RLabs Fights Poverty with Innovation

TEDx Amsterdam

TEDx Amsterdam

Marlon Parker almost never existed.

When his mother got pregnant, Parker’s father told her that she had to choose – either the baby or him. Fortunately, his mother chose the baby, despite complications and the urging of doctors to choose abortion.

So Marlon Parker was born, several months prematurely. “I didn’t want to risk it,” he said, laughing, “in case she changed her mind.”

Flash forward 19 years, and Parker had been working at a store, pushing shopping carts for two years and trying to help support his family. One day, Parker got an interview for an office job. He was overjoyed. “I even bought a shirt and a bright red tie, because I wanted people to see the tie,” he said. But he didn’t get the job – it was devastating.

Unsure of what to do next, Parker decided he would to go to college and study something, even though he had no idea what he enjoyed learning about. When a friend told him he should study Information Technology, because that’s what “everyone was talking about,” that’s what he wrote on his application.

“I had never seen a computer in my life,” said Parker. Still, he signed up for a programming course and jumped in. Parker had trouble in his first semester, falling behind in his classes. He spent more time playing soccer than studying.

Until one day, when he was playing soccer and was painfully tackled by someone on the other team. His ankle was broken. “That was the best thing that ever happened to me,” said Parker. Now he had to go to the library.

After spending some time reading, Parker started to form a vision for how he could form a career that would change the world. He began excelling in his courses and provided extra lessons to fellow students (with a money-back guarantee if they didn’t pass their exams).

After graduating, Parker started noticing the social problems of the world around him and thinking of ways that he could make a difference.

Parker founded Reconstructed Living Labs (RLabs) in 2008 to find an innovative way to respond to community problems. People come to RLabs to learn skills in social media, internet solutions, business and entrepreneurship, and community development. Though based in South Africa, RLabs now operates in 22 countries and has provided more than 5 million people with skills that help them transform their communities.

“Technology has become an extension of who we are,” he said. So he wants to teach people how to use it effectively. Parker tries to reconstruct communities through innovation, using young talent to bring hope to broken situations. The average age of people who work on the RLabs team is 21 or 22.

Parker also believes in fighting poverty from the bottom up, by understanding that people have different problems and challenges. “Who best understands poverty? Someone living in poverty. It’s not consultants, it’s people who live in those conditions,” said Parker. When people come in to RLabs, they are valued despite any mistakes in their past.

RLabs even began an academy to train people in technology and entrepreneurship. Though there was only one trainee at the founding, there are now 5,000 people every year who go through the program. So far, 31,204 people have graduated from the academy and applied their newfound skills to a variety of community problems around the world.

RLabs relies on a special way of tracking their trainees’ impact in the community. They have a system that tracks (via photo and video evidence) good deeds performed in the community, awarding a special type of digital currency to those who are putting their training to good use in the world around them. This digital currency can then be used to buy things like coffee at the RLabs-sponsored youth cafe.

“For us, it is about seeing the lives of people transformed,” he said.

First published on Opportunity Lives