In 2012, Franny Millen saw a need in her community. There were kids in her school without access to computers, and their circumstances prompted her to ask questions of her parents. How could her classmates complete their homework assignments? And more importantly, how could she help?
Enter Eliminate the Digital Divide, or E2D, a non-profit founded the following year by Franny, now a high schooler in Davidson, and her dad, Pat Millen, Davidson College class of 1986.
"When we first started, we didn't know what a digital divide really was," said Pat, whose spouse is Eileen Keeley '89. "As it turned out, the solutions were hidden in plain sight -- generous donors and colleges that could provide volunteers. It was just a matter of corralling them all and sharing the message of digital inclusion."
Broadly speaking, "digital divide" describes the gap between those who have access to modern information and communications technology, and those who have restricted access or no access at all.
To start, the Millen-Keeley family and a small group of volunteers found computers for, and trained, 54 families at Davidson Elementary School. As of January 2017, more than 2,100 families from schools throughout Mecklenburg County use laptops provided by E2D, and this year's ambitious goal is to grow that figure to 5,000 and to continue sharing E2D's scalable model with communities around the country.
One of the first recipients of an E2D laptop was a Spanish-speaking family in Davidson.
"This mom wanted to send an email to her son's teacher, so we showed her how to type it into Google Translate, and then cut and paste into the body of an email," said Pat. "She was so excited about sending that email, but then it got even better. Five minutes later, she got a reply from the teacher... in Spanish. It was incredible."
A new video about the non-profit highlights a young female student staying late at school because she is homeless and not in a hurry to leave. The school system provides a taxi to drives her to a shelter. Thanks to E2D, she has a laptop and a Hot Spot, and even without a home, she can complete her homework.
Device, access and literacy are the three legs of the E2D stool. First, staff and volunteers provide a donated, refurbished laptop. Then, they make sure the users have access to the Internet and appropriate software. Finally, they offer instruction on how to use it all.
"Davidson College students are among our best, most reliable and valuable volunteers," said Millen. "They engage in a multitude of ways, from tutoring to metric analysis."
Seen as a business entrepreneur or social entrepreneur by most, Millen's entire career has been about "engaging in enterprise," as he describes it. He led the creation of InternetSoccer.com and spent 25 years in sports marketing, honing skills that have prepared him to confront social issues and injustices.
"Some people like to build the start of something, or the middle or the end," he said. "I always try to build the beginning and then get it to the people who can make it fly. It allows me think with a creative, innovative mind and to figure out ways people can engage to make a difference."
As any entrepreneur learns, failure is a part of every success story–Millen became acquainted with failure during his first year as a Wildcat.
"I made a mistake my first semester, and I was asked to visit [Dean of Students] Will Terry," he recalled. "He told me that everyone's allowed to make a mistake. That simple conversation had an amazing impact on my life. It gave me permission to be who I was, and the person who came into Davidson was vastly improved upon leaving Davidson."
Millen, who has always known Davidson thanks to his grandfather, 1922 alumnus Pat Gilchrist, jokes that he was given full permission to attend any college in the world, as long as it was Davidson. Still, he wouldn't have had it any other way, and he applied early decision.
The Millen-Keeley family is entrenched in the life of the college and the town. Through E2D and his family's shared passion for improving lives, Millen's breaking down barriers. It won't stop with laptops, either; homelessness is an issue he would like to address.
"At some point, people start to release things they care about like jobs and money," he said. "At some point, you just want a happy family, meaningful work and kids that are kind."
By that measure, Millen has achieved success.
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