In the United States, disappointment over the political system has led many Americans to look elsewhere for leadership on social change. This stands in stark contrast with the visionary leadership offered by the CEOs of the largest tech firms. Perhaps this is why there was talk of Mark Zuckerberg running for president (at least, that is, before the Cambridge Analytica debacle).
One might even say that the reach and financial scale of these companies is so vast that they may as well be considered akin to governments. The annual revenue of the ten leading tech firms in the United States has already surpassed $1 trillion. That’s greater than the GDP of 47 U.S. states. In fact, it’s likely that you’re relying on several of those companies at once as you read this very sentence right now.
So, in the words of Voltaire and later Spiderman, “With great power comes great responsibility.” For Big Tech, corporate social responsibility (CSR) must aim to achieve the same kind of scale and disruption that led to their financial success.
How can these companies ‘disrupt’ society with their CSR?
While they may reach the world through fiber optic cables and global exports, tech companies still tether their global and regional headquarters to local communities around the world. They can make a disproportionate impact in those communities by offsetting some of the challenges of their disproportionate size. Take San Francisco, for instance. Decades of redevelopment have made it nearly impossible for local residents to afford the rising cost of living – particularly skyrocketing rents. Tech firms responded by bussing their own employees into and out of the city on shuttles from the suburbs, leading to local protests that lasted several years. These workarounds could and should have been designed for CSR from the outset.
When employees are enjoying free fruit in the workplace, these can be made available to local shelters and pantries. Local schools can be given early access to education technology for free or at cost. And whether independently or in collaboration with other tech companies, the collective brainpower of employees can be harnessed to identify new ways of disrupting old challenges, like housing and skyrocketing rents. Tech giants can help solve some of society’s major problems by beginning at home.
Unrest has already mounted regarding labor practices in Amazon’s warehouses, with countless media outlets portraying low-wage workers in constant fear of missing targets and being reprimanded for bathroom breaks. This is not the image that Jeff Bezos hopes to cultivate, nor any other CEO for that matter. While Amazon shows no signs of slowing down its growth, one must ask what kind of reputational damage this may have with conscious consumers and whether practices like these are necessary for the bottom line.
Conversely, there are public relations gains to be made by tackling these issues head-on. Companies like Amazon can invest in designing a warehouse model that’s more humane for their employees – or even gamify it as a public challenge with a monetary prize. Chip manufacturers can look to their global value chain. At a minimum, companies should be establishing initiatives to bring frontline workers together with senior decision makers to learn what it’s like to wake up and wear their company uniform at the bottom of the totem pole.
The Sacramento Bee reports that San Francisco public schools have “the worst black student achievement of any county in California.” In one school, only 2% of black students passed the California test for math. This is in a county which is famous worldwide for its brain power in the four stem subjects: science, technology, engineering and – yes – math!
Mentorship has been crucial to my success from the beginning, and tech employees should be encouraged to get out into the community to engage at all levels as volunteers, not only in the startup ecosystem. What employees learn locally can be packaged and scaled to schools around the country, leading to a wider long-term impact for CSR programs and a more positive image for companies that think bold about their impact through CSR.
College remains one of the best investments for a high school graduate, but steep increases in tuition are causing that investment to fall increasingly out of reach. According to the College Board, the average out-of-state undergraduate tuition rate has surpassed $25,000 and $34,000 per year for public and private schools respectively. Even students who enroll in code camps will likely require an undergraduate degree.
And perhaps this is where tech giants have the most to offer society. Each of the ‘big ten’ specializes in offering some aspect of information technology at scale. With a combined revenue greater than any state but New York, Texas or California, they can band together to lead on major policy reforms that will enable young people to gain a quality accredited education at a reasonable price.
These are not the only ways to create change, but it is clear that tech companies can do much more. While they may once have been outsiders disrupting the industry, Big Tech now is the industry. And now that they can count their user base by the billions, it’s time to think just as big about CSR.