The Power of Corporations Doing Good

Dalila Wilson-Scott’s parents met during the Vietnam War; her dad was in the Air Force and her mom was a local Vietnamese woman who didn’t have much more than an elementary education. “When I think of the broader work of inclusion and opportunity, that’s my parents’ own story,” says Wilson-Scott. “A focus on economic opportunity and diverse perspectives is just something I grew up with.”

Today, Wilson-Scott brings the passion for equality and diversity from her upbringing to her roles as the senior vice president of community investment for Comcast NBCUniversal and the president of the Comcast Foundation.

In the third installment of our series 10 Leaders on Business for Good, NationSwell founder and CEO Greg Behrman chats with Wilson-Scott about her social-impact work and the changing nature of corporate civic engagement.

Is there a moment in your career where your background allowed you to understand the merits of equity and inclusion in a way that others couldn’t?

I wouldn’t say there was one defining moment, but I remember being in a meeting once and a woman said, “I’ve never met anyone who grew up poor.” I was like, “Well, I guess technically if you looked at income data, you could argue I fit into that demographic.” I mean, how do you know if you grew up with somebody who was poor or not? Her perception was that no one in that meeting could have grown up poor; otherwise, how would we have ended up in the same place? It helps to realize that people have a tendency to form those kinds of assumptions.

What are some things that set Comcast NBCUniversal apart in the way they address corporate citizenship and social impact?

As a recent example, I’d say how we came together so quickly after some pretty astronomical hurricanes in a short amount of time. During Harvey and Irma, we really showed up, from opening our Wi-Fi network so that emergency workers and everyone else — whether they were a Comcast customer or not — could be as connected as possible. We leveraged our presence through our TV stations around the country to help drive donations to the American Red Cross. We even launched new technology on our X1 platform, where people could say into their voice remotes “Hurricane Harvey” or “Irma” and make an immediate donation toward relief and recovery.

What do you think are the ingredients to success for corporate social responsibility programs?

Authenticity is so important. Wherever a company chooses to focus its efforts, it’s got to feel true to its brand. Imagine if we at Comcast — a technology and media company — were to suddenly say, “Oh, now we’re going to tackle health issues.” That’s probably not a space where we can have as much impact as companies that are thinking about global health every day. Sure, we could maybe have an effect from a delivery standpoint — for example, how technology can make delivery of resources better — but that would come off as inauthentic and probably not sustainable. And those two things are key.

How are CSR efforts different than they’ve been in the past?

It was more common in the past for social-enterprises to be criticized as not being the best for business, and I think that’s definitely changed. At minimum, companies need to have a purpose and define it in a way that every customer and employee can get behind. Before, it was enough to say, “We’re going to make the best product in the world, and we’re going to make a lot of money from it.” That’s not acceptable anymore to message it in that way. The standards are higher, and more companies are aspiring to deliver their product or service in a way that is purpose-driven but still profitable and focused on delivering results for both communities and company stakeholders.

What drives you? What’s your North Star?

For sure, my children. But I’ve also been fortunate to find my voice and use it to challenge assumptions and the status quo. If I’m going to do that and take that kind of risk, I want it to be for the greater good. There are so many people I’ve met — and I’ve been one of those people in the past — who don’t have the ability to have their voice represented at so many different tables. While I’m not at every single table, I know that I’m more fortunate than a lot of people. The amount of inequity in society frustrates me, especially how it’s just an assumed state for most people. All of us should be able to find our ability to impact that, and I’ve been fortunate to make that my life’s work.

Dalila Wilson-Scott is a NationSwell Council member.

It’s About Taking Action, Not Just Cutting a Check

When Kate James joined Pearson in 2014 as its chief of corporate affairs and global marketing, the international education publisher was going through some changes. One such move included a shift from what James calls “arm’s-length philanthropy,” whereby a corporation simply cuts a check to an outside nonprofit, to taking a more active role in developing change-driven solutions.

In the second installment of our series “10 Leaders on Business for Good,” NationSwell founder and CEO Greg Behrman talked with James about how Pearson is altering the landscape of public-private partnerships for the better and what other companies can learn from those efforts.

You’ve worked at both philanthropic foundations and big corporations. What can a socially focused company do to enact change that might be harder for a nonprofit to do?

The journey that Pearson has been on, and continues to be on, is figuring out how to move from most of our social-impact work being done by a foundation at arm’s length to really embracing the opportunity for social innovation. To more bluntly answer your question: the private-sector dollar is super-important, especially given the scale of the challenges that the world is facing. Also, a large company can more easily convene other powerful players behind a cause while harnessing its campaign capabilities. Corporations can put their brand into play and leverage their commercial influence to reach more people in need. Pearson isn’t just coming at a problem with a check; instead we’re saying, ‘Hey, we can bring a lot more to it with our R&D capabilities.’

As the chief communications executive, Kate James helps lead Pearson’s social-impact initiatives.

What projects is Pearson working on currently that you’re particularly excited about?

Right now we’re focused on three big initiatives. One that we are certainly most proud of is Project Literacy, which is no big surprise for an education company. When we conducted our initial research into the issue, we were struck by the fact that there are 757 million people around the world that lack basic literacy skills. And so Pearson seized the opportunity to create a coalition that’s working to close the literacy gap. We’ve attracted more than 100 diverse partners, from Microsoft to USAID, who all realize education is a fundamental part of any solution, from reducing child mortality rates to enabling someone suffering from AIDS to wholly understand their disease.

Pearson has also launched an internal incubator for employees to develop their entrepreneurial skills. They’re given the time to really think about ideas that can reach communities that otherwise Pearson’s products and services wouldn’t be reaching. For example, we’ve seen proposals for really smart ways to utilize the power of virtual reality and another that examines the refugee challenges in Germany and how to meet them.

And then there’s our work in Jordan with Save the Children on a program called Every Child Learning. Our partnership plays to our R&D strengths; we’re piloting a digital learning solution to deliver education to Syrian refugees and host community children in Jordan, with an eye toward adapting and scaling these in other emergency situations. Because these kids are often moving from place to place, we believe a mobile education platform is part of the solution.

How has Pearson’s focus on researching and developing solutions for social good changed the working environment for employees?

By constantly innovating and trying new things, we’re working to align our social-impact work with our own business goals and objectives. When you get that alignment, it’s amazing how much more resolve employees have and how much more engaged they are. When you’re focused on the double bottom line, then the work is sustainable and that means companies will be much more involved in philanthropic efforts and for a longer period of time. That’s what we have at Pearson that was missing before: a deeper level of connection between a foundation’s work and a corporation’s commercial strategy.

What’s the best career advice you’ve been given?

I started my career at GlaxoSmithKline, and the head of corporate affairs then was a wonderful lady. I didn’t recognize it at the time, but she made a lot of effort to talk to the young women graduates who were coming into GSK, and she became a phenomenal role model. She showed us how you could navigate a career path right to the very top. What really stuck with me is the importance of and the responsibility to really spend time with young women often. Some of our sparkiest young employees are women and, from the get-go, they can see that there are no limits to what they can accomplish. As the former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright said, there’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help each other. I think that’s a pretty important mantra for all women in senior positions to take pretty seriously.

Microsoft’s Secret Weapon

As a child growing up in a tiny town in the Midwest, Mary Snapp absorbed the importance of commitment to community from her parents. “Literally every night, my parents were out at some meeting, and my dad delivered Meals on Wheels to seniors,” she recalls. Today, as corporate vice president and the first head of Microsoft Philanthropies, Snapp leads the technology company’s corporate citizenship initiatives.
Recently, NationSwell founder and CEO Greg Behrman sat down with Snapp to discuss the importance of companies providing a structure of support for social good and volunteerism.
GB: What is one approach or guiding principle at Microsoft Philanthropies that differentiates you from others?
MS: Microsoft’s Giving Campaign started 30 years ago when co-founder Bill Gates’s mother, Mary, told him that it was important to build philanthropy into the fabric of the company. We commit to matching employees’ volunteer time hour-by-hour and donations dollar-for-dollar. Last year, employees raised $142 million for nearly 19,000 nonprofits and schools worldwide. The program really encourages creative volunteering, such as Hacks for Good, where employees come up with ways to reduce demands for sex trafficking to things related to weather forecasts and water conservation. It’s really, truly unique.
For the past three decades, Microsoft has also been committed to supporting education. We believed 30 years ago, and we still believe today, that it’s really important for young people, especially underserved populations and girls, to learn science, technology, engineering and math. Our Technical Education and Literacy in Schools initiative started with one engineer volunteering an hour of his time several days a week to teach computer science at an underserved school. After a couple of years, he had nine other engineers joining him. This year, Microsoft employees are in 350 schools in 30 states team-teaching computer science alongside a teacher.
GB: Do you think what you’re doing to engage employees around social good is having an impact on employee engagement and enthusiasm, and the culture at Microsoft?
MS: I only have purely anecdotal evidence, but I think it does. For example, I recently met with some senior level employees who told me that they came to Microsoft specifically because of the ability to volunteer. And I’ve had a number of conversations with our data science lead who told me that his employees are constantly being recruited by outside companies, but they choose to work at Microsoft because they want to do things that give them purpose.

As corporate vice president for Microsoft Philanthropies, Mary Snapp leads efforts to expand Microsoft’s social impact around the globe.

GB: As you look forward into the world of corporate responsibility and philanthropy, what’s next for you and Microsoft?
MS: Two years ago, at the World Economic Forum, there was a lot of talk about the Fourth Industrial Revolution and the cloud. Last year, most of the discussion was on artificial intelligence and robots. We realized that we have an obligation to talk about digital skills and jobs for the future, but that we also need to urgently think about middle skills — jobs that are beyond a high school diploma, but don’t require a college degree — as well.
Fulfilling this middle skills area is coming at a pretty fast and broad clip. We believe that, as a big technology company, we have a particular responsibility to help ease the transition that’s coming with technology. We hope to work in urban and rural communities to build out technical skill programs so that as we move forward, technology does not leave people behind.
GB: What advice might you have for someone at the beginning of his or her career that aspires to lead business in the direction of sustainability and responsibility?
MS: Many young people have to overcome things that I didn’t, but it’s still possible for them to achieve their dreams. These dreams may change over time, but they need to have persistence and an interest in continuous learning. And I’d be sure to tell them that they’re going to make it, because they are.

Inside the Company That Recognized the Importance of Corporate Diversity 50 Years Ago

When you think of Xerox, you probably think of copy machines. But what really should come to mind is diversity.
Back in 2009, Ursula Burns assumed the role of CEO — marking the first time that a Fortune 500 company not only hired an African-American female for the position, but also hired two female CEOs in a row. With women holding only 4.8 percent of CEO positions in Fortune 500 companies, and black CEOs in these companies numbering only six, Xerox’s diverse leadership is remarkable.
But it didn’t happen overnight.
The seeds for Burns’s rise were planted 50 years ago through an innovative, company-wide effort to enhance diversity that continues to bear fruit to this day.
According to Paul Solman of PBS NewsHour, during the summer of 1964, race riots broke out near Xerox’s headquarters in Rochester, N.Y. Company founder Joe Wilson decided to meet with black community leaders to find out what could make their situation better.
Damika Arnold, Xerox’s Global Diversity and Inclusion Manager, tells Solman that Wilson “found out that the reason why they were rioting is because they didn’t have access to jobs. So he pledged that the black people of the community would be able to get jobs at Xerox.”
Wilson kept his word and then some. Xerox launched a summer minority internship program — which is how now-CEO Burns first joined the company in 1980. By 1991, nine percent of Xerox’s managers were black, compared to just half a percent at other companies.
But Xerox wasn’t content to rest with just this achievement. Leaders in the company saw that women weren’t making the same gains as men were, and when they analyzed the discrepancy, they found it was due to the fact that women with children couldn’t rise through the ranks because of the strict work schedules imposed on plant managers. So Xerox implemented job-sharing programs. As a result, women (even those with young children) began rising up the ranks.
Burns tells Solman, women are “not dumb in manufacturing. We just — we need a lot more flexibility than you’re allowing us to have.”
Additionally, Xerox encouraged the formation of supportive groups among its workforce, such as the Women’s Alliance, the Black Women’s Leadership Council and a gay and lesbian group. These gave employees of all backgrounds a myriad of opportunities for mentorship and guidance.
Burns believes Xerox’s groundbreaking emphasis on diversity has allowed it to weather decades of change in the business technology industry. The best idea, she says, “is to engage as much difference, as much breadth as you can, because that gives you little peeks into where some of the big opportunities will be.”
MORE: More Diversity Doesn’t Have to Mean Decreased Social Mobility