Erica Swanson ’99 recognizes her privilege as a Googler, working and living in Silicon Valley with husband Brian Smith ’99 and their two children. She also knows it’s a rare privilege to not only live and work your passion and values but to literally see your work in action across the country.
As head of community impact programs for Google Fiber, Swanson leads a cross-functional team of Googlers who build, launch and drive programs to reach non-Internet users, primarily in large metropolitan areas.
“Google Fiber is our response to digital inclusion, a move toward digital equity. It’s very data-driven (who uses, for what, what works, what doesn’t). It’s all deeply correlated with income and color so we look at ‘why?’ Most often, affordability is the core issue,” Swanson says.
Google Fiber launched as a pilot in Kansas City in 2012 “to see what innovations could be unleashed in an economic development project,” Swanson says. “I was intrigued by the local, physical work, and with putting a face on Google in those neighborhoods, to inspire and innovate with intention.” Google Fiber services have since expanded to Atlanta, Austin, Charlotte, Raleigh-Durham, Nashville, Provo, Salt Lake City and San Antonio.
“Our most sustainable work is done in coalitions, across sectors, with elected officials, other providers, homeowner groups and community leaders,” Swanson says. “The work takes many forms, from literally digging up yards in public housing projects to install fiber networks, to thought leadership and in-kind financial support.”
Swanson was recruited by Google in 2011 as outreach and partnerships manager for public policy in Washington, D.C., where she earned a master’s degree in public policy and women’s studies from George Washington University. While deputy director of field operations for The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, also in D.C., Swanson developed public education and strategies to advance such issues as economic security, transportation equity, education reform and voting rights. In her first digitally-focused project, she led a $3-million campaign to help the hardest-to-reach make the transition from analog to HDTV.
“My career pattern has been in deep public policy and community engagement and investment. I work with those who know the area and can assess the needs for technology as a positive force for good,” says Swanson. “At Google Fiber, my double major in political science and sociology makes perfect sense. I came to Central expecting to major in communication, having edited publications in high school, but my parents—a lawyer and a teacher— encouraged me to be open-minded.”
Swanson found herself pushed at Central to consider how issues impacted real people. “So many people at Central helped me to think about the world in healthy ways, to question ‘why do I believe what I believe?’ For example, an honors class with Don Maxam on ‘The Social Movement of the ’60s.’ He was an activist himself and asked us ‘what would you do to effect change?’ In a Social Problems class, sociology professor Jon Witt framed up issues of inequality and injustice that made me think ‘I can devour this.’ I was intrigued. The light bulb went on.”
Swanson turned her passion for these topics into a career. She says, “I’ve made a profession out of social issues and change. It’s rewarding when I get to be there and talk with residents and see, hear and feel the work and how it helps people.”
To students interested in social change, she says, “Know what you are most interested in and why and apply your skills to that cause, because that’s what you will be best at. The liberal arts foundation is really key. That’s who I hire because a liberal arts education makes you think critically about how to tackle issues.”
“In Silicon Valley, it’s the big ideas and optimism that get the attention. My job is to close that gap between the big ideas and the users’ reality. We Googlers are motivated by problem-solving, so I’m always pushing myself to do new things.” And to do good.