Tony Selvaggio: Recycling Old Tech to Make Computer Labs for Kids – EP. 158

About This Episode:

Tony Selvaggio is a Social Entrepreneur and the Founder of eSmart Recycling, a social enterprise whose primary goal is to recycle old technology to set up computer labs for kids, worldwide.

It turns out that all kids need to be competitive in today’s digital world is some Betamax tapes, a few laserdiscs, and a few old paddle’s from the 1972 version of Pong.

Alright, maybe it’s not quite that, but the point is that a e-waste is an enormous problem, and tons of viable tech ends up in landfills or collecting dust in ole’ granny’s broom closet, when it could be used to give kids without access to computers a leg up.

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1:41 – “One of the things that I realized, because of my background, is that when we started recycling all of these computers from your regular attorney office, your real estate guy that had just upgraded five computers, is that these computers, when I saw them, it was kind of a culture shock, Ross, because they were pretty new. I come from a country where you keep the same computer for like 20 years, right? And from a generation that you keep upgrading. And then when I noticed that these computers were pretty new, and if they had not met me at that time, they would probably end up in the trash.”

2:43 – “I literally grabbed this old computer from this office that was about to be thrown away. And I just check to make sure that the computer was working, upgraded a couple of things…and then I put them in the hands of another kid or family or organization who was working with kids and families that didn’t have a computer. And it was mind blowing because now we had parents crying. We had kids grateful that now they had a tool to be able to do their homework, to play, to apply for a job. And it just became this idea that based on the amount of equipment that’s being thrown away and based on the amount of kids and families who don’t have something as basic – that should be a universal basic right, such as access to a computer. Then we could potentially mix both of them. And that became the company and what we’ve been doing for the past almost ten years.”

5:58 – (Tony) “Very interesting how life experiences kind of open your mind and help you like go through different paths.”

(Ross) “And it seems to increase the empathy that people have or the concept of looking at others as not somebody that you should take advantage of, but maybe somebody that you should help and saying, ‘Hey, maybe there’s a problem that I can solve.’ And I think, there are two factions in the United States, at least, which I’m sure you’ve noticed, one that says, ‘Hey, we’ve got to improve some of these things,’ and another that just says, ‘I only care about me and myself. And as long as my kid has the latest iPad and computer, I don’t care about your kid, Tony. It’s only about whether my kid is happy.’ I mean, that’s our society, right? And if each one of us only cares about ourself, that will build us all up somehow. But as you’ve seen, many, many people are left behind.”

7:35 – “I think that for the first time in history of mankind, for the past, what, 10 years? 15 years? Is where we have fully been acknowledging the rest of the world and the conditions that everyone lives in, it’s the first time where we are actually feeling that we are part of this united world.”

8:20 – “How you get ready is through education. And I think that the more we get on the same page that education is this unifying force that will help us improve as a society, then we’ll be able to realize that we’re more on the same page than we think we are. And I just think, it’s for the first time we’re fully internalizing that.”

10:19 – (Ross) “That’s something that I think that some other cultures and countries do understand a bit better. Is that helping up other people does not hurt you, but it also helps you because there’s this belief that, I mean there are so many people who don’t have homes and houses. I live in Los Angeles. I’m sure it’s the same in many parts of Florida as well, people who don’t have homes. And some people believe that that is somehow a good thing because it’s ‘sink or swim’ and, ‘pull yourself up by your bootstraps, it’s your own fault,’ etcetera, etcetera. But in societies that don’t have these issues where they take a more social approach that makes all of society better for everybody, I’ve seen it first-hand. If you don’t have that kind of extreme gap between the highest and the lowest, so many problems just go away. And it’s problems that people don’t like either. People don’t like dirt on the street. People don’t like garbage. People don’t like feeling unsafe at night. A lot of these problems go away when people have their basic needs met.”

13:45 – “The first computer lab that we ever did, ironically, it was done in a place that they were using as a community center, Ross, and you had these kids, and I’m touring the facility, it was like 7:00, and I go inside this room and there were probably 20 kids in this room that was a computer lab with no computers. It was set up to be a computer lab but didn’t have the computers, right? So you had these kids that were ages ranging from 5 to 13 with pieces of paper and crayons, just drawing random things. And you had the older kids playing hangman with the younger kids…[When the computers arrived] Parents were crying. Kids were crying when all of a sudden there were computers where they’re supposed to be computers. And I’m like, ‘This is crazy. I mean, if we could do this more then, it should work, right?’ Because who wouldn’t want to participate in this?”

22:20 – (Ross) “Even those of us who have been in it for mostly our whole lives, younger millennials, people who have witnessed this technology gap, even those who have been in it, it’s no secret that it’s getting more competitive every day. The best quality shows, there’s a million YouTube channels, there’s a million podcasts, there’s a billion blogs. All of these things are just getting more and more competitive every single day. So people with every advantage, with a leg up, they’re still struggling to stand out and to differentiate themselves in this digital world. It is hard for literally everybody with every single advantage who doesn’t get incredibly lucky. Now imagine everybody else, which is a huge part of the entire globe.”

23:03 – “There’s this report that came out in 2015, if I’m not mistaken, by the Education Commission and I think the one who wrote it was Gordon Brown, which was the prime minister of the U.K., I don’t know, ten years ago. And he said one of the biggest silent threats that we have as a society is by the year 2050, we’re going to have about 3 billion adults that will not know how to do anything. They will not have any type of skills or tangible abilities to perform the type of tasks that the world is going to need at that time. They’re just not going to be ready. They’re going to be basically illiterate because the level of skills that we’re going to need, they’re going to be so far behind that they’re just like going to be completely useless. That’s crazy.”

26:08 – (Ross) “Things change so fast. It’s very stupid. I’m messing around with HDR video because I’m fascinated with it. I’m super tech. I like being ahead of the curve. I make a video, looks great on my phone. iPhone 14 Pro. My buddy says, ‘Hey, it doesn’t look quite the same on my iPhone 13 Pro,’ like, ‘Oh well, sorry buddy, you need to upgrade if you want to really see what HDR looks like.’ That’s one year of the top of the line technology. Now you say five years – and again we know that the difference between, let’s say the typical $500 Walmart laptop, which is affordable, is already, you know, several generations old tech – take a five year old $500 laptop, compare that to the current maxed out generation of a MacBook Pro, for example. And you’re talking about a pretty big gap in terms of capability when it comes to a lot of things like video editing, even coding, graphic design, 3D design, forget about it.”

29:55 – (Ross) “It’s been very interesting to me to see how, especially when the younger generations and if you look at TikTok, how that is not a requirement, how there is no correlation between better in terms of technical ability and reach and success. There is somebody out there who has an incredibly technically perfect channel with all this content, and there’s somebody else who just uses an old phone and just points it at their face with a light bulb, and that person using the phone can have millions of followers as well, and they can be more successful. So there is this sense that it’s not the tech that matters to some degree. As long as the message is good and as long as somebody is able to resonate with an audience, which of course, in that 3 billion people, there’s going to be some people who know how to craft a message who can resonate with maybe 2.9 billion other people.”

32:29 – “The data that we’re seeing back as a result of those efforts, it’s pretty encouraging. And it’s everything that you would expect. Now the families, now they have an opportunity to apply for a job. So now we’re looking at families and their median income, and how it’s increasing and the grades of the kids, how is also increasing because it comes from schools that were C-grade schools and now they’re B-grade schools.”

37:00 – “Sometimes it gets a little bit overwhelming because of the feeling that I think you were just describing a little bit ago. It’s a little bit of a feeling of hopelessness because you know that there’s so much and we’re just never going to be able to see it in our lifetime. It’s a generational thing. So then there’s that fine line between well, okay, so what am I supposed to do with my life with the time that I have, so it’s better spent aligned with the mission and the vision that I have and you just grind away and you grind away and you grind away.”

37:34 – (Ross) “There is a certain type of person who asks that question. That’s what I’ve noticed. There are certain types of people who ask that question, and that question means a lot to them. There are other people who just don’t really seem to, and I don’t really know why. It’s not an education thing, it’s not an intellect thing, it’s just a personality thing. I feel the very same way. I wake up every morning or I stay up late at night and I’m not sure – sometimes I can’t sleep because I think, what am I doing with my life? What am I going to do? How am I going to contribute? What is the maximum use of my skills? Should I be doing this or should I be doing that? Should I be doing a podcast? Should I be doing more original YouTube videos? Should I be doing none of this and just be building a business like you? It’s always that question of how do I maximize the life that we have and in the face of what seem like insurmountable problems. And where do we jump in in that stream of insurmountable problems?”

39:18 – (Ross) “The reason that I do this show as often as I do and put in so much work, it’s because I believe so deeply in these issues. I see these things and I’m aware that other people don’t see them and I’m able to see a lot of issues across a lot of broad topics. I’m able to see human rights issues. I’m able to see environmental issues. I’m able to see issues with food consumption, all of that stuff. And I want to talk about it because I feel like not enough people are talking about these kinds of things. So sometimes I wonder whether it’s the right avenue for sure. Sometimes I wonder whether it makes sense to do this because it takes up a lot of time. It is the moments like this right here. This is what it’s all about for me. I always am thoroughly engaged in these types of moments and I think if nothing else, connecting with other like-minded people has a very profound benefit for me, because if I don’t do this, then I think the forces of the news and social media take over and then it feels much more hopeless and much more insurmountable.”

41:22 – “I have some friends of mine that are doing, they’re doing things that are giving them a lot of money. They’re flipping homes, and they’re banking, and they’re selling insurance…sometimes I wish I didn’t have, sometimes I wish I would have kind of picked a simpler, more easy rewarded life. But in reality, it’s not who we are. It’s not really what makes us happy. It’s not what makes us whole because we know what we could have done that would have taken us to the path where a lot of our friends are and we purposefully chose not to go that route for some reason. For me, the hardest part is not knowing and just trusting that it will work out. Because you don’t know.”

42:20 – “I don’t know if this off the beaten path that I’m following is really going to generate the type of reward that I envision in my head. But if we feel like it is, then no one can take that away from us, right? If we feel like we’re doing what we believe that should be done, at the end of the day, no one will ever take that away from us, that we did what we wholeheartedly thought that we should be doing. That’s kind of my consolation prize at the end.”

45:12 – (Ross) “I think social media, one of the things that it has shown me that I did not predict, but I’m very, very aware of this now, it has shown me and I think all of us, that even the most basic things, assumptions that I think we all had before the Internet about what humans believed, we had assumptions about what another human believed, we had a belief that we had a common set of principles. So, for example, if I say it’s a good thing to rescue a baby who is dying of cancer and to help that baby, I can say something like that with 100% certainty that we can all agree on that, right? And then social media shows you time and time again that some jerk out there will say, ‘Oh, yeah, blah, blah, blah.’ Like they’ll come in with some opposite troll or hating viewpoint and you’re like, ‘Really? Even that?’ Like nothing goes unchallenged. Absolutely nothing.”

48:34 – (Ross) “I believe that two people can have two opinions, but one of them is right. And in the case of like anti-science, for example, one group of people sent a rocket ship into outer space for 14 years and landed it on an asteroid, millions and millions and millions of miles away. Another group made memes that they share with their uncle. You could disagree about science or the scientific process, but one of you will be proven to be right. Somebody told Rosa Parks, ‘Get the hell out of here.’ They were wrong. That was just wrong. So I believe that eventually 50 years, 100 years – or maybe 2500 years if we have a lifespan like Marcus Aurelius – that people will say, ‘Oh, yeah. Yes, you were right to think about that. That was the right way. Thinking about the environment, thinking about people, recognizing that, you saw that. I believe that.”

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