“My eyes light up when I talk about it,” says Anna Popova, of Globant’s new Be Kind Tech Fund. A vice president for delivery at the digital technology company, Popova is co-leading the fund, which has a remit to back businesses with a very different type of take on innovation and digital transformation. “We hear a great deal of talk about the positive impact of technology on society, and that is very real,” says Popova. “But not enough is said about the other side of the coin.”
She is talking about the growing concern about the harm that technological change is driving, across issues ranging from the rise in online harassment to the potential for bias in artificial intelligence systems that perpetuates prejudice and discrimination. It is not that innovators are striving for these potentially negative impacts; rather, they occur as side effects as technology develops. But unless someone deals with them, the harm continues to grow.
Enter the Be Kind Tech Fund, which Globant believes is the only venture fund that is specifically focused on support for start-up businesses which are developing solutions to mitigate the misuse and abuse of technology. The fund will focus on businesses offering positive advances in five areas, Popova explains. These are online harassment, data privacy and security, screen time abuse, artificial intelligence bias, and information bubbles and polarisation.
“We are looking for businesses capable of having a positive and measurable impact,” Popova adds. “We are trying to create a technology ecosystem that is capable of delivering a more sustainable impact.”
The fund has yet to announce its first investments, but Popova says it is attracting significant interest from potential investee companies, with more than 500 start-ups having already made enquiries. “This can be more than just a fund – it can be a movement,” she says.
Certainly, the issues on which the fund is focused are very real. The Center for Humane Technology has catalogued a string of invisible harms to society that have resulted from the growing influence of technology platforms. It points to research with worrying findings including:
- Children who have been cyberbullied are three times’ more likely to contemplate suicide than their peers; one in four children have had online sexual encounters with adults via social media.
- The 10 most popular Facebook Covid-19 misinformation sites generated four times’ more views than content from the 10 leading international health institutions.
- Within three months of beginning to use a smartphone, users experience a significant decrease in their mental arithmetic scores, indicating a reduction in their attention capacity, and a significant increase in social conformity.
- A study in which 3,000 voters were shown fake stories saw many of these voters not only “remember” these fake stories as if they were real events, but also augment their memories with rich new details of how and when the events took place.
The list goes on and on. Popova argues that companies such as Globant, built to support clients with technological innovation and transformation, have a particular responsibility to engage with these problems. “We reached a point where we just felt that we couldn’t not do something,” she says. In any case, Popova adds, start-ups that are successful in confronting these issues will have a bright future. The fund expects many of its portfolio constituents to deliver returns of 10 times’ or more.
Globant’s vision is that the fund will make investments of between $100,000 and $1 million in the companies it backs, taking minority stakes to support firms as they develop new products and services.
The technology company also sees itself as a convenor of change, and will work with several partners to manage the fund. These include the George Washington University, the Center for Humane Technology and investors including Riverwood Capital, IDB Lab and Nazca. “Hopefully, we’ll make a difference,” Popova says.
It’s a very personal endeavour for Popova, who joined Globant after a two-decade career in consultancy and investment. She argues companies in the sector have a duty to lead by example on key issues; indeed, the Be Kind Tech Fund is key element of Globant’s environmental, social and governance (ESG) strategy, which is also headlined Be Kind.
One particularly important aspect of this ESG programme for Popova is the company’s public commitment to having 50% of management positions occupied by women by 2025. As she points out, the technology sector does not have a good record on promoting women to senior roles, but dealing with that will require leaders to focus on every level of the business. “For many technology companies, this is a talent funnel crisis,” she argues. “It starts with your intake – too few women are coming into technology businesses – but then it continues with what happens after recruitment.”
Putting such problems right will take some time, but leaders have to be prepared to face up to the challenge in the first place, Popova argues – just as it is important to support those start-up businesses with promising solutions to the negative aspects of technological change.