In this Q&A, Elizabeth Cooper, an associate director in Barings’ sustainability team, speaks with Pat Millen of not-for-profit E2D about the Barings-E2D partnership to end the digital divide in Charlotte for good.
Elizabeth Cooper: Tell me about how E2D began
Pat Millen: My daughter came home from school one day when she was 12 and said, every assignment we get at school presumes that there's a computer in the home, and I believe there are lots of kids that likely don't have access to a computer. She said, dad, what are we going to do about this?
So as a family, we just decided we'd start looking into the digital divide, and the limitations that keep people from being successful in a digital world. And we came to the conclusion that to be successful in a digital society, you need a device, you need access to broadband and you need to be digitally literate.
So, we started very humbly in 2013, distributing 150 computers in Davidson, NC and through our work we eliminated the digital divide in the entire town. So, we changed our focus to eliminating the divide in all of North Carolina and we’ve been doing that ever since.
EC: What’s the state of the digital divide in Charlotte?
PM: There are currently 30,000–35,000 households remaining without a device in their home, down from 55,000 in 2019 pre-Covid.
But knowing you have a digital divide intellectually is helpful only up to a point. What really matters is knowing where these families are and how you can reach them and make these connections real.
EC: For those who don’t know, how did Barings get involved with E2D?
PM: I met Juliano Avigliano, a director in Barings’ technology team and asked him what his team does with Barings’ computers once they’re finished with them, and started the partnership from there.
I then met you, Elizabeth, and you were involved with an affordable housing complex, the Mezzanine at Freedom in Charlotte, a project that was being built with financing from Barings. And something clicked—we said, let’s make sure all these homes have computers. If you’re building homes, you’re installing refrigerators, microwaves, heating, dishwashers—how can you not install a computer in every home? It really is that essential.
L-R, Elizabeth Cooper, Associate Director, Social Impact, Barings; Pat Millen, Co-Founder/President, E2D; Christy Cowan, Community and Distribution Coordinator, E2D; Juliano Avigliano, Director, GTO, Barings
EC: How did it develop?
PM: After the first distribution at Mezzanine at Freedom, we took stock and realised, this was a really unique model, and a perfect way to access the people that are affected by the digital divide.
But we only gave out 130 units. We thought, how many other affordable housing complexes were there in Charlotte where we could reach more people? How could we use this model across the city for years to come until we can say we've pretty much covered every housing complex in the city?
That momentum has resulted in the next phase of the project, which launched this month, whereby E2D and Barings, along with The Center for Digital Equity and Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC) have committed to more than 1,600 laptops over three years to families in Charlotte.
The program caters to residents living in affordable housing units in developments that are recipients of Charlotte Housing Opportunity Investment Fund dollars, managed by LISC.
We believe that with this support, the sky really is the limit for the people who are receiving a laptop.
EC: Work skills development is one of Barings’ social impact focus areas. Why is it so important to you?
PM: To put it frankly: if you do not have a computer in your home in Charlotte in 2022, you will not be successful. Hard stop.
And we know this because the people we’re reaching, they say they were unable to seek jobs, help their children with their studies, or access their welfare benefits.
Without a computer, in a world that requires you to be virtual, you will flounder, it’s as simple as that. And that’s the beauty of this program—it alleviates the stress of where you’re going to live, and allows you to focus on vaulting to economic success.
"Without a computer in a world that requires you to be virtual, you will flounder, it’s as simple as that."
EC: What’s been the impact of the partnership in Charlotte with Barings?
PM: We’ve found that if this is your family’s first computer, 3.2 people in your household are going to use it. So, as we’ve already delivered over 1,600 computers, that’s over 5,000 people for whom we’ve helped to end the digital divide. That’s a huge amount of people whose lives we’ve hopefully changed for the better.
EC: How does it feel that the partnership with Barings has had such impact?
PM: It can be overwhelming to think about the amount we’ve accomplished together, and the amount of people whose lives have been changed. I’d be lying if I didn’t tell you that I get very emotional about five times a month doing this work.
Four times out of five, when I see people for whom this work is so profoundly and obviously important to their lives, it’s extremely joyful. But there’s that one time out of five, where we run into scenarios that remind us that we still have more work to do.
EC: What's been the highlight of the partnership with Barings?
PM: Every time you give a device, you know it has the potential to change a life forever—we say that we’re changing the world one computer at a time.
As I’ve already said, you cannot be successful in this economy if you don’t have access to information. Information is everything and we take it for granted. Working with Barings has enabled us to open this up to so many more people.
Humanising the distribution has also been very important to both E2D and Barings. It’s about more than just handing out a computer—residents can have a meal, children can pick a free book from the Barings Book Bus; they can sit down with someone and have a chat. It’s about more than simply providing access. It’s creating equity in our communities.
"Humanizing the distribution has also been very important to both E2D and Barings. It’s about more than just handing out a computer."
EC: What's next for the partnership?
PM: We've got two full years to come of rolling out laptop deliveries to residents in affordable housing developments that are recipients of Charlotte Housing Opportunity Investment Fund dollars.
After this we’ve got a lot of work ahead of us to propel individuals to a more equitable future. We’ve barely scratched the surface.
"This is such a basic need in our society which goes largely unseen."
This is such a basic need in our society and it goes largely unseen but Barings is making such an impact on this community in such a magnificent way.
Our work together isn’t done until the digital divide is eliminated. Hard stop.