One Laptop per Child Beats the Odds

When Nicholas Negroponte launched One Laptop per Child in 2005, he was variously called an idealist and an imperialist for his idea: a nonprofit education-based initiative to help the world’s poorest countries disseminate laptop computers to millions of children — at $100 per unit.

Three years later, you can call him effective. Production of OLPC’s specially designed, kid-friendly XO laptop — rugged, low-wattage, with handles for easy toting — began in November 2007. Today, OLPC has large purchase agreements in Uruguay and Peru, for a total of 1.7 million computers. There are also test deployments in Cambodia, Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Haiti, Mongolia and Rwanda.

Lawrence Blau, a New York-based accountant who volunteered with kids in Cambodia, has seen the XO in action. “The children loved them and they were doing very creative things with them,” he says. “There was one girl, around 11 or 12, whose father had a fish farm. She’d walk one hour to the fish pond to turn on a light to attract bugs and she’d walk one hour back to the village.” Blau says the girl ultimately learned how to put a sensor on the light and use the laptop to turn it on and off.

“It was a miracle in the middle of a real third-world situation,” he says.

Making miracles hasn’t been easy for One Laptop per Child. In late 2006, OLPC chairman Negroponte realized he would need more than altruism to convince world leaders to buy computers for each of their countries’ school kids. So he engaged public relations company Racepoint Group to introduce his foundation’s mission to the world.

“One of our main objectives was to help shape global opinion,” says Jackie Lustig, svp at Racepoint.

Lustig says Negroponte had simply been going around by himself, from country to country, trying to convince governments to sign on. Although OLPC “informally coordinates” with the United Nations, Negroponte “realized that he needed a global communications program to open the doors for him, so that he could go in and make the sale,” she says.

To that end, Lustig and her team rolled out a series of public service announcements in the United States and Canada that illustrated OLPC’s goal to manufacture, distribute and deliver the laptops to participating countries. One PSA features Negroponte relaying a success story. As an image appears of a computer screen glowing in a darkened room, he says, “Families loved it because it was the brightest light source in the household. Talk about a metaphor in reality.”

Lustig says her early media relations efforts also entailed defending OLPC against corporations that saw it as a threat.

“It became clear to major technology companies — including Intel and Microsoft — that OLPC might actually be able to develop a laptop that could get into the hands of 1 billion children worldwide,” Lustig says. “First, they kind of pooh-poohed the whole project, but as they began to see that it could come to fruition, they suddenly got very concerned about their own market opportunity.”

Lustig says Intel had begun a campaign to discredit OLPC. “So the PR program had to help combat those attacks,” she says.

The giant chip maker joined the OLPC project in July 2007 and quit six months later amid friction over how aggressively it should promote its Classmate PC, another low-cost model designed for what it calls “emerging markets.”

Lustig says her communications efforts involved “exposing Intel’s tactics through the media.” She cites a May 2007 60 Minutes interview in which Negroponte calls Intel “predatory” for trying to sell its Classmate PCs to the same governments he had approached with his nonprofit laptops.

Intel counters that there’s plenty of need to go around. “We have always applauded any effort to distribute computers to children around the world,” says Intel rep Agnes Kwan. “However, there are 1 billion kids who need them and only 5 percent have access. So there can be multiple solutions to meet that need.”

The communications team was also tasked with fund-raising in North America. To accomplish that, Racepoint developed “Give one, take one,” which offered consumers in the U.S. and Canada the opportunity to purchase two laptops for $399. One would be given to a child in a developing nation and the other would be theirs to keep.

Lustig says OLPC had “zero budget for advertising,” but did some airport and outdoor ads, donated by JC Decaux. The Economist and Time donated one insertion each in their print publications. Fox and the Disney Channel offered free airtime during the giving campaign, which ran from Nov. 12-Dec. 31, 2007.

Aided by “global ambassador” Masi Oka, of the television series Heroes, the campaign raised $35 million in seven weeks. This enabled the organization to deliver 100,000 laptops to children in Cambodia, Ethiopia and Rwanda, where governments couldn’t afford to buy the computers. OLPC has plans to launch another giving campaign in September.

For its efforts, Racepoint has won numerous awards this year, including a United Nations Grand Award and a Silver Anvil from the Public Relations Society of America.

Sherry Goldman, a committee chair for PRSA and president of Goldman Communications Group, said the Racepoint communications program “proves public relations does good things. It shows that it’s important for people and companies to step up and get involved, and that they can make a difference.”

Along with all the accolades, OLPC has encountered its share of problems. There have been organizational shake-ups, failed deals with education ministries and increased prices due to unforeseen costs.

Prompted in part by these challenges, Negroponte, who does not have a business background, recently made some profound changes to the nonprofit. These include naming longtime software industry executive Chuck Kane president. Kane succeeded MIT professor Walter Bender, who had overseen software development, on May 2.

Negroponte first approached Kane in 2005 after seeing him present at MIT. “I signed up immediately,” Kane recalls. “I thought it was the greatest thing I’d ever heard.”

Kane served as CFO, then left to start a hedge fund before Negroponte asked him to return to guide day-to-day operations.

“I am the businessman who tries to make good on the business model,” Kane says, referring, in part, to Negroponte’s original goal of providing the laptops for $100 apiece. The price is currently just under $200.

“When I first came to this company and looked at the bill of materials, it was a lot more than what we were going to sell them for,” he says. “You can’t operate a project that way.”

Kane’s pragmatism has manifested itself in a recently finalized partnership with Microsoft to run Windows on the laptops, replacing the original Linux open-source operating system. That move came after some countries, including Libya, declined to purchase the laptops because they lacked the program.

For some at the nonprofit, the Windows deal marked a philosophical turning point in OLPC’s mission. Unlike Windows, the Linux software can be freely shared, in keeping with OLPC’s community-geared efforts. In fact, the organization developed a kid-friendly interface and applications for Linux that supported the educational theory of constructionism, which holds that children learn better by doing than from lectures. The Microsoft deal led to the resignations of Bender and Ivan Krstic, former OLPC software security chief.

Krstic says he left the company because he believes Negroponte is now only committed to distribution. In an e-mail from Croatia, he charges that Negroponte abandoned the learning goal because it posed a set of very tough problems on the ground, including electrical availability, lack of network infrastructure and delivering the laptops safely in harsh conditions. “I’m sure he still has the good intention of the laptops being used for learning, but abandoning all plans to actually facilitate that — well, you know what they say about good intentions,” Krstic wrote.

To that, Kane responds, “I just think it is an unfair slap at a project that is so genuine.” Kane agrees that he would like to integrate the laptops, which now use Windows’ office applications, within the educational systems. “I think that we have to spend a lot of time with the teachers. Ultimately, the teachers are the ones that drive the initiative,” he says.

Kane says he “took a lot of abuse” from open-source purists. Ultimately, he told that community, whose members have been major contributors to OLPC, “This is not a project about open source; this is a project about getting technology to children. And if the technology has XP in it, so be it.”

OLPC has also faced criticism that its mission to send computers to impoverished children who lack running water is imperialist.

“In how many years have we tried to help these countries and it hasn’t worked?” Kane asks. “It’s teach them to fish instead of giving them the fish.'” Education, he says, is at the core of every successful economy: “If you are going to make progress in these countries, you have to get to that core.”

Lustig saw firsthand the benefits of an OLPC education when she sat in on an interview with three Brazilian children who had received the laptops. “There was this little girl, about 10 years old, who said that before getting the laptop, she wanted to be a fashion model,” recalls Lustig. “And now that she has the laptop, she is keeping a personal journal, and she is doing lots of research for projects, and she thinks she wants to be a teacher.”

Suddenly, says Lustig, these kids can explore the whole world with their laptop and start to have greater aspirations about what they can do. “It’s like their proudest possession; they are the owner,” she says. “There are stories of some of them sleeping with it at night.”

Kane is equally awed. “When I see a picture of a child in a hut somewhere in the world with a computer, and the light is illuminating their face, and their eyes are just so focused on trying to learn, that’s what gets me excited,” he says. “Those little kids are the future of the world.”