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Innovation Starts With All of Us

There are always perils when trying to influence what other people care about.

To wit: As the United Nations (UN) gathers this week in New York City, there is no shortage of burning issues that are worthy focal points. That the UN focuses on 17 global goals only underscores the point further. Five or 10 would be a full plate. Seventeen is a full house. There’s a lot of competition for concerned people.

There is only one true red thread that runs through all these topics: Young people will need to finish the job.

Whatever progress we make in the next decade, we’ll eventually need to hand things over to the 1.8 billion people aged 10 to 24. Here’s the big problem with that: Only eight percent of them achieve a minimum level secondary education in low-income countries. The odds that these young people will be ready for an algorithm-centric economy are slim to none. A staggering number of young people are not on a path to join the global workforce. For every young person who is building a new tech platform or addressing the climate crisis, there are millions who probably won’t be able to find a decent job. This is particularly true in countries like India and Vietnam, where so much emphasis has been on the very labor-intensive jobs that this digital transformation wave threatens to consume.

Put another way: In places where economic opportunity should be elevating a new middle class, the status quo system has lowered a ceiling on the capacity of young people to climb from one economic class to another. To make matters worse, for millions of young girls, gender stereotypes lower that ceiling even more. The very idea of professional ambition is taken off the table for too many girls, regardless of whether the educational system has the right programming to help them pursue it.

So about those 17 global goals: If young people aren’t in meaningful jobs, they won’t be able to fight for meaningful causes.

Now for some better news: This crisis has given us some badly needed unity across the public, private, not-for-profit, and educational sectors.

We all agree that it’s unacceptable to watch another generation stall in the depths of underemployment and poverty. We must find a better way to stimulate the unlimited potential of young people, whoever they are and wherever they live.

Hundreds of organizations in the world have rightly seized on this issue. Presidents, government ministers, policymakers, and business leaders have the youth unemployment crisis on their agendas. If pledges and press releases alone could be recycled into job opportunities, we’d be in great shape.

These well-meaning commitments to address the issue are, in fact, a positive step. The question then becomes how do we organize all this work so the invested resources become more than a “throw spaghetti against the wall” strategy?

With its support of the UN’s Generation Unlimited initiative, UNICEF has the answer.

Henrietta Fore, UNICEF executive director, was emphatic in a recent conversation with SAP CEO Bill McDermott.

“We’ll bring governments and non-governmental organizations to the table, but we need the business community to drive this conversation based on the skills that will be required as the economy changes,” she told him. “If businesses don’t help governments equip young people with the necessary skills, we’ll leave a generation out of work and businesses with a global talent crisis.”

Fore made a strong impression, as today SAP made a multimillion-dollar pledge to UNICEF in support of the UN’s Generation Unlimited initiative. The commitment will focus on building digital skills and workforce readiness solutions to close the gap for underserved young people. Because we want to ensure our investment generates meaningful results, we will start in India, Turkey, and Vietnam, then assess our progress and determine how best to carry the lessons learned to other parts of the world.

Innovation Starts With All of Us

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Innovation Starts With All of Us

We aren’t looking for a big celebration of our corporate citizenship for supporting UNICEF. If you want to thank anyone, thank the businesses that run SAP, without which we’d have no money to invest.

We are looking for other companies to join the initiative. Within the next five years, the goal is to help 130 million young people receive better education and training. We’re also working to help 70 million young people to find decent work and 20 million young entrepreneurs to start their own businesses.

These are worthy aspirations that, together with upskilling initiatives aimed at generations in our current workforce, represent a balanced approach.

No single anything — nation, NGO, corporation, non-profit, university — can address complex topics like this one. We need a coalition. The coalition needs a platform. With Generation Unlimited, we have a good one.

Strategic partnerships, it turns out, are much better than soundbites when you have 17 paradigms to change.


Nick Tzitzon is executive vice president of Marketing and Communications at SAP.
This story originally appeared on SAP BrandVoice on Forbes.