Joe Verrengia is the architect of Arrow’s corporate social responsibility program (CSR), combining targeted charitable investing, sustainability and government relations into a strategic initiative that uniquely establishes Arrow as an innovation catalyst. He also co-directs the Arrow SAM Project, which brings technology concepts to demonstration for humanitarian purposes. Arrow is the 2015 Fortune Most Admired Company in its category, including #1 in CSR. Previously, Verrengia held senior positions at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory and the Denver Museum of Nature & Science. For two decades he was an international science journalist. He graduated from Columbia University and has held fellowships at MIT, the National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Health and the Kellogg Foundation.
Christopher P. Skroupa: What are the best practices and methodologies to seed innovation?
Joe Verrengia: Innovation is becoming a buzzword, so demonstration is key. At Arrow, we have five areas of investment reflecting our Five Years Out brand. Within those categories, we seek to initiate and demonstrate innovation primarily in two ways. The first way is by developing and demonstrating new technologies for humanitarian purposes. Our second focus within the category is finding ways to actually teach innovation as a process and a skill set.
Because Arrow is a customer-driven solutions company and does not invent its own technologies, we tend to take existing technologies and combine and/or repurpose them in new ways. We iterate constantly so that in a matter of weeks, or a few months, we can be making a positive difference.
Currently we are focused on health and education technologies. In 2015, UNESCO reported more than 182 million adults in sub-Saharan Africa are unable to read or write, and 48 million young people are illiterate. And, half of the continent lives off grid, meaning they do not have reliable access to electricity. Our mission is to close the digital divide, by delivering today’s leading technology to areas without access to information and communication technology. However, high equipment costs, poor infrastructure and limited proficiency all prevent this much-needed technology from reaching many parts of Africa. Arrow Electronics partnered with the nonprofit organization Close the Gap to create the DigiTruck: a 40-foot steel cargo container that we converted into fully furnished classrooms and health clinics. It is equipped with solar panels capable of fully powering it for several days at a time so it can reach remote rural villages with no electricity. Providing power in more ways than one; this innovation can cascade throughout a country’s educational and economic prospects.
Skroupa: Is there a certain timeline to follow in order to have an idea come to fruition?
Verrengia: Arrow’s tagline is Five Years Out. Five years is the tangible horizon for technology development. For example, five years ago you may not have been using a tablet. And five years from now, you will be using something else. So we seek to develop new humanitarian technologies and projects within this timeframe, and usually much sooner. We also tend to renew our partnerships annually and with a general horizon of a total of five years.
We create goals that are more than an artificial construct. We pick a public demonstration such as the Indianapolis 500 and operate under that timeframe. Arrow modified a car to create a Semi-Autonomous Motorcar (SAM car), so a qualified quadriplegic driver was able to safely operate the vehicle and compete under racetrack conditions. This provided external pressure and a deadline for performance, as well as a large audience. This year, the SAM car topped 150 mph at the Indy 500 and to the raced to the summit of Pikes Peak in less than half the time it takes a typical tourist. Another way to boost the development is to find a media partner to help tell your story. Both methods – sometimes combined – generate interest and a delivery requirement.
Another facet of our tagline is that anything longer than five years might be unrealistic. For Arrow, we need to operate in the here and now because the cycle of electronics development is so brief. Our program must reflect that.
Skroupa: So you strive to identify conceptual innovation. Is innovation something that can be taught and learned?
Verrengia: Good ideas are everywhere, we define an innovation as something brought from the possible to the practical, a tangible development that people value.
In order to identify innovators and guide them forward, we partner with technology incubators, accelerators and competitions.
We pursue these partnerships in the conviction that the organized process of iteration, presentation, mentorship and competition distills interesting ideas into real innovations that may benefit society and improve people’s lives. We sponsor several incubators, as well as Maker Fairs and technology competitions for entrepreneurs and college/grad students. We make a deliberate effort to generate innovation by thinking differently in this crowded space.
Innovation is the fuel of the 21st century – as well as Arrow’s future. We believe innovation must not only be encouraged, but also taught. So we created a program that begins in K-12 schools with organizations that support promising innovators and encourage competition, often involving technology.
A focus on recruiting girls into STEM related fields is also imperative for future growth. In 2015 we began an initiative to bring together educators, policymakers and major employers in Colorado find out why more girls are not embracing science, technology, engineering and math programs, and to find ways to reverse that trend.
Arrow also joined the cardboard engineering challenges, which brings together more than 100,000 children in 50 nations to construct catapults, race cars, fashion, even a bakery with decorated cakes, all out of cardboard. These new ideas are an ideal first step in our program to nurture new innovators. There are no barriers in terms of money or tools. That means the students can focus all their energy into transforming their ideas into fun, working models.
Skroupa: When can a return on investment be measured? Is there a definitive endpoint?
Verrengia: We have several ways to measure ROI. Because we are a supply chain company, an increasing number of customers are requiring us to demonstrate both corporate social responsibility (CSR) and sustainability to their satisfaction. So our program is protecting that existing revenue. In our projects, we seek to partner with customers and suppliers, and the experience of working together frequently results in deeper business relationships. In our projects we have many examples of new customers who have come to us seeking our help because they saw one of our CSR projects and were motivated to contact us. And there are additional ROI measurements that are less tangible but equally important, such as measurements of additional brand value, media impressions and the value of media coverage if it was translated into advertising purchases.
Christopher P. Skroupa is the founder and CEO of Skytop Strategies, a global organizer of conferences.