Digital architect

Microsoft exec aims to boost tech access through partnerships.

By Todd Cohen

[04.12.04] Trained as an architect in his native India and at MIT, Akhtar Badshah has spent much of his career building partnerships to strengthen low-income communities.

Now, as the new senior director of community affairs for Microsoft, Badshah aims to apply the lessons he has learned to boost access to digital technology and to tech training in underserved communities.

“There is a tremendous need to harness the potential of these communities,” Badshah says. “One of the key ways to do that is by building relationships between the various sectors, and by keeping the community at the center of these partnerships.”

A top priority for Badshah, former CEO and president of the Digital Partners Foundation in Bellevue, Wash., is Microsoft’s new Unlimited Potential initiative.

The software-maker launched the initiative in May 2003 and already has donated nearly $50 million in cash and software to more than 150 programs in 45 countries.

The project’s two big challenges, he says, are to become sustainable on a large scale over the long-term, and to measure its impact.

After earning an undergraduate architecture degree in India, and helping to design projects in Sri Lanka, India and Saudi Arabia, he earned a Ph.D. in architecture and also taught at MIT, where he focused on urban development in poor communities.

In 1993, he became director of programs in New York City for The Mega-Cities Project, an international nonprofit now based in Hartford, Conn., that tried to help cities with over 10 million people share lessons and develop leadership on common issues.

The group, for example, demonstrated for New York City officials a surface rapid transportation system in Curitiba, Brazil.

He later worked as a consultant, focusing on building corporate and community partnerships to boost development in Asia.

That work led him in 2000 to the Digital Partners Foundation, which focuses on using the digital economy to benefit poor people.

At Digital Partners, which was backed the W.K. Kellogg Foundation in Battle Creek, Mich., and the Rockefeller Foundation in New York City, Badshah established programs in India, Africa and Latin America.

For Microsoft’s Unlimited Potential initiative, which focuses on life-long learning, workplace education and the delivery of economic skills people can use to find meaningful jobs, Badshah aims to “accelerate the scale” at which Microsoft taps its employees’ know-how.

To do that, the company is developing a tool to match employees with the needs of underserved communities for technology and tech training.

Microsoft’s community affairs group also is working with another company unit to translate for use by community technology learning centers existing curriculums already developed for user groups that use Microsoft products.

Critical to the Unlimited Potential initiative, he says, will be partnerships that regional and local Microsoft offices throughout the world can build with community and corporate partners.

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