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5 Questions for...Ebony Frelix, Senior Vice President of Philanthropy and Engagement, Salesforce.org

September 28, 2017

The push to ensure that all students receive the high-quality computer science and STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) education needed to compete in the twenty-first-century economy has been gaining urgency. This week, global Internet companies, foundations, and wealthy individuals announced commitments totaling $300 million in support of K-12 computer science education, including a pledge of $50 million and a million volunteer hours from customer-relationship management software provider Salesforce. That commitment was on top of grants totaling $12.2 million that Salesforce.org, the company's philanthropic arm, had awarded recently to the San Francisco and Oakland Unified School Districts to enhance computer science and STEM education, which included unrestricted funding of $100,000 each to middle school principals.

Earlier this month PND spoke with Ebony Frelix, senior vice president of philanthropy and engagement at Salesforce.org, about the organization's model of giving back 1 percent of equity, product, and employee time; its focus on equality in education; and the importance of expanding access to computer science education for tomorrow's diverse workforce — especially in a sector in which women and people of color are underrepresented.

Ebony_frelixPhilanthropy News Digest: This is the fifth consecutive year that Salesforce.org has provided financial support to schools in San Francisco and the second year it has done so in Oakland. What results are you seeing thus far in terms of enrollment in computer science courses specifically and overall curriculum quality in general?

Ebony Frelix: We know that computer science in general is essential in today's job market and it's imperative that students gain the technical skills they need to be successful in the future. Our goal is to provide opportunities for underrepresented youth in the communities where we live and work to gain exposure and experience in computer science that will help them become college- and career-ready. Ultimately, we believe this will lead to a more talented, skilled, and diverse workforce.

In the San Francisco Unified School District we've given $7 million this year and $21 million in grants to date. Over five years we've seen the enrollment of girls in middle school computer science classes go from nearly two hundred to more than thirty-eight hundred, and of underrepresented student populations from less than one hundred to more than thirty-eight hundred. What that means is that computer science enrollment now mirrors the San Francisco community, with women and underrepresented groups making up nearly half of the students. We also funded twenty-four hundred hours of math content coaching, and we've cut the percentage of students repeating Algebra I in half, from 51 percent to 23 percent, and we hope to see that number continue to drive down. We've also seen a drop in D and F grades in math classes, from 18 percent to 12.6 percent.

In Oakland, we've given $5.2 million this year and $7.7 million in grants to date. We saw an enrollment of nine hundred OUSD middle school students in computer science classes in the first year alone. That was very encouraging, and what was really neat was that those computer science classes are 45 percent females, 38 percent Latinos, and 29 percent African Americans, again closely aligning to the district as a whole. What's even better is that 80 percent of those students received either an A or a B in computer science.

PND: Through the Principal's Innovation Fund (PIF), this year's awards include grants of $100,000 to middle school principals in San Francisco and Oakland. How are principals using those funds?

EF: We like to think that principals are like the CEOs of their schools; they know best how to address the unique needs of their schools. We often hear from principals that failure is not an option, things like "We can't spend money on things that don't work," "We can't take a chance with the district's money." The PIF allows principals to try things and experiment with what works, and then share those learnings with the district. That way we can avoid potentially making a district-wide faux pas with funding or with a program that may not be successful.

We know also that, with a limited budget, principals haven't been able to modernize their schools to align with a twenty-first-century workplace. So if you go into a classroom, they look like they did decades ago — the teacher at the front of the room, the kids sitting in rows, facing the teacher — and that's preventing students from learning in a collaborative workspace. Principals can use the PIF to redesign the classroom, to create a twenty-first-century environment where students are able to learn at standing desks, couches, or pillows; move tables around; have LCD screens all around them. You don't know where the front of the classroom is versus the back of the classroom, because it's flexible. That's a really good way for students to learn, and it also mirrors the workplace they're going to be entering.

In addition, students continue to enter middle school far below grade level, so teachers are faced with having multiple grade levels within one class and having to provide differentiated instruction. Principals are using the PIF to hire additional staff to teach different levels within a multi-tiered computer science curriculum as well as to teach engineering, animation, and robotics courses. And they can implement online personalized learning programs to address the needs of each student and create lesson plans to bring them up to grade level.

PND: Through the Circle the Schools initiative, a partnership between sf.citi, SFUSD, and the San Francisco Education Fund, Salesforce has "adopted" a total of forty-nine schools around the globe. How does the program work, and what long-term benefits are you hoping to see from the effort?

EF: In 2015, Salesforce partnered with sf.citi and Circle the Schools to adopt twenty schools in San Francisco; since then more than twelve hundred Salesforce employees have dedicated thousands of volunteer hours, and we've now adopted forty-nine schools around the globe. Each school is matched with a Salesforce executive and a team of employees who volunteer for activities throughout the year. We focus on education because we want to provide opportunities for underrepresented youth. By setting them up for success in the classroom, we can help create a more diverse, skilled, and talented workforce.

For example, we have an employee who teaches a weekly computer science class, and they're doing the most amazing projects — a young woman programmed an Altoids can to become a portable charger for a cell phone! Our co-founder, Parker Harris, and his team repainted a basketball court; employees help teachers set up their classrooms to prepare for the school year, or read to a class for an hour to give the teacher time to grade papers or have a conference. Through our partnership with the SF Ed Fund, we try to match volunteers to the schools on all levels so we can really "surround" the school — not only with the PIF but with employees who can help meet the school's unique needs.

The Principal's Innovation Fund and Circle the Schools work really well together. It's not a requirement that a school be "circled," and not all schools supported by PIF are circled by Salesforce employees, but our employees will help out anyone! We've paired the CIO of Salesforce.com with the district's CIO, and he helps mentor and guide the district's infrastructure and technology plan, so they have a very tight collaboration; the IT team goes out to schools and help with any infrastructure needs they have. The principals may use the PIF for whatever they like, but they can also count on Salesforce's volunteer time to augment that.

PND: The lack of racial/ethnic and gender diversity in the tech industry has been an issue for some time. You had a career in the tech industry before moving on to philanthropy — are you beginning to see change in the industry on the diversity front? And what more can and should be done to address the issue?

EF: I definitely see change in terms of awareness — I think we're in the "awareness" phase right now. The lack of diversity in tech is a complex issue that many companies struggle with. At Salesforce we're committed to equality for all — we support equal rights, equal pay, equal opportunities, equal education, and environmental sustainability. We know that students at the local schools where we donate volunteer hours and resources are going to become our future workforce, so we know it's going to pay off in the future, not just for Salesforce, not just for the tech industry, but for society as a whole. That's why we start with education: because we know we need to address the problem at its root, and based on the stats on enrollment in CS classes and increases in math scores, I really am hopeful we'll start to see major gains in future years.

Within our company, we are looking at our hiring practices, recruiting practices, hiring from different types of colleges and universities — in that way, we are deepening our "diversity bench," so to speak, at the corporate level. But diversity is something that we need to address at every single level, not just the "now": we have to make sure we're training up the young people so they're ready to take on these positions in the future.

At Salesforce in 2016 we hired a chief equality officer, Tony Prophet, and other companies are likewise focusing on the issue. It starts with visibility and a willingness to speak openly and honestly about the issue. It's a big opportunity for everyone to think differently about how they look at talent, how they look at people within their organizations — promoting them, building skills in the pipeline that they already have in their organizations.

PND: Salesforce.org's stated mission is to help "spark a worldwide corporate giving revolution" by promoting your parent company's 1-1-1 model — leveraging 1 percent of the corporation's equity, product, and employee time to benefit Salesforce communities. How is it going? And with millennials more interested in corporate social responsibility than perhaps their parents and grandparents were, do you expect the 1-1-1 model and things like the Pledge 1% movement to continue to gain traction?

EF: The 1-1-1 model has been a huge success. Since 1999, Salesforce technology has powered more than thirty-two thousand nonprofits and education institutions; we've provided more than $168 million in grants; and our employees have logged more than 2.3 million hours of volunteer time. For us, it's more than just writing a check: our mission is to help create change in the school districts and in the communities where we live and work.

And when recruiting today's millennials, giving back is even more important. There's a 2016 Deloitte study that found that 60 percent of millennials stated that "a sense of purpose" was part of the reason they chose to work for their current employers. Further, those millennials who frequently participate in workplace volunteering are twice as likely to rate their corporate culture as positive. Today giving back is not just for wealthy families and major corporations. Donating and giving back is as easy ordering a pair of shoes on Amazon, and that's the kind of volunteering and experience that millennials are used to and, quite frankly, everyone in today's corporate culture should be getting used to. It should be easy, and it should be part of who we are and what we do. Just like I couldn't imagine my life without a smartphone, I couldn't imagine my life without purpose or without giving back.

One stat that we're extremely proud of is that more than three thousand companies have taken the pledge to incorporate all the parts of the 1-1-1 model into their business model, and we'd like to encourage all businesses to take a look at Pledge 1%. If you start small like Salesforce did and infuse that into your corporate culture from the beginning, you can get to 2.3 million in volunteer hours; you can get to $168 million.

And it's not about who founded the company or who works there. We're seeing companies of all different types and sizes joining the movement. It's really about that visionary, compassionate mindset, that spirit, that allows you to see that serving the community is actually good for business. It's about banking on your future success and making the commitment to bring others along with you.

— Kyoko Uchida

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