Interview with Katy Digovich, Entrepreneur
The following interview was conducted by Nicolas on behalf of the Pencils for Africa Editorial Team. Members of the PFA Editorial Team submitted their questions to Nicolas who then sent the collection of questions to Katy on behalf of his team. Here is the interview below:
You have to be patient and you have to put the hard work in but if you do then your ideas will become a reality.
— Katy Digovich
Entrepreneur who worked in Southern Africa
It said in your description that your company PING is youth led, what exactly does that mean?
The average age in the PING office is 25 years old, our youngest staff member is 18 and our youngest mentorship student was 14 so we have a lot of young people in our office and on our leadership team.
When you are educating the children, are you teaching them about health and medicinal needs as well as creating apps?
The youth learning about our apps learn about the context in which they function.
They also work on skills like budgeting, presenting on and writing about their business ideas however we do not do any specific health training. Many of the youth in our programs are members of other programs that focus on that element.
What drove you to go to Africa immediately after graduating college from Princeton University?
I wrote my senior thesis (an unbearably long research paper we have to write that depending on your major ranges between 35-100 pages) in college on the evolution of drug resistant HIV and I traveled to Botswana to do research when I was still in college. It was actually on this research trip where I came up with the idea for PING’s first project, a reminder, support and information mobile tool for HIV patients.
Was there ever a time you wanted to give up and why? What made you continue?
Honestly there have been a few times.
I can say that the two hardest periods were at the very beginning and in 2013 as we were transitioning our projects over to local government. I’ll talk about the beginning:
In the very beginning, before we had anything real and when things were taking a long time to get off the ground (we spent the first 7 months after we had built our first system waiting for permission from the Ministry of Health to be able to work with the sensitive information of HIV patients) I definitely felt a little crazy. My team and I were in Botswana waiting around to deploy our first mobile support tool while all of our friends from college were in graduate school or working 9-5 jobs.
I have learned in life that a lot of things that come quickly can also go quickly. Most things worth building and doing take time.
At that time the organization was just one project so we didnt have any other legitimate work to be doing, we found some stuff to work on (this is actually the moment where we started mentoring highschool and college youth because we had so much downtime) but still in the moment it felt like “what are we doing here just sitting around?”.
It was bizarre having to wait while everyone else’s lives seemed to be moving so quickly.
But you know, you have to have patience when starting a business, I have learned in life that a lot of things that come quickly can also go quickly. Most things worth building and doing take time.
How have your experiences in Africa changed you?
I have had a wide range of experiences in Africa from starting PING to climbing Mount Kilimanjaro.
The whole experience of starting a business and growing it from the ground up, regardless of the location, was an empowering one.
Moving abroad and living in another culture opened my mind to how similar everyone in the world is and how much we have in common. Doing business in another culture was also a big learning experience for me as well as managing a team where most of the people were from another culture, I became aware that there are many ways of viewing situations and also learned how to unify different viewpoints towards a bigger common goal. Overall, I would say that the experience has helped me learn that things are rarely black and white, mostly they are grey and that although we have all had different experiences and have different backgrounds most people respond well to when you are respectful, curious and open to learning about their story. And they want to hear about yours too!
What is the biggest difference between Southern Africa and the United States of America?
There are differences but in my opinion many more similarities than differences.
Some differences include the fact that everyone there tends to speak on average 3 or 4 different languages and most people tend to be associated with a specific tribe.
There is also the difference in food, local food is amazingly delicious and if you eat meat you can also try things like crocodile or mopane worm.
What are the health and development problems in Botswana?
Botswana is a middle income country and one of the most stable countries on the African continent, however, it has the second highest HIV prevalence in the world and the 3rd – 5th (depending on the source you use for the statistic) highest TB (tuberculosis) prevalence in the world. It also, like many African countries, has a shortage of doctors and nurses.
Why Botswana? How does technology help with health problems?
Botswana being a middle income country is important in regards to allowing technology to help increase efficiencies in the health care system.
Botswana had one of the highest cell phone densities (phones/people) on the continent of Africa, this means that when we are doing mobile phone projects for patients we don’t need to provide handsets. We used technology in many ways to help address health problems. In terms of patients we created support, reminder and information systems for patients that could, for example, send HIV positive patients reminders of their next doctor appointment or when to take their medication. We also created a smartphone application that allowed clinics that did not have internet connections or computers to submit reports on disease outbreaks using the mobile phone.
From creating PING, in what ways do you feel it has affected the culture in Botswana?
I am not sure if PING has had a massive impact on the overall culture in Botswana. I do know that the environment at the office was very innovative and the team of people that worked there are extremely entrepreneurial and I think that culture we created within our staff team and for our mentorships kids was one that encouraged them to start their own businesses and ventures, which many of them have.
Do you plan to eventually spread PING to more parts in Africa and even other continents?
Yes we plan to spread the PING method for deploying technology to help address development issues and mentoring local youth, for PING itself many of our projects have now been taken over by local government bodies and are being maintained by them so I don’t know if PING itself will spread. My team and I definitely intend to build a global organization at some point.
Why did you decided to start PING?
I actually did not start PING on purpose. I stumbled into it accidently.
I went to Botswana with the intention of just doing one project, our first project, for one year and then coming back the US and going to medical school. Initially we only founded an organization so we could enter into legal contracts with the local phone company and the Botswana government. By the time the year ended PING had become bigger than just one project and I decided that I loved what I was doing.
Where do you see PING 5 years from now? Do you think it will keep improving and becoming bigger?
My team and I are beginning to get new initiatives off the ground in Oakland, California with the hope of linking our work there back with our work in Southern Africa. Five years from now we hope to have an international organization that is headquartered in the US but works in numerous African countries and hopefully add several South American countries as well.
What is your favorite part about being a founder of an organization that has made such a difference?
Honestly my favorite part is getting to work with young people that are interested in this stuff and share with them that if you think something should exist in the world and you know how to build it you should go and do it.
Just jump into what resonates with you and you know you love.
Just jump into what resonates with you and you know you love. You have to be patient and you have to put the hard work in but if you do then your ideas will become a reality. It never happens quite the way you imagine though but that’s true of most things.
Why did you chose to help Africa verses other places in need?
I would love to work in other places. I ended up working in Southern Africa because my research in college allowed me to travel there initially and so it was a place I knew and was familiar with.
What is your dream for PING?
I am not sure whether PING will exist forever but with PING or with another organization our dream is to is create a movement of youth and minorities being empowered and organized through technology, not just distracted by it.
I want my personal legacy to be that I lived my life to the edge of my possibility.
By deploying relevant tools with actionable content specifically designed for us we will harness the power of being one of the most active demographics in the mobile space.
Personally, I want my personal legacy to be that I lived my life to the edge of my possibility. At the end of my career my dream is that I have created things of value and inspiration that touch my community and extend beyond it and that I have empowered other people to try to do the same.