For decades, corporations have been navel-gazing: taking a passive view of the world around them while concentrating firmly on their own affairs. This has resulted in big business keeping the communities surrounding its offices and factories at arm’s length. But this passivity is fading fast, and emerging in its place is a trend toward companies building solid relationships with neighborhoods.
Organizations are waking up to the fact that they are part of the world that surrounds them. As a result, they are taking their engagement with local communities beyond their corporate social responsibility programs and bringing it firmly into the heart of their business strategies.
Business leaders are becoming increasingly aware that the world outside the boundaries of a corporation does matter, and that it can dramatically impinge on the future of their business. Neighborhoods are being recognized as a crucial part of the life system of a corporation -- and being a good neighbor is becoming an important part of every organization’s profile.
While I was conducting research for my latest book, The Key: How Corporations Succeed While Solving the World’s Toughest Problems, I found a number of different corporations that made the resilience of the communities around them a priority. In the process, I encountered some fantastic corporate role models for being a good neighbor to the community. Here are some of my favorites:
Zappos: Building a vibrant neighborhood. Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh regenerated derelict downtown Las Vegas through his efforts to build a corporation that is both profitable and makes a positive contribution to its neighborhood. These contributions include seeding new businesses, subsidizing local schools and providing initial funding for dozens of high-tech startups and real estate projects. The city’s economic development team has estimated that the Zappos move will have an economic impact on downtown valued at more than $336 million.
Yakult: Bringing compassion to elderly citizens. In Japan, Yakult Corporation takes a more personal approach to engaging with the community. For more than 40 years, teams of women employed by Yakult have been calling on elderly people in their neighborhoods.
These “Yakult Ladies” have become an important means of keeping elderly and disabled people connected to the community, and on occasion, their presence has been credited with saving lives. By 2012, there were more than 80,000 Yakult Ladies working in 15 countries, with 43,000 residing in Japan. They remain an important part of looking after the country’s aging population.
John Lewis Partnership: Legitimizing acts of generosity. John Lewis Partnership is not only one of the U.K.'s most successful companies, it is also Britain’s largest and oldest example of worker co-ownership, with more than 81,000 partners owning the retailer’s 38 department stores and 285 Waitrose supermarkets.
For decades, the John Lewis Partnership has worked to follow its founder’s aspiration to build resilient communities and neighborhoods. All John Lewis Partnership partners are encouraged to offer their time to support local, regional and national initiatives that help to build more vibrant, economically sustainable neighborhoods. In 2012, this amounted to over 28,000 hours in voluntary community activities.
Infosys, Wipro and TCS: Building job-ready skills in the community. A trio of leading Indian information technology companies -- Infosys, Wipro and Tata Consultancy Services (TCS) -- are experimenting with ways to tackle a complex system that results in high youth unemployment and a skills gap. By using their combined stature to influence the Indian government to open up more engineering universities, these three companies are working together to improve the job prospects of young people and equip them with a range of “work-ready” skills.
This commitment has gone beyond simply changing institutional structures or adding resources and instead encompasses a complete transformation of the science and engineering curricula and a redesign of how teachers teach.
At Wipro, chairman and founder Azim H. Premji used the resources of his foundation to provide training for new and existing teachers while TCS launched an academic interface program designed to support work-ready skills. Infosys also invites school teachers from across India to spend two months at its training campus to learn how IT corporations work and what is expected of a global workforce.
Being a good neighbor to the community isn’t just about the “feel-good” factor. These corporations are not only strengthening the world around them -- they are ensuring their own longevity.
If corporations are to be sufficiently robust and successful over the coming decades, they need to start thinking about resilience not only in the confines of their offices, factories and compounds, but in terms of the neighborhoods they reside and in the extended supply chains that serve them.
Related: What Does Your Company Stand For?
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