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Microsoft’s Brad Smith speaks with reporters after the announcement.

Microsoft this morning unveiled a new direction for its global philanthropic initiatives, announcing a program called YouthSpark that aims to boost educational, employment and economic opportunities for young people around the world.

The company says the majority of its philanthropic spending, including cash and technology donations, will now go toward programs and initiatives that support that mission — seeking to reach 300 million people over three years.

Brad Smith, Microsoft’s general counsel, calls it “the single biggest step we’ve taken philanthropically in the 37-year history of the company.”

Of course, in addition to the philanthropy, there are underlying business motivations at play here, as well. Through the program, Microsoft will offer Office 365 for free to schools, and promote Skype in the classroom — giving teachers and students broader access to technology, but also making sure that they’re exposed to Microsoft products early on.

GeekWire sat down with Smith for more details and context after the announcement. Continue reading for excerpts from his comments.

What brought this about?

Smith: About a year ago, we started focusing on what the next generation of our citizenship would address. We spent a lot of time to really step back and ask ourselves, how is the world changing, what problems are growing that we thing we can help address in an effective way, what connects with our core competencies and technology are focused on addressing? We asked ourselves all of those questions. Fundamentally that led us to a clear conclusion. We wanted the next generation of our philanthropy to focus on the next generation of people.

How much of a change is this?

Smith: I think it’s the single biggest step we’ve taken philanthropically in the 37-year history of the company. We’re very proud of all the work we’ve done over three decades, but this is the single biggest step we’ve taken. It puts the biggest stake in the ground that we’ve ever offered — this notion of trying to reach and help 300 million people over the next three years. We believe that is likely to include over 50 million people in the United States, roughly 250 million people in the rest of the world. It’s a very substantial commitment of the company’s resources. We’re talking about investing $500 million in costs over the next three years. It will deliver a fair market value of software and services that will amount to a multi-billion-dollar contribution.

$500 million — is that a redirection of things you’re already doing, or an expansion?

Smith: It’s both. We are doing new things, doing more things, especially outside the United States, we are going to be redirecting some of our cash contributions to ensure that [the majority] of our cash contributions are going to programs that address the opportunity divide for youth. Here in Puget Sound, in Washington State, we will continue to do the full breadth of things that we have been doing. We believe we have a role that we need to continue to play in Washington state that’s a bit different from other places just because this is our home. We recognize that we’re the second-largest private-sector employer in the state. We want to continue to contribute to the broad range of philanthropic needs in Washington state.

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