June Sugiyama, the Director of Vodafone Americas Foundation, has been in corporate philanthropy for more than 20 years, specializing in identifying the power of technology for social good. She’s led the Foundation’s transition towards empowering women and girls through technology, because that’s where the gaps were, especially within their own tech sector, and where she felt they can move the needle. She designed the program to align with Vodafone’s expertise in technology, and innovation.
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John: Welcome to another edition of the impact podcast. I’m John Shegerian, and I’m so honored to have June Sugiyama with us today. She’s the director of Vodafone America’s Foundation. Welcome June to the Impact Podcast.
June Sugiyama: Thank you. It’s a pleasure to be here amongst all of your esteemed interviewees. So, I’m looking forward to this talk.
John: Well, so are we, and it’s Vodafone’s first turn and your first turn on the Impact show. June before we get going and talk about all the important and great work that you’re doing in Vodafone with your colleagues, can you share a little bit about the June Sugiyama story? Where did you grow up, and how do you even get on this journey that you’re on right now?
June: Sure. I was born and raised in Japan, but in Japan on an American base. So, I was born an American citizen.
John: Oh wow.
John: I didn’t come to the states until I was in my teens and we traveled every three years because my father was supporting the US Military. It was really interesting that I came from a city like Yokohama Japan, and we landed in a little town on the Oregon border called Klamath Falls Oregon. I learned how to ride horses there and everything. I’ve never seen horses or cows ever before in my life, but there was a small navy base there at that time, so my father worked there. From then on it was in the states, and here we are, I’ve always done community work. That’s one of the reasons I landed this position within Vodafone. We were an American company previously called AirTouch, and we merged with Vodafone years ago. Yeah.
John: Where did you go to college?
June: I went to college here in San Francisco State and Masters at University of San Francisco all in education actually.
John: Oh great, and when you came over, did you speak English, or was your English Japanese at that point because you grew up on the American base?
June: Yeah, English was my first language because I went to an American school, but I had family within the city in Japan, Yokohama, so I speak both languages. Yeah.
John: That’s wonderful. So, how long ago did Vodafone buy AirTouch?
June: Well, we merged in 2,000.
June: One of the reasons I’m here at the foundation is because Vodafone took on the American philosophy of being good corporate citizens, and we already had a foundation at AirTouch. Vodafone already had a couple of trusts within their properties, and so when we merged together, we had several foundations at that time. We grew at one point to I think like 28 or 29 foundations. That’s a very unique model for a company to have that many independent foundations. Usually it’s just from the corporate center, from the marketing or community relations.
John: Right. So now, how long have you held this title as director of Vodafone America’s Foundation?
June: Yeah. So, I’ve been here since the merger.
June: For 23 years and very blessed and lucky to be in this field.
John: That’s wonderful.
June: People asked me, “How can you stay in one position for so long?” But we’re in the telecommunications field and in technology as you know, we evolved every three years if not early. So, my position changes because as, you know, our foundation is related to technology as opposed to just regular philanthropy. So, although I sat in one place, everything around me always changes, and what we do with the community always changes accordingly.
John: So, our generation, June, I would assume you and I are close to the same generation, we started something and typically stayed where as millennials or Gen Zers, they move around more. It’s just culturally different. The next generations are somewhat different and they move around a little bit more, but I think there’s a lot to be said with consistency and staying in one place and evolving as that brand or that organization evolves. I think there’s a lot to be said for that.
John: So, talk a little bit about being a director of Vodafone America’s Foundation, what does that mean? Because we’ve been so lucky and blessed over 16 years to have almost 2,000 guests on. In every organization, it can mean something different. These titles are somewhat fungible. At Vodafone, what does that exactly mean?
June: Here at Vodafone America’s Foundation, that means we lead the work of the foundation. The foundation is separate from the corporate entity. It’s modeled like that throughout all of the rest of Vodafone’s and their foundation. Although we have 22 or 21 foundations worldwide, all of us have a charter for technology for good or connecting for good because we know what we have as a company, which is the skill, the know-how and the employees that they have expertise in technology. Then for people like me here in the United States, although we have the expertise in technology, we don’t necessarily have the expertise and what’s needed in the community. So, we always partner with community organizations in order to be able to harness the power of technology to create change.
John: For our listeners and viewers who don’t know Vodafone as intimately as they know other organizations and technology or carriers, how big is Vodafone around the world, give or take in terms of people?
June: Yeah. Well, I don’t know. I’m sorry, I don’t have the latest employee base of numbers, but at one point we were in almost 40 countries worldwide. Like you say, we’re in the telecommunications/technology field.
June: You are so right, and thank you for asking that question because when I tell people, I work for Vodafone in the U.S. it’s always, “What’s that?”
June: It is normal to Europe if they’re like, “Oh my God. I saw Vodafone all over the place.”
John: All over. Right.
June: So, we’re very strong in the European market. We have partnerships with some Asian markets. Here in the United States, we have partnerships and salesforce and some of the legacy weren’t going on here. So, we don’t have operations per se in the United States, but we have lots of employees here and thus the foundation, we not only do community work, but we also do employee engagement for employees as well.
John: When was Vodafone America’s Foundation strategy created to marry technology with social impact? Where was that 23 years ago or is that an evolution?
June: It’s an evolution. In the very beginning, we were like any other foundation providing grants to Social Service organizations in the community. Then our board members thought, “You know, we have so much to offer. Our technology know-how, our employees, our reach, our customers, can we do something with that?” So, in the very beginning, we were providing scholarships for students who are in the mobile technology field. Then we evolved from that to run a competition called a wireless innovation project. It was a contest more or less to find the best wireless innovation for social change. That was the best thing for our foundation. We were at the forefront of connecting technology innovation with critical social needs. We really weren’t sure what we were going to find, and we found incredible things out of the box thinking for I think the early on competition winners for Mobile Microscopes, Mobile Finance, Incredible Innovation like detecting preterm birth and helping anti-elephant poachers and detecting insects for farmers. I mean things that we didn’t think we were going to find.
June: So, we did that for 10 years. Now, we have a partnership with MIT Solve to run our competition for us, but it continues. Now, it’s very popular for companies to run competitions like this or RFPs for innovation that uses their technology. But in those days, we were really early in the market to do this.
John: Understood. For our listeners and viewers who just joined us, we’ve got June Sugiyama with us today. She’s the director of Vodafone America’s Foundation. To find June and her colleagues and all the great and impactful work they’re doing at Vodafone, go to vodafone.com or vodafone.com/vodafonefoundation. June, what was the motivation, and when did you pivot foundation’s effort towards empowering women and girls through the use of technology?
June: Yeah. Thanks also for asking that question. We were running the wireless innovation competition for a while. We were partnering with incredible innovators. During that time, we found out a couple of things that some of our applicants for this competition were women. They were also doing incredible things, but we also found at that time, they were getting 1% or less of VC funding compared to men. I just looked this up before I came on, and right now it’s 2.1%.
John: Although, we have great people like you doing this great important work, which we’re going to get into, we’re so far from being where we need to be. It’s so incredible. I mean, it’s so disparate when you compare what’s going on in Silicon Valley and VC money, and it’s mind-boggling those numbers. Those numbers are mind-boggling.
June: Further to that, in addition, there’s been research that’s finding that women deliver twice as much per dollar of VC funding. So, go figure.
John: The numbers don’t lie. Do you think they’d be some VC’s looking at those same numbers you just quoted and say, “Maybe this we should be pivoting a little bit ourselves towards lending more to investing more in women entrepreneurs?”
June: Yeah. So with that, and then also I think it’s about 6 years ago, our CEO at that time, Vittorio Colao made a public commitment to UN women that we were going to increase the number of women in technology because at that time, we had a huge gap, increase the number of women leaders within our own company and using our technology to educate girls. They’ve done that through their technology instant satellite networks that use an instant satellite to pull education material for girls and boys in refugee camps. But we figure our CEO made a public commitment worldwide that we should do something to back him up. So, we really looked at what we were doing and how we could create change. So, we changed our strategy, not only technology for good, but technology to advance women and girls. That’s because of the kind of funding women were getting. The fact that women could really benefit from technology and women were getting the least access to technology. So, with those things, we changed our strategy, and we focus completely now on technology for women and girls.
John: Are you happy with the results that you’ve been achieving over the last six or so years?
June: Yeah, I’m happy with the success we’ve had, but as you can imagine, it’s only a drop in the bucket. We can do a lot more, and I think everybody else could do a lot more as well.
John: You’re right. Talk a little bit about Bright Sky. What’s your foundations work with bright sky and your mission in partnership with them? How does that look?
June: Yeah. So this is a really good story. Years ago, I think over 10 years ago, the Vodafone Group Foundation, our headquarters in the UK, had a partnership with the police department to use their mobile technology to tackle domestic violence. That evolved, and it became a software and there’s been many partnerships and iterations in this domestic violence app. They’ve launched this Bright Sky in different iterations in 12 countries, and the the US, this March, was the 13th country to launched Bright Sky. So, Vodafone has had success with this app in finding domestic violence. I think over 500,000 downloads so far. So, why not the US, which is a big market and itself? Come to find out, first of all, I’m not an expert in domestic violence. As I mentioned before, we partner with organizations that are.
June: I think that’s also unique with what we’ve done. Vodafone didn’t go out and say, “We know everything, and we’re going to launch this app.” We sought experts in the field and we partnered with them, both local organizations and global. Then we leverage the technology that we had as well as other technology partners, and we launched this in March, and come to find out in my own research that there are over 200 domestic violence apps here within the United States.
June: For good reason, some of the apps could be localized. The services that you need that are provided are probably localized. So local organizations launched those, and then some of these apps do different things, or as the Bright Sky app that was launched in March with this partnership is a little bit different, and that it’s not an emergency app. It’s an app when you’re in crisis and you push a button and somebody wants to help you. It’s actually an app not only for the survivors of domestic violence, but also friends and family and maybe even colleagues to be able to kind of evaluate the situation and do some research and make some decisions, whether you’re a friend, or whether you are that individual yourself suffering from this situation. So, not only provides an opportunity for you to evaluate, do some research, but also to seek out some help, and further on lots of different components in this app.
John: So, it’s a great facilitation tool.
June: You know what, that’s a really good word for it. It’s perfect. It’s a facilitation tool not only for yourself, but people who care about you.
John: The best way for our listeners and viewers to access this is to go to their Apple store or their Google Play store. Okay, and [crosstalk]
June: Bright Sky US is what you should look up. It’s always good whether you’re going to use it then or later, it’s just always good to have it on your phone. I mean, like I mentioned, this is not a feeling that I’m an expert in. So, when I did some research, I was really surprised to find that one in four women in the United States suffer from some kind of intimate domestic violence. One in seven of men, and those numbers change up and down because some people report and some people don’t.
June: This is not something that people talk about in a casual conversation or at work or whatever. But when you think about it in contrast, I’m sure you as well as your audience have heard a friend or family member or colleague talk about somebody who suffers from breast cancer, or they had breast cancer surgery or they’re going to go to the doctors too, because they were suspecting. One in five women suffer from breast cancer, but here, we have one in four women who suffer from domestic violence. So, I think it’s something that we should talk about more often and that it should be, I don’t know the exact word, easier, for us to make it easier to talk about it and not so [crosstalk]
John: Well, it’s like what you were comparing it to is before some celebrities or icons got breast cancer and talked about it, openly, it was a taboo. Like it was called normalized.
John: Bob Dole talked about prostate cancer, it was a very taboo until it was normalized. Same thing with addictions. Addictions, 20 years ago, people didn’t want to talk about mental health. It’s now becoming semi-normalized and hopefully it’s on the road. Same thing goes for saying, “We’ve got to normalize the discussion and make it okay for people to openly share their need for help when it comes to domestic violence.
June: Exactly, and I think what’s helping a little bit with the change in social media, many of the influencers have talked about what they themselves have experienced, and I think that’s helped a little bit.
John: Yeah, but it’s also great organizations like yours that put out these facilitation tools that give people the opportunity a little bit in anonymity start with leveraging technology to start sharing and seeking help.
John: Because it’s the first step in the right direction. Asking for help in one way or another is really the first step of that kind of journey.
June: Right. I think it really helps just by starting like you say, the small baby steps, just to download the app and to learn a little bit about it, whether your friend or family member, or colleague or yourself. Then familiarize yourself and then take steps from there.
John: Right. What lessons have you learned over the 23 years with regards to business leaders investing more in social good and philanthropy and leveraging technology to fill gaps like you’ve done with Bright Sky in our society where there’s obvious gaps that need to be addressed? What lessons have you learned that you’d like to share with our audience?
June: Well, I think this is a great opportunity, and many companies especially in the United States already gave to the community, but it needs to be done in a very strategic way where they can leverage what it is, the qualities and the quantities that they have, right? Whether it be their reach, their employee base, their technology know-how or their customer base, I think there’s a lot that can be leveraged. I do have to say though, from the time I started in this field and now there’s an incredible increase in the number of corporate foundations, individual foundations, people of wealth are not just standing there. They’re putting their money to use. So, I think people are really conscious about that, but the other thing that companies can do is partnership. A partnership like we did with nonprofit organizations that have the expertise as well as partnerships with other companies and creating clout to be able to push some issues forward and some projects forward, I think partnerships are incredibly important.
John: Yeah. June, we have a lot of listeners and viewers around the world, and many of them are young. Many of them are coming out of high school or college, and they watch or listen to podcasts like this, and they say, “How do I become the next June Sugiyama?” So, if you were to look back at your 18-year-old self or 22-year-old self, what lessons can you share in your journey for the next generations behind us that want to go into important work like you’re doing at Vodafone?
June: Well, in my days, there was not a straight pipeline to being a corporate foundation director or manager or anything. There are certain scholastic pipelines now, but not many. So, people come from a liberal studies type of degree or education or public policy type of degree, but higher education aside, I think it’s your personal desire of what it is that you’re looking for in your career. I always wanted something that was really worthy and something that will wake me up in the morning. I’m really blessed to be able to find something like that, that gets me out of bed even though I’m tired, I wake up and I think, “Oh yeah, do something really fun and great.” People really appreciate my work, and I can see the difference that it’s making.
John: When you go to bed at night and you’ve got to feel good about yourself every [crosstalk] and you go to bed at night, you’re not just making widgets; you’re making a difference on a daily basis.
John: That’s a lot to be said for that. Speaking of which gets people excited, what gets you excited about what’s to come? What are you working on with your colleagues at the Vodafone America’s Foundation that you’re looking forward so that you could discuss right now publicly?
June: Yeah. I think the fact that we’re looking at more countries to launch Bright Sky.
John: Oh, that’s great.
June: Then I know a lot of my colleagues in my field are really looking into things like AI, and what that can do for poor people? I mean, I couldn’t really take a step back here. When Vodafone was working and looking at mobile money, M-PESA, if you look that up, you’ll find that it’s changed economies because people were craving for something like that. People desperately needed something like that. Then just by introducing this technology, it changed whole economies in people’s lives. So, I think whether it’s AI, or any other technology, it has an opportunity to make an incredible change. That said, technology is not the end-all be-all, and we all need to make sure that we remember that when we’re doing our work and that we have a diverse team. We have inclusive team and that we are considerate to do no harm when we do anything. So, those are kinds of the qualifications that we have in what we do.
John: Well, that sounds wonderful, and June, you’re always going to be welcomed back on the Impact Podcast to continue sharing your journey as a director of Vodafone America’s foundation. For our listeners and viewers who want to find June, who want to find her important and great work that she’s doing with her colleagues at Vodafone America’s Foundation, please go to either vodafone.com or vodafone.com/vodafone foundation. Please, if you’re interested, or you have a loved one that’s going through a domestic violence situation, or you yourself are impacted directly, download the Bright Sky apps, Bright Sky America’s app and find the help that you need and find the direction that you need to be going in there and get some help. There’s no shame. It’s only a sign of strength, not a sign of weakness to ask for help. That Bright Sky app is the first step in the right direction. June, thanks again for all the work you do. Thank you for making the world a better place and thank you for all the impacts you’ve made over the last 23 years. You’re always welcome back on the Impact Podcast.
June: Thank you, and thanks for all the great work you do as well. I appreciate that.
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