Nishal Mohan’s parents struggled and worked in their village in Guyana until he was 8 years old, later applying to become teachers in the Bahamas, where they moved with a few suitcases and a few hundred dollars. In Guyana, they didn’t have running water, indoor plumbing, or technology at home. In the Bahamas, it was the first time he’d seen people drive cars and ride escalators. After a few years, his parents had saved enough money to buy a 32-bit computer and send him to computer classes.
While he went on to graduate from high school at 15, teach himself to code and write advanced mathematical algorithms while earning his doctorate in molecular biology from Princeton, he saw very early on what it could mean for the trajectory of someone’s life to have more equitable access to technology.
“I have lived experience on both sides of the digital divide, with a deep understanding of the complex systemic inequities perpetuating it, that go beyond devices and internet access. And I know how to fix it,” he says. “I want everyone to have an easier time than my family and I did, to succeed. People and their communities are all different, and technology can easily and affordably support everyone in the way they need it, and that’s the key. Working with people and communities, first.”
For him, that fix was founding Mohuman (mohuman.org), a technology nonprofit founded in 2018 to provide access to the internet and other digital services for school, work, health, business, and government engagement, to those most adversely affected by the digital divide. During the pandemic, he was recognized for his work in bridging this technology gap, nationally and locally, through a 2020 Federal Communications Commission Digital Opportunity Equity Recognition, and a San Diego Next Century Cities Local Leader.
Mohan, 43, is also CEO of Mohuman, consulting director for digital equity at UC San Diego Extension and founder of the San Diego Digital Equity Coalition, among involvement in a number of other organizations and boards of directors. He lives in Scripps Ranch with his wife, Indira Molai, and a 9-year-old son, Ash. He took some time to talk about his work at Mohuman and his desire to make the world a better place for those with fewer resources and access to opportunities.
Q: Tell us about Mohuman.
A: Mohuman is a technology-driven nonprofit, founded in 2018 to drive the transfer of power and resources to those most affected by the digital divide, through access to the internet and digital services. After more than a decade in Washington, D.C., working on next-generation science and technology initiatives, it was very difficult to get leaders to support a human-centered approach to creating and deploying public benefit technologies. I created an organization to do just that and a global movement to change that narrative.
The name Mohuman came about for a few reasons: It stems from the movie, “Mo’ Money” (and mo’ problems). We like to think of it as “mo’ human, no problems.” Mohuman is more relatable and of the people, instead of a name like “the Institute for Human Centered Design in Public Benefit Technology.” Some people thought it was a joke at first, but everyone remembers it, and it’s awesome to hear everyone from global leaders to kids say Mohuman! It’s sticky branding, and it means “modus operandi,” the “human” movement in science and technology. Mohuman is an ideal and is meant to be a global movement people can build together. Some people believe it’s related to my last name, but they’ll never know.
Q: Why was this something you wanted to create?
A: It has always been my aim to be the Mahatma Gandhi who eats steaks, changing the world while inspiring others, especially my son. Communities of color, immigrants, and other marginalized people are continually left out of the decision-making process and technologies that have significant impact on their daily lives, and for generations to come. I am a scientist, technologist, maker, and policy architect, and bringing digital resilience to communities that need it the most is the way I can contribute to the world. I feel that my life’s experiences, challenges, and hustle to survive and change the world have uniquely prepared me to embrace a “go big or go home” mindset.
Q: Can you talk a bit about your own experience growing up in Guyana and the Bahamas, with limited access to technology?
A: The first eight years of my life were spent in a place called Adelphi Village in Guyana, South America. Where I lived, we didn’t have technologies many first-world countries would take for granted. The closest thing I had seen to a computer was a calculator. As a descendent of indentured laborers brought to the Caribbean and the West Indies to work the plantations by plantation owners after slavery was abolished, generational growth, resources, and hope were wiped out. The economic situation was bad, with barely enough money for food sometimes. My parents are the true heroes who struggled, but never gave up.
My parents saw a newspaper ad recruiting teachers to the Bahamas. They applied, and we were able to move to the island of Abaco, with a few suitcases and a few hundred dollars. There were things like moving stairs, called escalators, that made no sense to me, and electricity for everyone. After a few years there, my parents were able to buy a PC-386 computer from a British-born computer science teacher’s store, and sent me to computer classes. I saw a stick figure fighting game in class and my mind was blown. I thought I could accomplish anything with this technology, just by typing some lines of code!
I graduated from high school at 15 years old and moved to the U.S. to try to go to college, but even here, technology was for those who could access, afford, and understand it. I taught myself to code and write advanced mathematical algorithms while getting my Ph.D. at Princeton, and the rest is history.
What I love about Scripps Ranch…
The people! The West Coast, and especially San Diego, lifestyle and mindset are so different from the East Coast. We have amazing neighbors and colleagues who have become close friends. It is not something I ever anticipated or thought I would find, but I am so grateful for it.
Q: Walk us through how Mohuman works, exactly. What are the steps for someone who is looking for help from your organization?
A: Our aim at Mohuman is to support both community-based organizations (CBOs), as well as residents to become digitally resilient. For CBOs, they join the digital resilience coalition, work with us and other community champions to identify real digital needs, followed by an action plan to get those needs met by other local collaborators; or work together with us on digital inclusion grant or government funding opportunities for resources to solve the problem. We also provide access to other tools, like our digital inclusion events analytics platform (https://mohuman.org/events/); networking events; coauthoring letters to city, state, and federal governments for digital inclusion policy; and more. There is no cost to join, except that it is a democratic process and organizations have to be voted in to join.
For residents, either directly though our website, contacting us by email or phone, or by working with a CBO, they can access our moDAT digital inclusion search engine platform (https://modat.org) to be guided to finding a listing and service provider that matches their needs. Each listing has eligibility requirements, any related costs, contact information, and more. They can directly communicate with that service provider though our platform, or contact them directly to get that service. We provide access to local and online services for devices, internet connectivity, digital skills training, workforce development, and digital services for everyday tasks such as telemedicine, housing, finance, legal services, and more. There is no cost for residents to use any of our services.
As we launch our mesh network [a local network where nodes connect to as many other nodes as possible, to route data more efficiently] in San Diego, those who can’t afford to pay for internet will not have to pay. It will always be free so that you can go to school, work remotely, and become digitally resilient.
Q: What’s an example of a systemic inequity blocking access to technology for low-income communities?
A: There is a horrible practice called “digital redlining,” where a red line is drawn around low-income communities. The majority of communities that have a lack of modern, digital infrastructure and slower internet speeds, but more expensive internet access, are low-income neighborhoods and mostly communities of color within this redlined area. For example, the communities of the San Diego Promise Zone [comprised of three of the city’s most economically disadvantaged neighborhoods] are digitally redlined. We have worked with the Electronic Frontier Foundation and other national organizations to ask the Biden FCC to ban digital redlining.
Q: What’s an example of a personalized pathway that challenges these systemic inequities to technology?
A: Small businesses in redlined areas are not usually supported by larger entities that help small businesses. They are also left out of the digital equity discussion, but represent great economic potential, not only for the owner, but the community. A clear-cut, organized pathway can do wonders. A pathway for such a business would start with acquiring a computer, internet connection, software for finances and transactions, and the digital skills training to use these technologies locally or online. Next in the pathway, is for them to gain an entry point, online presence though a platform like moDAT, that is easy to use. They are also connected with their local community development nonprofit corporation for guidance, as well as opportunities for government and/or private financial opportunities, if needed.
Q: Can you talk about how the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted the work of your organization?
A: We started in 2018, before the pandemic, and focused on digital inclusion around smart cities technologies; when the pandemic began, we evolved to cater to the immediate needs of the people. We understood the dire consequences of the digital divide for education, work, health, finance, and more, and when the pandemic hit, the world started to understand as it amplified awareness and impact on those who were not digitally prepared. However, now there were more people to help, and we had to work faster, harder, and longer with no funding from federal or philanthropic sources early on. These times almost destroyed the organization, but what the pandemic did for us, was increase our importance to society, interest in our work from diverse funders, and the opportunity to end the digital divide in five years instead of 25 years.
Q: What’s been challenging about your work with Mohuman?
A: We have great ideas, partners, prototypes, and nontraditional supporters and it’s easy to run with that, but we need to make sure that everything we do is sustainable for the community so that we don’t create a bigger digital divide. Making sure we balance sustainability with community input is important, but slow, and we need to move fast to get federal and philanthropic resources while it’s available. Remembering that we are working to bring generational change and can’t sacrifice that for short-term emotional or financial gains is important.
Q: What’s been rewarding about this work?
A: I think it’s the hope and confidence that we bring to everyone, from leaders to residents, to be “mo’ human” and brave enough to tackle the tough problems in a very different way, together. We are not only bridging the digital divide though Mohuman but amplifying that impact exponentially though a mo’ Mohuman movement. The support from forward-thinking collaborators and philanthropic supporters has been so humbling.
Q: What has this work taught you about yourself?
A: That my parents may have molded me to be more selfless than I could have ever imagined. I have stuck to our mission and have made so many sacrifices for the greater good. I don’t tell people about the struggle and the emotional, financial, and opportunity costs to run a social justice organization like Mohuman, but it’s real and increasingly impactful. I may not think I’m strong, but I can’t argue with the data of continuing to be true to the cause.
Q: What is the best advice you’ve ever received?
A: It was later in my life, but the amazing Mei Lin Fung — co-founder of the People Centered Internet, a mentor and a Mohuman board member — said, “Nishal, activate networks of people, not single people for the most impact,” and that has always stuck with me.
Q: What is one thing people would be surprised to find out about you?
A: People always seemed surprised that I am a trained scientist who researched RNA viruses, like the COVID-19 virus, and founded the first international virtual biosecurity center at the Federation of American Scientists to protect the public from biological threats, natural or man-made.
Q: Please describe your ideal San Diego weekend.
A: A Saturday would start with a trip to the Scripps Aquarium with my family, followed by a walk through Balboa Park to an awesome, favorite hole-in-the-wall restaurant. For the evening, grilling at home and watching the sunset, with a firepit going for s’mores and drinks. Sunday would be a trip to Coronado beach so my 9-year-old son, Ash, can enjoy the beach, sand, and breezes while Boogie Boarding. I think the salt water in my blood from living in the Bahamas may have passed down to him. We’ll have lunch by the water and head back home with an evening hanging out with the neighbors to some reggae music, while the kids have a Nerf gun battle or a virtual battle on their Nintendo Switches. And, of course, it wouldn’t be ideal if I didn’t sneak in some exciting Mohuman work for San Diego because there are always more people to help than there are time or resources.