Cormac Lynch is trying to scale up his global enterprise and like so many before him, he figured if he was going to do it right, he'd better establish an outpost in Silicon Valley.
But Lynch's deal is a little different from your typical app maker or cloud computing wizard: His mission is to give away secondhand computers and his target customers are some of the poorest people on the planet.
"I just feel in my heart that tech is such a powerful tool, that if you can harness it, it's going to give them the skills to break that cycle of poverty that they're in," says Lynch, a native of Ireland, who plans to spend a year in the valley expanding his Dublin-based nonprofit known as Camara.
Camara, which Lynch launched in 2005, has shipped thousands of computers to African countries and is currently deploying desktops in Haiti, a nation that's been battered by invaders, despots, hurricanes and earthquakes. No, Lynch was not always out to save the world. In fact, his job once was to make a buck.
"I had been an investment banker for about 12 years," he says. And to pay for his sins, he jokes, he decided he'd better do something worthwhile with his life.
"I'd always been interested in helping the poor in Africa," he says, "but I really didn't know what I could do."
So he traveled to Ethiopia in 2005 and visited with academics at the country's universities. He recalls touring a college that specialized in training teachers. When he asked how he could help, the students and faculty there said they needed a technological upgrade. Well, more than an upgrade, they needed technology.
"The students and teachers were very bright and capable," Lynch, 52, says, "and there wasn't a single computer in the whole college."
Back in Ireland he rounded up some volunteers who rounded up some computers that businesses were getting rid of and he shipped 100 to that school and one other in Ethiopia.
"Then I went out a couple of months later, just to check on how they were doing. And one college was doing really well and the other college, half the computers were in boxes still, and the other half were broken or stolen and it had been a complete failure."
Clearly, his business plan needed a tweak. Lynch realized he was going to have to provide training and enlist people on the ground to provide support and monitor schools' progress. Oh, and he was going to need a lot more computers.
Which is what led him to expand into Silicon Valley -- yes, because when it comes to computers the land of technology is a target-rich environment. But it is rich in other targets, too. You see, about 20 years ago Lynch attended Stanford's graduate school of business. And as you might imagine, several of his classmates have done quite well for themselves.
"Our biggest donations so far are from ex-Stanford classmates who run public companies," he says. "I've been hitting the rest of my class fairly hard. I'm working through companies like that now, just trying to convince them to support what we're doing."
Why not? Why not give away computers that you're going to throw away? Some companies are hesitant to send off into the bigger world machines that once held company secrets. But Lynch explains that of course Camara wipes the hard drives clean before making any repairs and installing educational software on the PCs headed for Africa and the Caribbean.
In fact, that work goes on in a San Jose warehouse, where Camara (the word is Bantu for teacher) trains volunteers -- mostly high school and college kids -- and then puts them to work readying shipments for places like Haiti, where Lynch and a team of volunteers were headed last week to check on potential recipients and to visit with schools that have already received computers.
As nice as Lynch's work sounds, and as wonderful as computers can be, I often wonder: Why computers? Would Lynch and others be better off seeing to it that the poor in Haiti had enough food, or sufficient clothing or decent places to live? Lynch's answer is simple: The schools he is helping have asked for computers and so that is what he is giving them.
Gladys Thomas, who runs three schools and an orphanage in Haiti, says that of course children need food, clothing and shelter, but if that is all they have, how will their lives ever get better?
"My focus is not to just have the schools," says Thomas, who received 20 Camara computers for her students in the fall, "but to really reach excellence. The world is changing so fast. If they don't catch up when they are young, when they are older it will be unreachable."
Adding computers to her curriculum was so important, she says, that she is putting off some school repairs and delaying the purchase of some books to free up the $600 she spent to rewire and air-condition one school library, so it could serve as a computer lab.
"If we use computers, then the children will really open up and they will have choices in life," says Thomas who teaches and cares for more than 300 children ages 3 to 14. "You want to be able to look up and see really what it is like to study medicine, what a lawyer might be."
You want to be able, in other words, to see a world that had always been utterly foreign. It's the kind of goal that has all upside for Lynch -- and especially for his end consumer.