There are few more recognizable names than Dell. You’ve likely owned one or more of their PCs. You remember the dude from their commercials, and you can’t miss the current headlines. Everyday, breaking news offers updates on the company’s somewhat precarious future as Founder, Michael Dell jockeys with billionaire investor, Carl Icahn and others to take the company private. Yet while the company’s future ownership hangs in the balance, Dell employees work quietly behind the scenes to innovate for the good of society and the environment.
In a recent interview at the Wall Street Journal’s ECO:nomics Conference with Dell’s VP of Corporate Responsibility, Trisa Thompson, I was inspired by an impressive array of initiatives that together form a rare embodiment of TriplePundit’s fascination with people, planet and profit. For this reason, I’d like to flip the page on the current headlines and offer a glimpse into the stories you aren’t hearing in the news.
Youth Learning Initiative
A proper starting point is Dell’s commitment to education worldwide. Over 1,000 Dell employees volunteer to mentor and judge teams of university student businesses from 42 countries around the world as part of Dell’s Social Innovation Challenge. So far, Dell has selected 253 business teams from a pool of thousands of entries to pitch their socially motivated business plans for a shot at the awards in May and funding to implement their models (see examples of top candidates here).
Not only does this challenge provide educational opportunities for students and catalyze social enterprise, it is a powerful initiative for enhancing employee engagement. Herself a judge for the contest, Thompson explains why Dell employees are so enthusiastic to get involved: “It’s pretty cool to meet the students and hear their stories. Also Dell is competitive so if I’m the mentor, I want my team to win! The woman whose team won last year is still bragging to her office.” In the contest’s second year, Dell has succeeded in building an online entrepreneurship community of 250,000, which provides access to capital, mentorship and other assistance in partnership with organizations like the Skoll Foundation.
Dell’s innovation in education doesn’t end there. Building upon its already sizeable Youth Learning Initiative, Dell is piloting a solar-powered classroom called a “Zuba Box” for an off-the-grid school in Nigeria. If successful, the company will look to replicate this model in rural regions of places like Africa, India and China, where there is no electricity.
Big Data for Good
Are you a believer in the power of leveraging social media for social good? Wait until you learn more about Dell’s social listening command center. Last year, in partnership with the American Red Cross, the tech giant launched the first-ever digital operations center devoted to humanitarian efforts. From distributing information on places of refuge during storms to post-crisis “digital hugs”, the command center connects people in real time via social media during disaster.
Dell also applies its technology expertise toward high-impact medical innovation. Dell has taken a leading role in accelerating treatment for pediatric cancer, the single largest cause of disease-related death in children ages 1-14 in the U.S. Last year, Dell partnered with T-Gen, a nonprofit biomedical research group, to connect researchers and doctors with critical data much more efficiently.
According to Dell, each pediatric cancer case requires a personalized treatment plan and because the disease can spread so quickly, time is critical: “There is no time to waste for children and families battling aggressive and deadly cancers like neuroblastoma,” said James Coffin, Ph.D., VP and General Manager of Dell Healthcare and Life Sciences. “That’s why Dell is focused on driving results faster… to accelerate time-to-targeted treatment for children participating in the clinical trial and can open participation to more children over time.” Dell’s high performance computing technology now enables hospitals to process genomics data in six hours when it used to take one week to download and FedEx the data between hospitals.
The Business Case
If you’re wondering why Dell would spend so much time, energy and resources on philanthropic initiatives, consider the long-term potential for each of these projects. According to Thompson, the business cases for these social models are a far cry from a murky pipe dream. “It’s very intentional where we put our dollars, time and equipment. Our work in pediatric cancer, education and disaster relief are areas where customers, paying and non-paying, can see what our technology can do and that’s pretty powerful. These are products that we sell. We just happen to give them away also.”
The company’s commitment to environmental sustainability is equally impressive and the business case couldn’t be more compelling. Dell is a leader in fresh air-chilled data center installation, providing this valuable service to digital giants like eBay. Also an innovator in sustainable packaging, Dell embraces biodegradable materials like bamboo and mushrooms and has instituted an impressive recycling program, initiatives which have enabled significant cost reduction as a result of decreased consumption and waste
When asked how her company has achieved success with such a diverse assortment of high-impact programs, Thompson chuckles, crediting both the stellar creativity of her teammates and the inspiration of other CSR leaders. “We go to a lot of conferences and I talk with a lot of other companies because we want to learn about eveybody’s best practices out there…I always go online and look at other companies’ CSR reports because I want to see who’s really knocking it out of the park.” After talking with Thompson, one can’t help but wonder about the immense power of business to tackle social and environmental issues, if only more companies would adopt such a collaborative mentality.
There is much to learn about a company if we are to look past the competitive bids and perpetually fluctuating share prices to the true indications of long term sustainability.