Smart Takes

Siemens' Jim Whaley: Education is key investment for corporate social responsibility

Siemens' Jim Whaley: Education is key investment for corporate social responsibility

Posting in Cities

When it comes to corporate social responsibility, Siemens' Jim Whaley says the best sustainability policy is investing in education -- especially STEM fields.

The following is one part of a two-part feature about sustainability initiatives at industry, energy and healthcare giant Siemens. This part discusses corporate social responsibility. To read the other part on corporate sustainability, click here.

When it comes to corporate social responsibility, or CSR, the best place to invest is in education.

That's according to Siemens Foundation vice chairman Jim Whaley, who says his company's investment in the STEM fields -- science, technology, engineering and mathematics -- demonstrates the kind of long-term commitment necessary to make a real impact.

I spoke with Whaley last month about the importance of CSR, the "greenwashing" blowback and what it means in an age where sustainability translates to money.

SmartPlanet: You're Siemens' vice president of communications and marketing, but also the president of the Siemens Foundation. How would you describe your job?

JW: My job is to help market the company and tell the Siemens story here in the U.S. The U.S. is the largest region for Siemens, and we have over 60,000 employees in all 50 states.

Just last month, we were one of the major sponsors of the 40th anniversary of Earth Day. It was a great sense of pride in the company. Our [U.S.] CEO [Eric Spiegel] was at the event down at the [National] Mall in [Washington] D.C.

We're one of the world's largest providers of sustainable technologies. We’re providing tech jobs.

If I had to boil it down, Siemens is part of the fabric of the U.S. -- the infrastructure  -- and touches the lives of people.

Siemens equipment moves 90 percent of the mail for the U.S. Postal Service. Siemens produces a third of the electricity through our generators and wind turbines.

SP: So sustainability aligns nicely with Siemens' business. What are you doing on the CSR front?

JW: We have a program called Caring Hands where we take our employees and go into communities and get involved with initiatives in the community that are needed to help make that community a better place.

For Hurricane Katrina, we were rebuilding houses. In Newark, we're helping schools in the community, and assisted the nature conservatory downtown. Next month, we're the lead sponsor of American Heart [Association] walk, which ties into some of our imaging and diagnostics equipment.

One of the best ways to tell the story is through our employees. We have 60,000 of them. There is passion and pride that our employees have for our products.

SP: Siemens' products inherently align with making the world smarter. Why do you feel compelled to have CSR initiatives, too?

JW: It clearly affects the pride of your employees. If people can see that they're working for a company that has a vested interest in the community, and that cares about education or the environment, that instills pride in them. They want the ability to work at a company that they're going to tell their neighbors about.

We're a company that has about 26 patents a day. That's pretty mind-boggling if you think about it. We invest $5 billion a year in research and development. It’s about the pipeline of talent -- the STEM fields. All of that intertwines. Recruiting and retaining the best talent.

If we were just selling a widget, we wouldn't have to have that passion. But all our products require talented people. I don't think you're going to recruit talented people if you're not involved heavily in CSR.

I don't think the products are enough for great companies to do great things. Great companies to great things all of the time. Good companies do great things some of the time. We have to be involved in the pipeline of talent, the community, long-term view on our products as a partnership.

Later this week, we're working with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce on a program called the Siemens Sustainable Community Awards. We recognize small, medium and large communities to solve problems in a sustainable and friendly way.

The whole point is to recognize them so that other communities see them and [gain inspiration]. These communities don't have the ability to talk to each other. The idea is to give different towns and cities the ability to share knowledge.

We've also partnered with the Discovery Channel in the Siemens We Can Change the World Challenge.

It's inculcated in our DNA that we're involved in sustainability.

With CSR, sustainability in my mind is a long-term investment in the well-being of the communities or country that the company operates in. With our Siemens Foundation, we've had a long term view -- over 10 years -- and millions of dollars of investment in one area: STEM.

We're trying to raise awareness and raise the bar for our country. That's a large undertaking. Sustainability means commitment in that regard. We have been, from grade school to graduate school.

SP: Many corporations have been the target of accusations of "greenwashing." Has Siemens?

JW: I haven't received much criticism for what we're doing. When educated people see the scope of what we're doing, they quickly move on to companies that have demonstrated less commitment.

Every company has to step back and say, what makes sense for us? What's part of our culture? For us, it's been part of our culture. It really hasn't been a leap for us. For some companies, it's a challenge. They don't have a vested interest.

Education is a tough needle to move. It is a very difficult bar to raise. We certainly could have chosen an easier path.

SP: I recently spoke with Siemens' VP of sustainability Alison Taylor, who underlined how important policy is for corporations. Does the foundation engage in this?

JW: We really don’t get involved with policy. We've always provided every secretary of education support for STEM. Now we're a bellwether measurement on the kids that come through our competitions.

With our scholarships, we can measure if the quality of the projects has gone up. The ratio of young ladies versus young men. Those type of measurements are important.

One of the important things we do is heighten the awareness of what we’re doing. We send athletic banners to the school of students who win our competitions. Highlighting them in advertisements in USA Today, where we list all the names of students in every state. It’s not [visually] pretty, it’s not helping Siemens branding, but it helps the community. I think that’s important to do.

We reach out to similar organizations to get them involved as well. To show them what we’re doing. There are a lot of companies very tied to what’s coming out of our colleges, universities and community colleges in our nation. Community colleges are overlooked many times in job competitiveness.

All of those things are important for us to tap into the talent pool. Especially if you want to build a factory in the middle of the country. We have committed to the Midwest. You have to be involved in the education process. It takes us to show other companies what we’re doing and why it’s important to us. Which ties back to telling the story.

SP: Peer pressure is important to corporate sustainability. What about CSR?

JW: There are some companies that invest just as much if not more than we do. I don't think we look to be competitive in this regard. We try to facilitate and bring people on board. Reach out to customers and organizations in the supply pipeline.

Education is an important investment for any high tech organization.

The age-old question of CSR or even marketing: what is the return of all these investments? How important is your brand? For myself in this field, we try to show that the overall awareness and respectability of our company is improving. When people hear Siemens, they realize what the company does holistically.

In some cases, the only people that knew about Siemens were the guys in the post office or guys who work on wind farms or work in hospitals. What we're trying to do with our major Siemens Answers campaign in the U.S. is tell people across the board what we do. There are ways to measure that and ways to measure CSR.

One of the benefits of doing CSR in education is that we have partners that we can tap into to find out if we’re making a difference or even being asked to have a seat at the table.

SP: And are you?

JW: I think the answer's yes. We've had our students go to the White House before. I think that’s how I measure.

Another thing is that we have internal measurements, when we ask our employees what they think about our programs. People working on factory floors, or out on the road. Then we really know how deep we’re going.

Read on for a discussion about corporate sustainability with Siemens VP of sustainability Alison Taylor.

Share this

Andrew Nusca

Editor Emeritus

Andrew Nusca is editor of SmartPlanet and an associate editor for ZDNet. Previously, he worked at Money, Men's Vogue and Popular Mechanics magazines. He holds degrees from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and New York University. He is based in New York but resides in Philadelphia. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure