SAP Social Sabbatical: When Capitalism Meets Purpose

It’s a running joke in the tech industry: We all want to make the world a better place. But when it comes to nailing down exactly how this is done (or what it means), most players fall into the “fake hippie rhetoric” distilled by Mike Judge, the creator of the Silicon Valley TV show.

It can be argued that innovation inherently leads to progress. As technology touches multiple aspects of human life, there’s a natural, reasonable correlation between tech advancements and the construction of a better society. New agriculture practices boost food production and help to fight hunger, social media provides a channel for democracy in closed regimes, GPS tracking apps improve safety, and so on.

But as companies started to realize that leading their businesses with purpose translates to a substantial growth in value, marketing gurus were quick to infuse the “we build a better world” messaging into just about everything out there, from retail to big pharma and even tobacco corporations. It’s called “purpose washing.”

The danger of purpose washing, just like green washing before it, is increased audience distrust and trouble separating the wheat from the chaff.

Which makes me think of the words of SAP CEO Bill McDermott: “Trust is the ultimate currency.” In 2010, the software powerhouse I’m proud to work for was one of the pioneers in setting a bold, purpose-centric vision: to help the world run better and improve people’s lives. Worth noting is that  this journey began years before the trend we’re now seeing and culminated in SAP becoming an active supporter of the 17 United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, helping to end poverty, protect the planet, fight diseases, and ensure prosperity for all by 2030.

One of the biggest issues for organizations that have signed up for this challenge has been to figure out how to extend the benefits of modern-day capitalism to communities that are excluded from the networked economy. Some companies are investing in pro-bono consulting, sending their most promising talents and high-performers to work for NGOs or social entrepreneurs committed to making a difference and impacting the lives of underprivileged populations.

At SAP, small teams of international employees are selected to take part in an initiative called the SAP Social Sabbatical program. Professionals from finance, marketing, business, and other backgrounds are sent to emerging countries to act as consultants to organizations facing major roadblocks that limit their growth and scalability. Simply put, it’s about matching employee skills with community needs on a global scale, and getting things done in a one-month period.

I arrived in India this week to help Vishakha, a non-profit working for the empowerment of women, young people, and marginalized communities through gender education, literacy, and skills development. Vishakha is famous for being one of the key litigants in a joint Public Interest Litigation that resulted in India’s Supreme Court promulgation of a landmark ruling, popularly known as the Vishakha Guidelines. The litigation is considered one of the top 20 rulings that are changing India.

But nothing stands still, and Vishakha is facing challenges adjusting its message for new digital mediums that could dramatically boost the scope of its work and help the organization reach new audiences beyond in-person interactions. So they contacted SAP for help, and here I am.

For the next four weeks, my colleague Natalia Frolova, from Russia, and I will put together a strategic communications plan focusing on digital landscapes. We will also draw on the expertise of our colleagues that are in India for different projects: Ari from Israel, Deniz from the Netherlands, Gyorgy from Hungary, Kathy from the Philippines, Peggy from China, Steph and Kai from Germany, and Tina and Terence from the U.S.

Do you want to do something positive today that will take less than three minutes of your time? Click here and follow Vishakha on Facebook, and help spread the world about a group of 25 Indian women and men that are brave enough to challenge iniquitous gender norms at an institutional level. They are definitely making the world a better place  —  no fake hippie rhetoric here.