Cisco is a global company, but Santa Clara County in California is their home. We are often up to our necks in stories of companies behaving badly. Many of the new wave of companies appear to make their money from selling their user’s information in ways we now believe are damaging to those same users. Older and more traditional firms often have a far greater focus on social responsibility, largely because they’ve learned over time that if they don’t take care of where they live it can go into decline and suddenly no one wants to live near your headquarters—including you. Cisco is one of the most aggressive firms when it comes to social responsibility and one of the biggest problems in California in general and the Silicon Valley in particular is unaffordable housing.
This week Cisco announced they would be giving $50 million (USD) over 5 years to address this housing problem. Their partner is Destination: Home and this comes on top of a local bond effort that earmarked an additional $700 million for this critical effort.
What makes this particularly interesting is that in a world where we are often confronted with CEOs acting badly—with books like Brotopia and Technically Wrong (both should be required reading for anyone going into tech) highlighting the issue—Cisco’s CEO is personally engaged in this effort to end homelessness. This once again showcases you can do well by doing good. I should note that Cisco is one of the few companies in the US that focused their diversity efforts at the top of the firm first, something I think is critical if you want to have a sustained successful diversity effort.
Let’s explore Cisco’s huge social responsibility effort.
Cost of Living
Living around Silicon Valley is very expensive. In ranking the most expensive places to live in North America, San Francisco is 2nd (only beat by Hamilton Bermuda), Walnut Creak is 4th, Mountain View is 5th, San Jose is 7th, and Oakland is 9th. Silicon Valley and the cities around it dominate the list of the most expensive places to live by Price Index.
To give you an idea of how costly it is, a one bedroom apartment in Silicon Valley can cost between $1,300 and $3,500 a month. What is amazing is there are less than 350 housing units that have been built specifically for the homeless in Santa Clara County, ever. This, against the metric that there are an estimated 7,400 people homeless in the county and—of those—2,000 are chronically homeless.
This huge mass of homeless people causes sanitary problems, image problems, crime and safety problems, and keeps people who would otherwise be productive contributors to the county underutilized. The impact on the parents is bad enough, but the impact on the children of these homeless families is tragic.
What I think is interesting is that apparently the cost of dealing with homelessness is actually less than the cost of not dealing with it according to this study. Examples of successful past programs include Built for Zero, targeting homeless veterans, and Home for Good in LA.
Now while $50 million seems like a lot at face value, it really is only a small portion of the expense needed to fix the problem. But part of what makes a company a leader is the ability to bring other firms into an initiative like this and showcase a commitment that can pull public dollars as well. The goal—ending homelessness—is noble, but the key to success won’t be the money that is spent but whether homelessness can be effectively ended in Santa Clara county.
Sadly, there are far more failed programs like this than there are successful programs, but that is often the nature of political efforts where it often seems better to seem like something is being done than it is that something actually gets done. Companies like Cisco operate on a very different metric and no company is successful working to just look busy. This is what differentiates most corporate efforts from most political efforts—the need to complete the effort is far higher with corporations.
So, the success of this effort will be both enhanced and driven by Cisco’s ability to get other companies to contribute, and their collective will to complete the project. That could make all the difference this time.
In the end this should yet be another example that a well-run company can do well by doing good. Cisco may be the poster child for that tag line and the hope is that others will follow that example.