Riddle me this: a former Microsoft employee turned author, a billionaire investor, and the founder of a nonprofit walk into a bar. What do all 3 men have in common that brought them there in the first place? Each, in their own right, are pioneers within the social impact space…bet you didn’t see that coming! The 3 men in discussion include Microsoft’s former Senior Director of Citizenship and Public Affairs, Akhtar Badshah, BlackRock chairman and CEO, Larry Fink, and Khan Academy’s CEO & Founder, Sal Khan. I’ve been fortunate to listen to 3 very different webinars where each touch upon the importance of social impact, providing their own experiences and takeaways. Here is what I learned from each discussion.
During Akhtar Badshah’s 10+ years with the technology company, not only did he help to administer Microsoft’s global community investment and employee programs, but he also managed the philanthropic side of YouthSpark, a global initiative designed to increase the access of computer science and digital skills for all youth. During the webinar series, LISTEN UP! Doing Corporate Citizenship Better, Together, the CSR expert addresses Microsoft’s culture of giving as well as the lessons he’s learned throughout his social impact journey. Here is what I gathered:
Purpose vs. Passion:
One of my favorite topics in discussion was the usage of passion vs. purpose. Badshah is extremely ardent about replacing the term passion with purpose, explaining that passion is a self-driven vehicle, focusing on the ‘me,’ while purpose is more inclusive, centering around the ‘we.’ By focusing on a purpose, we are actually extending our work to have a greater impact on the common good, a theme very prevalent in social impact and CSR.
Powering Individual Purpose:
He then speaks to his discovery of the importance of individual purpose, a concept Microsoft exhibits to their benefit. He explains that the individuals at a company activate and drive purpose, not the company itself. Under this umbrella, purpose actually demands individual growth, therefore; a company’s purpose will not properly align unless space is created for individuals to identify their own objectives. It is then the duty of the organization to look for the overlaps and intersections between the overall company’s purpose and individuals’ purposes. As consultants, we identify this mastery as the key to empowering employees to go beyond a mission and vision statement. This will result in stronger employee engagement as well as employee morale.
Opening Resources for Yourself:
My final takeaway is a piece of advice. Badshah specifically advises his listeners to stop focusing on the problems they want to solve and in return, focus on the future they want to create. One way to accomplish this is by no longer focusing on the lack of resources, but instead, looking at the abundance of networks that do exist and utilizing those connections to open the doors.
Alike Badshah, Larry Fink has embedded social impact into his own purpose of existence, which is why I was ecstatic to see his name surface at a U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation event. Declared as one of the most influential businessmen of our time, BlackRock chairman and CEO, Larry Fink continuously stands by his belief that companies, both public and private, must serve a social purpose.
In his 2021 letter to the world’s most distinguished chief executives, he declares, “The more your company can show its purpose in delivering value to its customers, its employees, and its communities, the better able you will be to compete and deliver long-term, durable profits for shareholders.” His vision has not only helped to shape COVID-19 responses from the world’s most fundamental businesses but will continue to shape the future good of business in the years to come.
In an interview-style discussion led by U.S. Chamber of Commerce President, Suzanne Clark, Fink kicked off the first of three days by providing his insight on how businesses have stepped up and can continue to step up during this time of uncertainty and need. His fundamental ideas around the future of social impact include the following:
Fink is adamant that corporate purpose and the role of business in society is more paramount now than ever before, stating, “We are seeing a transformation in how clients consume. Many, many people only want to consume with organizations they believe in. I don’t think people consume blindly anymore, especially young people.”
To back his truthful statement, Digital Media Solutions shares the following statistics gathered by the 2020 Deloitte Global Millennial Survey: “42% of Millennials have begun or deepened their relationships with businesses they believe have positive impacts in society or the environment, and 37% have abandoned or retreated from companies they didn’t believe were ethical.” Evidently, the future of business will very well lay in the hands of millennials who are demanding corporate ethics.
Another theme he acknowledges is the major transformation in how companies are showing up and utilizing their voices for good. “It’s not about running away and hiding from your voice. In this divergent world, it’s about having a voice,” says Fink. When a company’s voice connects with its clients and employees, it can be a massive driver in profitability.
We saw this come to light in May/June 2020 when corporations took a prominent stand to support the Black Lives Matter movement following the brutal killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. CEOs across the nation provided statements, such as the following quote from Grubhub CEO Matt Maloney: “While our Black colleagues uniquely feel personal outrage at these events that we see all too often, I and the entire Grubhub team share their horror and frustration, and know the impact of current events is profound and will rightly be felt for a very long time.”
I would go one step further to say not only is it paramount for corporate leaders to have a voice, but it is even more impactful when their voice turns into action. Not only did corporations share CEO statements during this time, but many took action by providing hefty donations to the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, the United Negro College Fund and other organizations supporting and advocating for black rights. Actions such as these, speak much louder than words.
Lastly, Fink articulates that our current state is providing great learning opportunities for businesses everywhere, and as a business community, we are improving and getting stronger. “During a crisis, business communities come together and show more purpose.” He explains, “For many of the companies and industries, how we adapt, how we change, how we are trying to connect with our clients…we’re proving our purpose more than ever before. I do believe COVID is only going to accelerate our clients’ [and] our employees’ desire for a stronger, more articulated business purpose.”
During our current state of crisis, it has become increasingly obvious which companies have executed proper CSR, not only to enable their own employees and stakeholders but by becoming providers in helping keep our country afloat. We saw corporations, such as Gap Inc. and Brooks Brothers, pivot their usual business to becoming a mass producer of masks, gowns and/or scrubs for medical workers during a time of shortage. This just goes to show how impactful social impact is during a desperate time of need.
During the same U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation event, Khan Academy’s CEO & Founder, Sal Khan, took center stage as he discusses a different area of need: the digital divide. The digital divide refers to the gap between those able to benefit from the internet and those who cannot. There have been longstanding systemic inequities when it comes to the digital divide for students across the United States, disproportionately impacting low-income students, families in rural areas, children of color, and kids within marginalized communities. During this impactful conversation, Khan shares insights as to how the pandemic continues to impact educational equity while reflecting on his efforts in helping to close the tech inequity gap.
According to the Center on Reinventing Public Education (CRPE), a nonpartisan research center in partnership with the University of Washington, “A Pew Research Center poll conducted in early April 2020 revealed roughly one in five parents with homebound school-aged children say it is very likely or somewhat likely their children will not be able to complete their schoolwork because they do not have access to a computer at home (21 percent) or must use public Wi-Fi to finish their schoolwork because there is not a reliable internet connection at home (22 percent).” The divide continues to result in underserved students falling further behind compared to their peers and drastically impacts the U.S. dropout rate.
Virtual Learning Impacting Education:
When the pandemic hit, sending teachers, families, and students into a frenzy, the Khan Academy database skyrocketed across the globe. The shift of in-person lessons to online learning resulted in the organization gaining traffic at about 300% of normalcy. Unfortunately, this technological shift is creating major issues for the students within our country. “There are a lot of kids in our country and the world who don’t have access to their potential because of the zip code they grew up in or their parent’s income,” states Khan.
He continues, “The U.S. has made improvements, but if we want learning to not be bound by time or space, we need to give students the necessary tools to make learning happen.” The silver lining is that corporate, government and philanthropic industries have more energy to close the digital divide with online learning being a major vehicle in our current education system.
The Gaps Have Widened:
When asked if he thought the U.S. narrowed or broadened the digital divide since the beginning of this year, Khan stated the following, “At a high level, we have narrowed it because the telecom providers have done the right thing by broadening internet access and getting laptops to those in need, but the use and benefit of digital have widened.” Although more laptops and the expansion of internet connection are being provided to more folks, middle income to middle upper-income students will benefit more from the digital tools they can access.
This stems from their prior exposure to digital tools. Students born into this social stature have already been familiar with digital functionality and are able to continue learning at a normal pace; whereas underserved students or students in rural areas are not used to this modality and so the gaps have continued to unfortunately widen.
Why Close the Gap:
There are many reasons to why the digital divide needs to be closed, keeping children at the top of mind. The barriers to broadband support for all U.S. students further impact those at the disadvantaged end of the spectrum by disabling their abilities to remain engaged and access the tools needed in order to learn and have success in the educational system. Students within the most impoverished regions of the country are not gaining the same exposure to the educational advantages as to those with proper broadband access. This is where company investment, nonprofit partnership, and signature programs can have a major stake.
During COVID-19, the use of digital and the benefit from it have created gaps that have widened, but there is hope as we see corporations, such as Verizon’s Innovative Learning program and Charter Communications’ Spectrum Digital Education stepping up to foster digital inclusion and succeed our youth. When companies and nonprofits establish programs to promote free access to digital literacy and computer training within underserved communities, real changes can be made.
I want to emphasize a Larry Fink statement made in his 2021 CEO Letter, one that summarizes the importance of social impact, especially during our current pandemic state. He explains, “I cannot recall a time where it has been more important for companies to respond to the needs of their stakeholders. We are at a moment of tremendous economic pain. We are also at a historic crossroads on the path to racial justice – one that cannot be solved without leadership from companies. A company that does not seek to benefit from the full spectrum of human talent is weaker for it – less likely to hire the best talent, less likely to reflect the needs of its customers and the communities where it operates, and less likely to outperform.”
If I have learned anything from these webinars, it is that corporate social responsibility is more vital now than ever before with the health, economic and social well-being of our country at stake. Not only that, but the future of our country is dependent on the implementation and commitment for businesses to honor their social impact responsibilities. I hope one day COVID will stand as a learning opportunity for the ways in which our lack of preparedness failed us, but also for which we saw companies insert themselves as leaders in helping us overcome such a disaster. When companies become key players for achieving the Sustainable Development Goals, we secure a new normal that is more beneficial for all.
Image 1 from Aspen Institute
Image 2 by Damon Winter/The New York Times
Image 3 from TED Archive TED Archive