Interview: Helen Parker, head of social innovation at Telefonica

"If we have a group of people excited by the belief that things can change, then we need to be empowering them, rather than diminishing them."

Helen Parker is head of social innovation at Telefonica and brainchild of the Telefonica Foundation’s Think Big social change programme. Passionate about providing young people with the digital skills they need to make positive social changes, she runs Think Big across six European countries, ensuring the programme remains relevant and useful for those it’s trying to help.

We got the chance to talk to Helen about the rewards and challenges of leading such a large programme and the importance of supporting young people and helping them achieve their goals.

Tell us about the Think Big programme. What does it aim to do and how does it do it?

Think Big aims to bring to life ideas for driving social change through technology. Being backed by Telefonica means that Think Big is able to do this by offering digital expertise, resources or simply by offering funding. We want to encourage young people to use digital for social good – and to Think Big.

What kind of results have you seen from Think Big?

Since its launch in 2010, Think Big has been involved in over 13,000 projects across the world. When you look at the ripple effect of these projects, we have managed to reach around 4.5 million people altogether.

When you look at some of the lives that these projects have changed, the communities that have been transformed, the results are quite staggering. By saying to these young people that we believe in their ideas and that we’ll back them with our own people, our own time, our own money, we’ve been able to foster some amazing transformations.

I’ll never forget mentoring James McNaughton from Newcastle who joined Think Big when he was effectively homeless. In two years, through a combination of support and funding from the team at Think Big, he grew a community-based project to raise awareness of youth homelessness into a registered charity.

Also, from Telefonica’s perspective, Think Big has had enabled the business to connect on an emotional level with employees and customers. We are able to have conversations that are more focused on values and less about figures. By encouraging everyone to come together to make Think Big happen, we were able to inspire people to make their mark and champion programmes that they felt passionately about, which has made our business a much happier and productive place to work.

Some of the public endorsements we’ve received for Think Big have been phenomenal too. A highlight for me was the £1 million grant we received from the UK Government. It showed me that programmes aimed at driving social change could and would appeal to both the public and the private sector.

What inspired you to become so involved in creating opportunities for young people to develop their digital skills?

I’ve always been driven by a sense of social justice and the importance of giving people a chance – especially when they might not have had many chances to begin with.

I also saw the huge potential the digital sector had, and has, for empowering young people to express themselves and become more confident. I could see how this digital confidence would then spill into the offline world and make a difference across every part of their lives.

In 2012 I was promoted and moved to Telefonica Global, meaning I was able work on the expansion of Think Big from the UK into Germany, Ireland, Czech Republic, Slovakia and Spain. With the worsening European youth unemployment crisis there was a huge need to engage young people and the power of technology was a way to do that. I was excited to see how the effects and impact social change could be multiplied through digital skills. It made me want to keep doing all that I could do to make sure more people had access to technology and a digital education.

The younger generation, ‘millennials’, often seem to be branded as lazy and self-involved. How do you feel about that and what would you say to those who label an entire generation in this way?

I don’t agree with the idea that millennials are lazy. I do think that millennials are more demanding as a generation. If you’re brought up with access to a huge amount of information then naturally your mind is more challenging, more inquisitive.

Particularly when it comes to business, millennials are challenging the traditional hierarchies and top-down management structures that do need changing. If we have a group of people excited by the belief that things can change, then we need to be empowering them, rather than diminishing them.

Those that see millennials as lazy or self-involved are often driven by a lack of understanding. Older generations need to see the potential in millennials and, on the other hand, millennials need to do more to make themselves understood and learn from the experiences of those who have gone before them.

What are some high points of working on Think Big?

Having access to a blank canvas onto which I could build charity and social programmes aligned to my personal values was a pretty big high point for me! Seeing how I could help change the lives of the young people and seeing this change reflected in myself was also really rewarding.

From a professional perspective, I’m so proud that we where able to galvanise so much support for the programme – both internally and externally. I remember shaking when we found out that the UK Government was donating £1 million to us, I was just so proud of everyone!

Any low points?

There is a massive amount of pressure when you’re responsible for safeguarding the wellbeing and safety of young people and things do go slightly awry from time to time.

That said, some of the biggest challenges we faced actually came from the business side of things. It was tough making sure that all the right stakeholders within a business are bought into the programme year after year. When certain people move on from the business, as naturally happens, you then need to convince a new person or group of the programme’s value. On top of that, our push to make Think Big even more digital faced a lot of resistance from our partners initially, as digital skills and education was out of the comfort zone for a lot of them.

I wouldn’t have done anything differently; it’s just taught me the power of perseverance!

What’s been the highlight of your career so far?

Rather than one moment, I’m going to pick a year. 2011 was when I started to see all the seeds I had sown at the programme’s launch come into bloom.

We were getting young people through the programme, Telefonica had bought into the idea, we had funding to give away, employees and customers were on board – it was lovely to see how everything came together in the end. Though the process nearly killed me!

If you could give any advice to your younger self what would it be?

Go home a bit earlier!

What are you most excited about at the moment?

I’m most excited about the project I’m working on at the moment. It’s a global index that will hopefully inform how we can better navigate our increasingly digital world. Called the Telefónica’s Global Index of Digital Life, it will help us understand what’s needed to establish a balanced digital economy and how we can grow and develop within it. Tools like this are great as they give academic credence and support to programmes like Think Big – which makes my job a bit easier at the end of the day!

I’m also really excited about developments in the e-health and well-being sector. A couple of years ago I had a life threatening illness which resulted in emergency brain surgery. I’d gone from being perfectly healthy to losing the entire movement of the right hand side of my body within just four days. After surgery I had to learned to walk again and rebuild the connection between my body and brain. So, seeing all the advancements that we’re making in e-health and envisioning their impact is pretty exciting!

I’m also taking my personal insight and fascination with the brain forward by becoming a qualified clinical hypnotherapist. I work with people to access the vast and often untapped resources within their brain that can help them manage and overcome anxiety, depression, phobias and realise their goals! At the heart of it remains people, compassion and helping them progress.

You can find out more about the UK branch of the Think Big programme by clicking here.