Geekcorps exports tech expertise

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Geekcorps exports tech expertise



Geekcorps exports tech expertise

Geekcorps exports tech expertise

By Marco R. della Cava, USA TODAY

PORTLAND, Ore. Jean MacDonald has a new red Volkswagen Beetle, a furry guinea pig named Rosie and a successful Web design business. In sum, a cozy little life. So naturally, she figured it was time to move to the struggling West African nation of Ghana. No, MacDonald, 40, isn't battling a midlife crisis. She is a recent recruit to Geekcorps, a new program modeled on the Peace Corps and designed to let today's techies share their cerebral wealth with the world. "I like to help people get into the Net," says MacDonald, who, when not designing sites for local art galleries and dance companies, teaches at Pacific Northwest College of Art. "Besides, Accra (Ghana's capital) sounded cool."

On Jan. 27, MacDonald and seven others will fly to the North Adams, Mass., headquarters of Geekcorps, the brainchild of 28-year-old Internet entrepreneur Ethan Zuckerman. After 10 days of orientation, the group decamps to Africa for three months.

Geekcorps' first class of six spent this past fall in Accra teaching tech skills ranging from basic computer languages to Web design at a variety of local businesses. MacDonald will be helping a Ghanaian company called TSS Software design a Web site. Like other firms receiving Geekcorps' help, TSS is assigning an employee to "shadow" MacDonald for training purposes, as well as committing to community projects to pass on the new skills.

MacDonald talks about wanting to give back, a growing sentiment among both successful and recently unemployed dot-commers who are eager to give the digital rat race a rest. But she has a more personal reason. Last February, her mother, a longtime special education teacher, died, and the phone rang off the hook with condolences. That got MacDonald thinking.

"She was always there for students, colleagues and friends, but she was especially giving (with) the handicapped kids," she says. "I don't think I would be doing this without that example."

Geekcorps draws all manner of techie applicants, each with his or her own motivations. This current class includes management consultants, public relations officers and software designers.

Volunteers have to arrange work leaves with their respective companies. In-country, they each receive housing and a $500 monthly stipend; local monthly salaries average $120.

Geekcorps has an annual budget of $350,000. Zuckerman and co-founder Elisa Korentayer aim to triple that figure and expand from Ghana into Latin America and Asia.

"Long-term, I want everyone in the high-tech community to think about doing Geekcorps," says Zuckerman, who made his Net fortune in 1998 when the online home page community Tripod, where he was vice president of research and development, was bought by search portal Lycos for $60 million.

"After the (Lycos) sale, I didn't know what to do," he says. "I could go and make more money, or do something worthwhile like getting technology to people who need it."

Zuckerman, a passionate percussionist, chose Ghana for personal reasons. In 1993, he spent a year there as a Fulbright Fellow studying with a drum master whom he recently invited to Massachusetts. "We have sharp people going over to Africa with as little as two years' experience" in technology, he says. "But there is so little knowledge and so much enthusiasm for this stuff in Ghana that everything helps."

Just how much a poor country such as Ghana a nation of 20 million where unemployment runs 20% needs assistance connecting to the information superhighway is a matter of debate. But Zuckerman is resolute. "I'm blown away how psyched people are for the Net there," he says. "It's also one of the most stable countries in West Africa, with liberalized telecommunication companies, which should help boost (Web) access."

MacDonald, too, has heard talk about the seeming silliness of bringing technology to countries whose needs are more basic, but she doesn't buy it. "The Net is delivering important information," she says. "In places like Ghana, an Internet cafe really means something. It connects you to the world."

Helping Africans with computer fluency is not what MacDonald ever envisioned for herself. A University of North Carolina graduate with a degree in Russian studies, she worked as a literary agent in New York before heading west in 1995 to work for her sister's software company. She jumped to Web design after being laid off in 1997.

"I got hooked," MacDonald says. "I've been totally out of this big money-making Internet craze, but I guess I prefer that. I like the personal relationships my business brings."

MacDonald will soon do her part in linking Ghana to the digital world. What she'll get in return is a more subtle gift. "I'll see how I cope with very reduced standards of living. I sense I'll appreciate things more when I return," she says.

Her thoughts return to her mother. "She was all about giving. It's time to make that a bigger part of me."

E-mail mdellacava@usatoday.com



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This story has been posted in the following forums: : Headlines; Special Interests - An Electronic Peace Corps

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