What do celebrities like Charlize Theron, Jon Bon Jovi, and charitable causes have in common with technology? Everything, if a recent mega tech conference is anything to go by, writes ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK.
The city is Orlando, Florida. The stage is brightly lit. The actress all but shimmers as she addresses the audience.
“This is the city where I shot Monster,” says Charlize Theron, whose role in that movie made her the first South African to win an Oscar.
But she’s not here to talk about movies. The event where she is talking has nothing to do with movies. Rather, it is one of the biggest business technology conferences of the year. More than 20 000 business and technology professionals have descended on Orlando for the annual Sapphire Now event, hosted by global enterprise resource planning (ERP) software leader SAP.
The prime focus of the event is the release of a new software suite called SAP C/4HANA, designed to usher in what SAP CEO Bill McDermott calls a new generation of customer relations management.
“At the centre is the person, not the transaction,” he declares. The key to this person-focused approach is “intelligent customer experience”, both a philosophy and a new name for the category of software that includes C/4HANA.
McDermott tells business leaders attending his opening keynote session: “Brands are not defined by you, they are defined by your customers. Customers are rebelling against being treated as sales opportunities. Customers are not records in a system; customers are people. Customers have needs and desires, and those have to be at the centre of your design.”
It was this people-focused theme that set the stage for Charlize Theron, along with stars like Jon Bon Jovi and several Olympic medalists, to share their ideals and motivations.
During an on-stage interview with one of SAP’s most senior female leaders, executive board member Adaire Fox-Martin, Theron shares her views on leadership and purpose. Mostly, however, she speaks of her dedication to a cause close to her heart: the Charlize Therson Aids Outreach Project.
Asked by Fox-Martin why she chosen that direction, she speaks passionately about her feelings for South Africa.
“I was born and raised in South Africa and South Africa is the hardest hit country in the world when it comes to HIV and Aids,” she says. “We represent 1% of the world’s population but 19% of the world’s HIV-positive population. More people are living with HIV – 7-million – than anywhere else in the world.
“It’s a very modern country, there’s a real modern face to SA, it’s a very rich country, although still grappling with its democracy. It’s a young democracy. We have things that make our country more complicated than anywhere in the world.
“More cultures are living together than anywhere else, which makes for an incredible country. A country like South Africa should not be dealing with HIV Aids in the way that it does.”
In case the audience doesn’t get the message, she emphasises one of the overriding themes of the conference: “For me, it is very personal.”
Her many return visits to South Africa, she says, made her realise she could do something.
“Every time I went back, I saw the devastation this virus had on my country on every level. Emotionally, it stayed with me, and I realised I was living in these two worlds: one in America where I had been given these opportunities, then going back and seeing young girls like myself not living with opportunities, not having knowledge or education.
“This gave me the drive to take what I had in my life in America and help children who don’t have the tools or resources we have in other countries. We should care about that because it will come round and affect us no matter where we are in the world.”
She leaves the audience with a powerful message: “I’m proud to say South Africa has the biggest HIV treating programme in the world, but we can’t treat ourselves out of HIV and AIDS. We can’t treat it; we have to stop it.”
In contrast, rock star Jon Bon Jovi’s message is almost tame. In conversation with Bill McDermott, he speaks of being moved by the sight, from the window of his luxury hotel room more than a decade ago, of a homeless man sleeping on the streets of Philadelphia. It inspired him to start the Jon Bon Jovi Soul Foundation, a non-profit organisation focused on hunger and homelessness in the United States.
Coincidentally, it is another South Africa, little known outside the software world, who shows how technology and compassion truly come together.
Robert Enslin, who built up the SAP business in South Africa in the 1990s, worked his way up the ranks to become president of the SAP Cloud Business Group and a member of the SAP executive board.
He also serves as the executive sponsor for SAP’s Autism at Work program, which integrates people with autism into the workforce. It had become clear to SAP that, while people on the autism spectrum did not often interview well, they excelled at programming once they were hired as software developers. As a result, it launched the Autism at Work programme in 2013.
At Sapphire Now, Enslin discusses SAP’s commitment to the project in a session titled “Inclusion Drives Innovation”.
“In order to compete in the innovation economy, companies need employees who think differently,” he says. “We have a corporate goal to employ 650 colleagues on the autism spectrum by 2020. The initiative currently includes nearly 120 colleagues filling over 20 different positions, and is active in nine countries.”
Enslin is also honorary global Chairman of the Els for Autism Golf Challenge, initiated by South Africa’s golfing legend Ernie Els. While this takes the cause into the world of sports, Enslin is well-known for his views on workplace inclusion.
“Having a diverse workforce no longer means just gender parity,” he says. “Diversity means employing people across generations and cultures, employing differently-abled people, and making sure you have equality across all dimensions of diversity.”
Ultimately, and surprisingly, it is Jon Bon Jovi who sums up the key message coming out of the conference as he sums up his advice to the youth:
“Remain true to who you are, don’t follow fads and fashions because, by the time you get to it, it will already be past. The greatest gift the next generation can give is to aspire to inspire. Don’t sing The Macerena because it is a worldwide number one, but try to write Blowing in the Wind because that song will change people’s lives.”