Employees, customers, suppliers and society at large are looking at the private sector today as a huge contributor towards the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals

We spoke with Joe Verrengia, Global Director of Corporate Social Responsibility at Arrow Electronics, Inc., on the CSR perspective of technology and its effect on brand expression for the 21st century company.

To obtain input from the nonprofit side, Verrengia brought the voices of Close the Gap and We Care Solar to the table with Olivier vanden Eynde, Founder and Managing Director of Close the Gap, and Laura Stachel Executive Director and Founder of We Care Solar.

Christopher P. Skroupa: From a CSR perspective, how does technology affect brand expression for a 21st century company?

Joe Verrengia: In our brand, we guide innovators forward to a better tomorrow. We started more than 80 years ago as a supplier to the emerging radio industry in Lower Manhattan. Now in the 21st century, Arrow is an integrated technology solutions provider in more than 90 countries. CSR is an essential part of our brand expression. Every year we work with nonprofit innovators like Olivier and Laura to develop new technologies that benefit humanity. We’ve learned that developing CSR technologies is a powerful way to build reputation and business relationships.

Olivier vanden Eynde: There is a huge impact. Employees, customers, suppliers and society at large are looking at the private sector today as the most important contributor towards the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals created by the United Nations in the SDG 2030 charter. Companies today can no longer act solely within their limited shareholder ecosystem. Instead, they need to enact and empower sustainable development within their reach and core business. Brand expressions has never been a more sensitive and relevant strategic driver as today, leading towards more sustainable and equitable societies.

Verrengia: Each of our CSR technology projects purposefully involves various parts of Arrow to bring the right solution to people who need our help.

These humanitarian technology projects serve as a metaphor for what Arrow does every day in business. That’s a 21st Century Corporation approach. We don’t silo our social initiatives from commercial activities.

Skroupa: What is the return on investment for this technology?

Verrengia: The most immediate and important return on investment (ROI) is how many people we are helping.

With Close the Gap, we have facilitated the donation of a half-million refurbished computers and other devices over the past dozen years. They are used by 1.5 million people in schools and clinics in the developing world.  

More recently, Arrow and Close the Gap developed the DigiTruck concept, which just received its second international award for education programming. DigiTrucks are solar-powered units made from cargo containers. They become mobile classrooms, clinics and enterprise incubators. If you don’t have access to electricity and computers you aren’t really living in the 21st Century, and you can’t adequately learn or earn a decent income. Each DigiTruck can support 200 people per day and more than 1,000 lessons per week.

We Care Solar brings portable power to medical clinics in off-grid communities. They have distributed more than 2,600 portable power units called the Solar Suitcase to clinics in 20 countries, including 300 to Uganda and 130 units in Nepal after the 2014 earthquake. Our task is to expand that impact with a new version that is simultaneously less expensive and more powerful. Together, we will debut the new suitcase design early next year.

Then there is reputation ROI. Arrow’s CSR technology projects have generated nearly two billion media impressions and more than 600 news stories in just a few years. The earned media value and the calculated brand value of these projects far exceeds what they cost.

And ROI comes from our customers. We have hundreds of customers who expect Arrow to be a good corporate citizen. They do significant business with us, in part, because of our work on humanitarian technology solutions. We also have attracted new customers who have seen these projects and recognize that Arrow not only has the solutions expertise they need, but we share the same values as well. 

Skroupa: How can this affect a business strategy? 

Verrengia: We look for technology trends and apply them to humanitarian needs. Today’s technology waves include sustainability, mobility, connectivity and durability. Our CSR projects deliberately add these features to the humanitarian technology solutions we develop.

vanden Eynde: Proper use of technology, with reliable connectivity and access to power, isn’t just for business. It is equally necessary for ‘Base of the Pyramid users – the millions of people in in developing countries who live on less than $5 USD a day. Mobile devices are transforming how they can live and work – and even learn. For instance, underprivileged students who cannot afford to buy an entire curriculum in paper books can access digital curriculum a page or chapter basis. 

Laura Stachel: We are targeting a 25 percent cost reduction for the Solar Suitcase through our work with Arrow. While there are other benefits beyond cost, this savings would translate directly into more off-grid clinics getting electricity and more lives saved. That return is hard to quantify, but saving the life of a mother has a multiplier effect. It increases her baby’s chance of surviving infancy, getting nourishment and eventually attending school, which benefits the community.

Verrengia: The DigiTruck and Solar Suitcase have very different dimensions, but both use durable containers. Both are mobile. Both are solar-powered. We add connectivity and refurbished electronics to extend their use beyond the limits of the power grid, and we factor in the end-of-life to reduce electronic waste.

The Arrow SAM car for disabled drivers is another example. It was named the world’s #1 car innovation by Business Insider in 2016 because we use existing components and iterate the solution very rapidly. And the SAM car is an internet of things (IoT) platform. It captures, protects and analyzes data, but the purpose is for enhanced mobility rather than commercial optimization.

Our business units include CSR in trade shows and conferences. We showcase Arrow’s solution capabilities in a very approachable way, and our projects clearly distinguish us from our competitors. We don’t replace marketing and business development, but these projects spark important new conversations.

Skroupa: What does it mean to be a partner rather than a traditional donor/recipient?

vanden Eynde: Being a partner is much more valuable. It makes you work on equal level, to work into ‘solutions’ and co-create them with your partners. Close the Gap is not the recipient. We are the initiator, the organizer, the quality-assurance entity and the project manager.

Stachel: We Care Solar has a small team, so relying on the expertise of partners is in our DNA. Whether it’s installing Solar Suitcases on a roof in Zimbabwe or re-engineering the control board for cost-reduction and flexibility, our partners make huge contributions, often more valuable than a donation.

In our past and current partnerships, for-profit companies have been instrumental by providing range of donations—in-kind, cash, product discounts and pro bono services. They invest their expertise and share their products to an extent that is difficult for a nonprofit. Whether it’s in logistics, product or general operations, we have greatly benefited from partnerships with for-profit companies, and wouldn’t be here without them

Skroupa: As a nonprofit, how does this tie into your mission?

vanden Eynde: Our mission is to help African disadvantaged youth become more self-reliant, less dependent on aid, and to foster entrepreneurship. We provide technology for education, health, agriculture and entrepreneurship at large. The DigiTruck program with Arrow is a tool within the broader Close the Gap toolkit, to help to increase our impact.

Stachel: More than 200,000 health facilities around the world lack reliable electricity. More than 300,000 women die from complications of pregnancy and childbirth. Our  primary mission is to save lives in these circumstances by making solar power simple and accessible. Improving the We Care Solar Suitcase® to be more cost-efficient and scalable, as Arrow is helping to do, will enable us to reach more health clinics and save more lives.

Skroupa: Any final thoughts?

vanden Eynde: Arrow has been demonstrating for many years, since Close the Gap’s creation, how their business model of circular economy and value recovery can benefit social enterprises and nonprofits alike. Arrow’s approach has helped us sustainably grow and become an income-generating social entrepreneurial organization.

Stachel: For-profit companies tell us they get a deep sense of purpose from being a part of our mission. Employees are delighted that their work is improving childbirth outcomes in impoverished health centers. We share photos and stories from the field illustrating the impact of their contributions. This can boost the morale for the whole company and lead to deeper partnerships.

Verrengia: The social needs of our world are larger than any single company can address with a contribution, even at Arrow’s scale. Technology solutions are needed if we are going to improve people’s lives in enduring ways. We can help nonprofit innovators like Olivier and Laura determine what is possible, and work with them as their technology partner to navigate a complex supply chain and develop practical solutions. In doing so, we become part of the humanitarian solution.

Verrengia will giving a presentation entitled The Arrow Electronics Story: How Innovation Can Drive Profits While Addressing Social Challenges at The 21st Century Company program on November 7 at the Time Warner Center in New York, NY.