Connecting for Good is becoming the little nonprofit that could. That could bridge the digital divide in Kansas City, that is.
Established in 2011, CFG came together quickly when Google Fiber chose the Kansas Cities for its first rollout. Led by co-founders Michael Liimatta and Rick Deane (CEO and COO respectively), the nonprofit started as a group of techies and community activists bent on providing free public wifi to low-income residents.
Over the years, it grew into a full-fledged service organization, providing digital literacy training in two proprietary computer labs, public wifi to Rosedale Ridge, and even low-cost PCs refurbished in house. But when Liimatta accepted the post of national manager of the Fed’s ConnectHome initiative and moved to D.C. earlier this year, the future of CFG suddenly became unclear.
That’s why we were excited when Connecting for Good last week announced the hiring of a new CEO.
That new CEO is Tom Esselman. He brings a wealth of digital inclusion and innovation experience to his new role. Originally from Kentucky and schooled in D.C. and Chicago, Esselman served as a senior innovation executive at Hallmark, where he developed and launched new technology products, expanding the greeting card company’s footprint through projects like SongCards and Recordables. During that time, Tom and his wife raised four children in KC — and lived on both sides of the state line.
After 22 years at Hallmark, he retired in 2012 to take a job leading a startup non-profit in Florida called The Institute for the Ages. “It was an experiment to turn old-age demographics into a living lab for innovation,” he says.
We caught up with Tom to learn about what’s in store for Connecting for Good, and why he traded the beach for baseball, barbecue, and colder climates in KC.
KC Digital Drive: You were in sunny, warm Florida. Why come back to KC?
Tom Esselman: When I took the job in the aging field in Sarasota, my wife was starting a new job in public education field based in Detroit, and we commuted between cities for three years. As our family began expanding back in Kansas City (we have two young granddaughters here), we both decided we wanted to come back.
I suppose a few other things—like how awesome a city Kansas City is—influenced our decision to come back too. Trading the beach for babies, barbecue and baseball turned out to be a no-brainer! We are both passionate about being part of KC’s growing legacy of community engagement and leadership.
What attracted you to Connecting for Good?
The mission to improve lives through technology has been embedded from my work at Hallmark and the Institute for the Ages. From the first day I learned about Connecting For Good—at a KC Digital Drive event, coincidentally—I realized it was an organization I wanted to be part of.
The more I learned about Kansas City’s Digital Roadmap and the pivotal role CFG plays in that strategy, the more I realized how perfectly it matched my criteria for both community engagement and innovative leadership.
How has your previous experience prepared you for the work of bridging the digital divide in KC?
Since we were students at Georgetown, my wife and I tutored in the housing projects of D.C. and Chicago, and dedicated ourselves to volunteer work with underserved populations. When Hallmark Cards brought us to Kansas City, I served as leader of the company’s Christmas In October program, volunteered with Youth Friends and the KCMO School District, and joined boards of directors at Sunflower House, L’Arche Heartland, Catholic Charities of KC/St. Joseph, Shepherd’s Center Central, and the Goodcents Foundation. I’m also a member of the Advisory Board for KC Communities for All Ages, sponsored by the Mid-America Regional Council
My work with sound cards and innovations for seniors taught me a lot about caregiving and the need for technologies that can make learning and communicating easier and more effective for people of all ages and backgrounds. Most of the product and service innovation I’ve been part of for the past few years has focused on making an impact in education, employment, and healthcare, all areas that matter critically to the economic and social well-being of our communities
What’s the most exciting thing about this job?
One of the most exciting parts of this work is helping people improve their lives at a time when the need for education and employment readiness has never been greater.
Another exciting aspect of this job is the timing—CFG is poised as a leadership organization for digital inclusion efforts on both a local and national scale
Lastly, and perhaps most important, the staff, volunteers, and board of directors of Connecting For Good are some of the most passionate and dedicated people I’ve ever known. It’s always exciting to work with great people.
What’s the scariest/most challenging thing about this job?
The challenges are many– 25% of Kansas City area residents don’t have broadband Internet access at home; 42% of those who don’t use the Internet have annual household incomes of under $25,000; 46% of nonusers are minorities
But fear is not a factor, as we have begun to see the impact of our work when we combine the skill and passion of our staff and volunteers, with a toolset of communication, collaboration with people and organizations throughout Kansas City, and shared accountability.
What inspires you personally about the work of digital inclusion?
Never in history has such a term existed before this generation. I love being part of groundbreaking work that will make a sustainable difference in peoples’ lives for generations to come.
What are Kansas City’s strengths when it comes to digital inclusion?
This city is on a roll right now when it comes to innovation, perseverance in the face of challenges, and leadership in the digital space. We were the first city picked by Google for its high-speed internet connections, and that has put the spotlight on Kansas City as the bellwether for digital inclusion efforts
We are surrounded with public and private organizations willing to partner in support of necessary improvements, and an overwhelming generosity and philanthropic legacy
Another clear strength we possess is our link to the national ConnectHome initiative of the Department of Housing and Urban Development. Its manager is Michael Liimatta, co-founder of Connecting For Good here in Kansas City.
What are our weaknesses?
Digital inclusion is such a new concept that there exists a great deal of fragmentation and lack of clarity in defining outcomes associated with closing the digital divide, and finding consensus on pathways to closing that divide. Like any great innovation, experimentation is needed, and learning from our failures will ultimately help us achieve our goals.
Adopting broadband internet in underserved areas of our population has not come easily so far in Kansas City—on both sides of the state line. Other cities already are learning from our missteps and making great strides. The great thing is that these other cities—Austin, Portland, Minneapolis, to name a few—are collaborating with us in Kansas City to learn from each other’s successes and failures, and expand awareness of digital inclusion nationwide.
Connecting for Good offers many services: digital literacy classes, refurbishing PCs, providing public wifi and computer labs … How do you plan to build upon this foundation? Will you be making any changes to the business?
We will be clarifying and strengthening our focus on education, employment, and economic impact.
You will also see us increasing our capacity to serve in each of these areas by continuing to expand our collaboration with public and private partners both locally and across the country
Anything else you’d like to add?
In the words of one of my favorite songs, “right here, right now, there is no other place I’d rather be”