Crossing the Bridge Between Commercial and Development

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It’s been a few months since the mHealth Summit in December, giving me a little time to contemplate and write down my thoughts regarding the last event.

I must say, I had a strange feeling this time when I attended. At first I couldn’t really put my finger on what was different or missing. Eventually, I realized that I reserved myself for a whole week to attend an event that was divided in half. The first part of the week mainly targeted commercial entities, businesses that were there to demonstrate their latest products and sell. Their exhibits are grandiose; they have lots of products on display and sales people. This is where partnerships are made, deals are started and deals are closed, not to mention big parties.

The latter half of the week was left for the development sector: NGOs, nonprofits and social entrepreneurs, the folks working on the ground, deploying pertinent services to developing countries. They are more group discussion-based, strategic, and rallying to work together and speak best practices, but partnerships and deals are made here too. Their parties are fun, with lots of beer and funny stories… like the time some guy got lost in the middle of nowhere and was rescued by an old man and his mule. This is the other side, the side that our sales people call the “do-gooders,” but the “do-gooders” are the ones that wish those pesky sales people would just go away. What’s a person like me, who has a foot on both sides, supposed to do? Those sales people are the life’s blood for my organization, the people who make money so that a corporate philanthropy arm like the one I run can exist.

At first, I did think I made a mistake and felt I should have attended just the last half, the development side, but during the beginning of the week I ran into many of my colleagues from the sales and products side of the business. I learned a lot from them, including the latest products they are developing, how they’d like to test some of them and that they are looking for new markets. When we see sales people we tend to see just that, that in-your-face “what can I sell” overcomes you, but when you sit down and talk to them, you find that there’s so much more that leads up to the sale. The knowledge they have about their partner companies, the process they go through to sit down and develop products together with their customers, the hunger not only for the sale but for successful products that meet the needs of the market. Their knowledge and insight into the development process can be invaluable information.

When Wednesday came along, the displays were packed away and the sales managers left along with their expense account wallets, there was a sense of stillness over the halls, the echoes of parties past and the deals made. Then, the development people got down to business with panel discussions, meetings, one-on-ones on the latest crisis, sharing success stories and new grant rounds to address age-old problems as well as new ones. What’s so unique about these sessions is the incredibly organic way the problems are being tackled. Although their environment they work in is low-resourced, they are never stifled by it. They accept the challenges—their boundaries are only as far as the boundaries that outline the countries they work in. I am always amazed at the innovations and creative partnerships that are developed. They aren’t necessarily created in labs and meeting rooms, but result from combining one thing that works on top of another and by working person-to-person, developing deep knowledge and experience. Some of the innovations uncovered here are far more advanced than those deployed in developed countries.

Toward the end of the week, and at the end of the conference, is when I feel a sense of sadness. Sadness that the conference is over and I will miss my friends and colleagues, but also a sense of longing how nice it would be for both sides to have more of an opportunity to interact together. I also realize how lucky I am to be able to easily cross over the bridge back and forth, and wish everyone would have the same opportunity. I’m not being a romantic, I’m being realistic. In a sense, we need each other. The corporate or commercial side has the money and means to develop new products, and the reach of worldwide marketing. They are the manufacturers, the carriers and consultants. They need to know what people need, what the issues are, how they can adapt their products and services to meet these needs, and they are always looking for new markets. The development side has the key; they know what works in the field and what doesn’t, they have deep knowledge about the markets, the particulars about which pilots worked and which hadn’t. Last but not least, they are also the corporations’ future customers. The development side can enable entry into the new markets beyond the developed markets that are already saturated. If we could only start to interact, not congregate and isolate, but really mesh, there is so much we could learn from each other.

There’s evidence of people crossing over, though. People in the corporate world, needing more passion and meaning, have transitioned to the development side, adapting their knowledge and experience to whatever is needed in the field, especially strategy for deployment and development. People in the development side, looking for more stability and opportunity to leverage their knowledge at a broader scale have started to climb the corporate ladder.

I’m not saying that our encounters will be pretty and love at first sight. We will have to work out some kinks to create a place where smaller development organizations won’t be marginalized and overshadowed by large companies, where everyone will have equal opportunities to share their thoughts and build together. We will need to create a platform where development organizations will be able to offer their resources to co-develop better products and services and where corporations can openly express their concerns and issue areas about certain markets and be willing to genuinely work together.

I don’t think this is a wish to reach Shangri-La, just a start for each side to cross the bridge half-way.

June Sugiyama is the Director of Vodafone Americas Foundation, one of the 27 Vodafone Foundations worldwide, supporting “Mobile of Good” projects. She created the Vodafone Americas Foundation Wireless Innovation Project (WIP), a competition that has identified several wireless and mobile social impact innovations.