Corporate Citizenship Conference Recap Day 2: Embracing the Future and Finding Simplicity


With an agenda packed from dawn to dusk, day two of the 2015 International Corporate Citizenship Conference was full of learning and networking—we even managed to network while getting some exercise! Highlights included an in-depth one-on-one with Dell Chairman and CEO Michael Dell, an on-site volunteer project benefiting Austin middle-schoolers, and more than 15 other sessions tackling subjects ranging from engaging veterans to navigating the reporting landscape.

Morning collaboration and the future and promise of technology

To start the day on the right foot, the Center for Corporate Citizenship created a unique networking event for the early risers and especially intrepid—a Corporate “Fitizens” Networking Walk. Participants had the chance to take in the sights and sounds of the city while getting to know their peers and Center staff.

The walk was not the only activity that served a dual purpose. For many, the morning breakfast was also an opportunity to explore shared challenges, as more than 100 attendees gathered with their peers for moderated solution sessions, discussing issues like environmental sustainability and managing strategic partnerships.

Following breakfast, Katherine V. Smith, executive director of the Center for Corporate Citizenship, welcomed the assembled attendees to the Conference, and reminded them of their place in creating the future of corporate citizenship.

“We live in a different world than we did 30 years ago, or even one year ago—but the challenge before us remains constant:  To make it a better world,” said Smith.

In her remarks, Smith discussed findings from the Center’s 2014 State of Corporate Citizenship Study, in which the majority of executive respondents report that corporate citizenship efforts contribute to company success. For the first time, these executives anticipate investing more in corporate citizenship programs over the next three years than they did in the previous three.  

"It’s because of your work—on the environment, on social issues, on governance," said Smith. “It’s your work that’s reflected in this increased commitment."

The day’s first general session, “One on One with Michael Dell: The Future and Promise of Technology,” served as an in depth discussion between the Dell Chairman and CEO, Dell’s Vice President of Corporate Responsibility, Trisa Thompson, and the Center’s Executive Director, Katherine V. Smith. The trio explored topics ranging from the company’s recent move from public to private, the benefits of adopting a long-term view, and methods to gain executive buy-in for corporate citizenship initiatives.

Dell spoke of the company’s role in driving progress, as well as its commitment to sustainability, to eliminating waste, and leading the IT industry toward a circular economy—one that values recycling and reuse.

“In a traditional economy, you take the materials, you make the product, you consume the product, and then you throw it away. We try to make products using materials that we can continually reuse.” said Dell.

You can see Dell’s commitment to sustainability in their packaging, which they aim to make zero-waste by 2020. “We asked ourselves: How can we achieve the same objective, but do it with better materials, and without extra cost,” said Dell.

To help eliminate waste from their packaging, Dell now makes their boxes using wheat straw. “Wheat straw costs less, and uses less energy and less water,” said Thompson. “It’s a byproduct of farming, one that farmers would traditionally burn, releasing carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Now, we’re paying the farmers for their waste, and we’re putting it to use.”

Dell’s sustainable packaging is one component of their Legacy of Good Plan—a set of 21 goals that brings together sustainability and business objectives. In addition to more sustainable packaging, the plan also hopes to drive energy efficiency in Dell products, bring technology to 3 million youth in under-served areas, and complete 5 million volunteer hours by 2020.

The panel also spoke to their partnership with the American Red Cross—which involves the development of a digital operation center to harness the power of social media and expert advice to drive efficiencies in their logistics systems—as well as their work advancing technology in developing areas.

“Imagine you’re in an impoverished area,” said Dell. “For 30 dollars you can buy a cell phone, and in your hand you have access to the world’s information—more information than the most powerful person in the world had 25 years ago. We’re strong believers that technology is a significant part of the answer—in energy, in healthcare, in any field of opportunity.

The session closed with a look at CSR within Dell, including the company’s diversity and inclusion initiatives, which are overseen by Dell as the chair of the company’s diversity council.

“You want your team to look like your customers, and increasingly our customers are diverse and global,” said Dell. “We have 10 employee resource groups that are focused on making Dell a welcoming place. They have been incredibly helpful to us to attract and retain a diverse workforce.”

The general session was followed by an on-site volunteer project, sponsored by Target. In an effort to help Austin’s middle schoolers succeed on their standardized tests, many attendees joined Target and the United Way for Greater Austin (UWATX) in preparing more than 900 test prep kits for local students. The volunteers packed up supplies and wrote letters of encouragement for each student at the Mendez Middle School in southeast Austin—where 63 percent of students are considered at risk of dropping out of high school. The effort illustrated Target's longstanding commitment to volunteerism and service, and contributed to its goal to give $1 billion to education by the end of 2015.

At 10:30 a.m., attendees broke into smaller groups to attend one of the morning’s seven breakout sessions, which included five panelist discussions, a CSR communications workshop led by Center for Corporate Citizenship Teaching Fellow Nancy Dunbar, and a deep dive into State Street Corporation’s Adopt-an-Agency volunteer program.

Afternoon insights: tackling difficult topics and finding simplicity in a complex world

The second general session, titled “Putting Your Corporate Money Where Your Mouth Is,” featured Crayton W. Webb, vice president of corporate communications and corporate social responsibility at Mary Kay Inc. Introduced by Center Director of Membership Colleen Olphert, Webb discussed the strategies needed for adopting a CSR initiative that tackles a difficult—perhaps even taboo—issue such as domestic violence. 

Webb argued that—while domestic violence may not be a widely discussed issue, it is a pervasive one. “One in four women will experience domestic violence in America, and one in three girls will be impacted by sexual, physical, verbal, or emotional abuse in a relationship,” said Webb. "That is Mary Kay’s signature and core issue.”

To tackle this difficult issue—which connects to the company’s mission of enriching women’s lives—Mary Kay takes an approach that deviates from those typically associated with traditional corporate social responsibility. Instead, argues Webb, the company practices corporate social advocacy, the foundation of which is their Lobbying for Good program, an initiative that began decades ago, when Mary Kay lobbied the federal government to require insurance companies to cover mammograms.

“We ask members of our independent salesforce to partner with our public affairs departments and to go lobby in state capitals and in Washington DC on issues that have nothing to do with our bottom line, but instead simply deal with domestic violence,” said Webb.  

Webb pointed to the importance of partnering internally and externally, and was frank about some of the challenges he encountered—which include obtaining buy-in from global offices and defining metrics to measure progress.

While there may be challenges when adopting a controversial issue to support, there are also benefits. “Now,” said Webb, “our independent salespeople have a real, authentic way to talk to other women before they ever begin talking about business.”

To conclude his session, Webb spoke to how working for Mary Kay has affected his personal connection with the issue of domestic violence, and how—through his corporate citizenship work—he has come to view the topic in a new way.    

“I’ve come to realize that domestic violence is a man’s issue,” said Webb. “It’s not a woman’s issue, it’s a man’s issue, and as men we don’t always speak up to other men, because we’re afraid of offending them. But what’s offensive is that one in four women will experience violence. What’s offensive is that our children may grow up in violent households. What’s offensive is that the only role that men have had in this issue until now is being the problem.”

The session closed with a moving testimonial from Abi Ferrin, domestic abuse survivor and part of Mary Kay’s Don’t Look Away program, who received a standing ovation upon concluding her remarks.

Following the lunch session, attendees took advantage of a second set of breakout sessions, featuring a FedEx and JA Worldwide case study focusing on the successful implementation of a global employee engagement program, a measurement workshop led by Center for Corporate Citizenship Teaching Fellow Susan Santos, and five panel discussions, including one exploring the theme of the Conference—20/20 Vision: Future Business Focus—led by Center Executive Director Katherine V. Smith.

In that session—the panel, which included executives from The Walt Disney Company, Intel Corporation, Dell, UnitedHealth Group, and Net Impact—discussed the emerging issues that were determining the future of corporate citizenship, such as health care, data privacy and protection, and diversity and inclusion.

The afternoon was capped off by a final general session, hosted by AMD. In his opening remarks, Tim Mohin, director of corporate responsibility at AMD, spoke of the future corporate citizenship, and how AMD is planning to meet it.

“At AMD, we’re punching above our weight—we’re not the biggest, we don’t spend the most, but we’re invested in it because it’s part of our culture,” said Mohin.

Mohin spoke to how the company drives efficiencies by collaborating with others, including the Electronic Industry Citizenship Coalition (EICC)—a group of electronics companies collaborating to develop a code of conduct designed to improve environmental social performance in their supply chains—and the necessary mindset to create business and social value in the future.

“When companies begin to look at the worlds’ sustainability challenges as business opportunities we can harness the profit motive to do good,” said Mohin. “We’re going to need to form new partnerships, build new skills, and learn a new language.”

The day’s final presentation was delivered by Don Sull, senior lecturer of technological innovation, entrepreneurship, and strategic management group at MIT Sloan School of Management, professor at the London Business School, and author of Simple Rules: How to Thrive in a Complex World. The session shared the book’s title and explored the same themes, offering a powerful approach to tame complexity and prioritize CSR initiatives.

“The companies that are most successful at dealing with complex problems tackle them with simplicity,” said Sull.

After spending years studying companies operating in complex industries with his coauthor, Kathleen M. Eisenhardt, Sull discovered that those that performed the best applied a handful of simple rules to critical processes. These simple rules—argued Sull—provided a threshold level of structure to avoid the chaos of no rules, and just enough structure to allow for flexibility and creativity.

“It’s possible for a simple interface to manage a complex system,” said Sull.

The day closed with prizes from AMD, and a final networking event, hosted by Texas Instruments.

Want more updates on the Conference?  Subscribe to the Corporate Citizenship Blog by clicking below.