 

Later that year, both households were ambushed by COVID-19, in part because of the inability to socially distance in small housing quarters once a relative contracted the virus.   

 What We’ve Got to Lose

As a result of the pandemic, studies project students of color will see a loss of 11-12 months of math learning. Black students are being hit the hardest, which has long-term consequences for their earnings potential. A McKinsey report found that over a 40-year work life, Black students would bring in an average of $87,000 less than their white counterparts, a 3.3% loss of income. It’s estimated that automation will replace 40% of jobs by 2035. Nearly 40 million Americans could lose their jobs because of this profound transformation in the workforce landscape. With the Black unemployment rate already double that of whites, without digital equity, underserved Black communities will get left behind as we move into the fourth industrial revolution.

Re-imagining a Path to Digital Equity by 2030

The compound effect of a pandemic that exposed health, racial and digital inequities reached a tipping point in 2020 that created opportunities for corporations to leverage their resources to address and resolve systemic inequities. Inclusion, empathy and social responsibility became business imperatives, a nod to maximizing equitable stakeholder value for all, beyond just shareholders.

“At HP, diversity, equity and inclusion are not outliers or nice-to-do’s, and we’re very intentional about building them into our business strategy,” said Lesley Slaton Brown, Chief Diversity Officer at HP. “More than ever, we’re very focused on ways to accelerate equity in light of the disproportionate impact that communities of color and women and girls have faced due to COVID-19.” 

As one of the largest makers of computers, printers and 3D printing solutions, HP reignited its stakeholder commitment to changing the way the tech industry approaches racial equity in a digital economy. Starting with a crawl, walk, run approach, after announcing its PATH commitment in June, HP followed up with the PATH Summit with SXSW, amplifying the opinions of thought leaders in education, health care and economic empowerment and actively listening. 

Among the key takeaways from the PATH Summit were exploring measurable collective corporate investments into Black-owned banks; eliminating blind spots in healthcare algorithms; and providing digital blueprints and training for emerging tech careers. Digital empathy goes hand in hand with equity.

“We have to do it from a multitude of culturally sensitive spaces, teaching the digital skill and then connecting them to how it can transform their lives,” said DeAnna McLeary-Sherman, co-founder of True Star, a Chicago media company and digital agency that teaches urban youth how to create and market digital content that empowers them to forge their own path. 

Building on these efforts, HP hosted policy discussions with community leaders on October 5, during Digital Inclusion Week, to learn more about changes necessary to accelerate digital equity. 

The HP PATH North Star is to accelerate digital equity for 150 million people by 2030. HP defines digital equity as access to these four key elements: 

•           Hardware (e.g., laptop or printer)

•           Connectivity (e.g., access to the internet)

•           Quality content (e.g., learning materials)

•           Digital literacy (e.g., skills to use the technology)

“Although HP PATH is just getting started, the hope and intentionality for digital equity is clear,” said Karen Kahn, Head of Corporate Affairs and Chief Communications Officer at HP. “It has the power to drive meaningful change for communities that need it the most, and we must do our part and step up to meet the moment.”

This editorial was written by Marcellus Womack and brought to you in partnership with HP.