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What an exciting time to be in the Valley. It seems every month turns up another major IPO and another handful of new local billionaires. As the economy staggers to find its footing, the tech industry eagerly anticipates more IPOs, more innovation, more advances in technology and more growth in the sector. It seems the tide is starting to raise all boats again.
There is now only one region in the nation with a higher concentration of top household earnings (>$191,469), and that is Fairfield County, Conn., which is essentially a suburb of New York. Fifteen percent of Silicon Valley households earn nearly four times the national average, and billionaires have become the new millionaires.
And yet, in some ways, Silicon Valley is failing. One in four Hispanic students drop out of school by high school, and the dropout rate for the general population is a shocking 18.1 percent. In a region with unprecedented and ever-increasing wealth, 18 percent of our residents are living in poverty. The Silicon Valley wealth divide is increasing. In a region famous for innovation and entrepreneurship, huge swaths of our population are being left behind, without the skills or opportunities to engage.
There’s no panacea here; there’s no quick fix. But there is a need for innovation and entrepreneurial thinking. It’s not just educators, academia, government entities, or nonprofit organizations that are needed to exact measurable change. There is a need for wide-scale, cross-sector engagement. And in light of these recent IPOs, I want to suggest that corporate involvement in addressing a community’s needs can never start too early.
I fundamentally disagree with the notion that companies are only accountable to their customers or shareholders. The fact is, companies are an integral part of our society. All entities should be stepping forward and working together to address community needs.
But if the societal responsibility alone isn’t compelling, there are tangible business benefits to focus on. Positive brand recognition and great PR tend to follow good deeds. Establishing and maintaining a culture of philanthropy can also provide a leg up in recruiting and retaining top talent in a competitive employee marketplace, especially with socially conscious Millennials. There are tax incentives. And as the company grows, so too can the extent of its role in addressing the most crucial community issues.
If that is still not reason enough, just focus on the bottom line that we are simply not producing enough qualified workers for the tech industry. To continue thriving as a region, Silicon Valley will need future talent to unleash the next wave of revolutionary innovations and gain ground in increasingly competitive markets. But where will it come from with less than eight percent of our nation’s high schools offering AP-level computer science curriculum?
I was recently speaking with the CEOs of several local startups who all said the same thing: “We’d love to help… as soon as we start making more money.” But I would challenge that approach. Taking on a leadership role in the community can start the day a company is born. It doesn’t have to involve donating massive sums of money. Here are five ways a young company can engage, starting today:
- Start thinking about philanthropy right away. Make it a topic of discussion at leadership meetings. Build it into the marketing plan. Creating a culture of giving starts from the top down and should touch every aspect of the business model.
- Empower employees to get engaged. Support and institutionalize volunteerism. Launch a giving campaign. Create a culture of involvement and ownership.
- Choose a policy or community issue and become involved. Join industry associations or executive boards. Offering informed insight and constructive feedback or introducing an organization to a new network of contacts can give that organization access to resources they otherwise would not have.
- Consider a cause-marketing campaign for crucial issues facing the community. Tying important issues directly to sales can help address important social problems and benefit the bottom line.
- Start small with strategic philanthropy. Target an underserved region, study its social needs, choose one, and engage.
I hope that we continue to see an increase in IPOs and produce great wealth for companies and individuals. Our country continues to thrive because of it. And simultaneously, I hope that all companies, regardless of size or stage, will recognize the importance of their role in the ecosystem of our community – and that they will actively engage and partner to address the issues we face.
Microsoft Silicon Valley’s Sid Espinosa heads up corporate citizenship for Microsoft in the SF/Bay Area. Sid worked in the Clinton administration, led global philanthropy for HP, and joined Microsoft a few years ago. He was also the first Latino Mayor of Palo Alto.