Trisa Thompson, Vice-president, Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR), Dell Inc talks about where ‘giving’ fits into the scheme of things in the business world.
What is the reason behind so many corporate entities voluntarily involving themselves in CSR activities?
It is part of our business. It’s actually a strategic move for most companies. At Dell we try to think where our technology makes a difference. We are focusing on education because our technology can make a huge difference there and we are working on pediatric cancer, where our high-performance cluster computers are used to do all the genome mapping to figure out the right treatment protocol. It shows to the rest of the world here’s what you can do with our technology.
So when you say it’s a strategic move, does that include opening of new markets?
Yes and no. It is not opening new markets for us. If you look at the education market in India, we were already here before we started giving. We started a big program in India in 2009. But it is a strategic move when you think about what’s the workforce for tomorrow? A lot it would come from here. And you have to have an educated workforce. So, the more we can do to change the digital divide, it helps us. And honestly, you also want to help people make a better life, enable human potential.
A huge chunk of India does not have easy access to technology. How do you perceive this gap?
I think India is perfect. Because there are so many people — 1.2 billion — even if you have 400 million who live in poverty you still have a billion who can use technology. When you compare India with the Middle East or some other areas that have challenges, in terms of entrepreneurship, India is taking a lead. I find India very exciting. They are using technology now. They are using it to solve problems now. So, when we fund the NGOs that we work with in education, they are coming up with interesting ways to teach with that technology. You know, when I come to India I always leave with a feeling of hope.
How do you respond to the perception that a lot of CSR activities are just ‘green-wash’?
You know what’s interesting, Dell has been involved in green activities but nobody knows. I bet you didn’t know that Dell is the only company that offers free recycling to consumers globally.
But I agree green-washing, globally, is an issue. I think most responsible companies avoid green-washing. We have to report and are very open. If you are going to be transparent, you better be walking the talk because we open our doors to NGOs and they will find out if the companies aren’t doing what they say they’re doing. Plus, from a sales perspective, our brand matters a lot so we do want to be a responsible company.
As a woman in a senior leadership position what were the challenges you faced in breaking the glass-ceiling?
When I started at Dell in 1998 I would often be the only female on a leadership team. I see more women today and part of that is the process where you’ve got a woman and you help bring in more. I was always treated with respect, so I never had a problem there. But you notice it when you walk in the room. I think I felt it more in a law firm than I do where I am now. Maybe corporate America gets sued more than the law firms! But it was a little harder because they would make assumptions in law firms that you couldn’t be on a case where you had to travel because you probably had children, so you shouldn’t be on that case. Of course, women with children can travel! I won’t say corporate America is perfect yet, but we are working on it.
Is it easier for women now?
Not significantly, if you want me to be honest! That’s why we have programs where we focus on that. In the US, studies show that women still earn only 67 cents for every dollar a man earns. So, there’s still a financial gap. And if you look at the number of women on the board of directors it is still only five or six per cent in US. And I don’t think that has changed for 10 years.