The following is a conversation between David Etzwiler, President of the Siemens Foundation, and Denver Frederick, host of The Business of Giving on AM 970 The Answer in New York City.
Denver: There was a lot of talk during the recent presidential election about jobs, specifically manufacturing jobs, and bringing more of those back to the United States. But for 21st century jobs in manufacturing and other sectors as well, you need a strong talent pipeline and an increased focus around workforce development, particularly training in science, technology, engineering and math–or STEM as it’s commonly called. There is no corporation or corporate foundation more dedicated to this than Siemens. And it is a great pleasure to have with us tonight the President of the Siemens Foundation, David Etzwiler. Good evening, David, and welcome to The Business of Giving!
David: Thanks so much, Denver. Wonderful to be here.
Denver: When you arrived at Siemens… I guess it was back in 2013, you undertook an effort to better align the vision and portfolio of the foundation with the people, products, and programs of the corporation. Tell us about both and how they work together.
David: Sure. Happy to do that. It’s a subject that I love to talk about. Well, I came in, as you said, in 2013, and as I responded to that job description, I sat down with the CEO of the company at the time. And Eric really talked to me about the fact that the Siemens Foundation had had a wonderful first chapter. It had begun in 1997 focused on STEM, and the board felt very good about the outcomes. And they thought that there was a next level to get to, and we really talked about return on investment for the people that we serve. And as we had that conversation, I talked to him about what I had seen and experienced in corporate philanthropy over the years. I was at a large medical device company for about 13 years, and we had really moved some things fairly dramatically in terms of our alignment with the company. During that time, as a field, we really had moved away from this sense that: “No, you shouldn’t align from your business” to “No, that’s the moral imperative in fact!”
So, what we did is talk about some models, and this is exactly what we did with the board of directors over the first year. We said, “Look, we’re looking for a sweet spot here: the overlap between social impact and the need to intervene in complex social issues that serve society, and align that with our business assets.” For us, it’s a German company, focused on STEM; a German company that has 10,000 apprenticeships in Germany annually; and then look at the experience and the expertise of the foundation as well. Those three lenses really were the guide for us, and that really took us on a conversation that brings us forward to today.
One of the things that we know as a society is that if we’re going to interest folks in STEM, that’s got to happen early on– and doing that in a way that is not merely textbook or a textbook exercise, but as hands-on science education.
Denver: Well, as you say, Siemens is committed to STEM education and training, from young students to adults in the workforce. So let’s run through some of those initiatives, starting with the youngest. You have a program, David, called “Siemens Science Day.” What occurs on that day?
David: Siemens Science Day is a program that is really one of our longest standing programs in the foundation. It’s a wonderful program for a lot of different reasons. One of the things that we know as a society is that if we’re going to interest folks in STEM, that’s got to happen early on—and doing that in a way that is not merely textbook or a textbook exercise, but as hands-on science education. So it’s back to the best practices of what we know as a field, what educators and teachers tell us.
Essentially, what the Siemens Science Day is: these are modules that we put together with Discovery Education. They bring in educators from around the country that really serve as their advisory committee. They’re aligned with the national standards in science. These are modules that folks can go online, pull down, and when I say “folks,” I say, first and foremost, teachers can pull down. These can be in the field of wind power, for example, and they’re materials that can be easily assembled and cheaply assembled by those educators and engage kids. One of the great benefits that we have about Siemens Science Day is that our employee volunteers across the country pull those down regularly. They’re out in their local communities working together, team building, bringing kids into their shops, and running those modules. So it’s a wonderful, wonderful thing to be a part of.
Denver: And is this geared for elementary students?
David: Elementary students and middle school students currently. We had just penned a contract to take that on to the high school level as well with Discovery, because one of the things we heard when we listen to our facility communities and our volunteers is, “Hey, we really want to engage at that high school level. Help us do that.” So that’s what exactly what we’re doing.
When you look at the reasons these young men and women are getting into it, they want to serve society with a passion that they have, and the gifts that they have… They’re not just smart; they’re doing it for a reason that is well-informed.
Denver: I would venture to say that most people consider the Siemens Competition in Math, Science and Technology to be your flagship program. Tell us about this signature initiative – this is directed towards high school students – and how you have recently redesigned it.
David: I’m absolutely happy to do that. We just finished up the Siemens Competition for 2016. We had our National Finals in Washington, D.C. last week. And you feel so good about the world when you walk out of there. So, it’s a subject you may have to clip my wings on, or I’ll go off for a while. But Siemens Competition in Math and Science and Technology really is understood as the premier high school competition in the country for that cohort of kids, and these are really some of the best and the brightest high school students that we have in the United States today.
This year we took in some 2,000 submissions back at the beginning of October, and this is advanced science research. As folks come through there, we move into regional finals at MIT, Notre Dame, Georgia Tech, Caltech. Six premier technical universities and professors in their fields are judging these works by these kids. By the time we get to Washington, D.C., we’re down to sixteen finalists and six individual finalists. We’re providing $100,000 scholarships to the winning team and to the winning individuals, but at the national finals, everybody walks away with at least $10,000 worth of scholarships.
The ones that we saw last week come through as winners were incredibly impressive. We had twin young women from Plano, Texas who devised a way of looking at schizophrenia and diagnosing it earlier by taking a qualitative test and a quantitative test and really crossing them, and coming up with some brand new and very impressive results in terms of early diagnosis of schizophrenia. So, incredibly impressive science! But when you look at the reasons these young men and women are getting into it, they want to serve society with a passion that they have, and the gifts that they have, and that was one of the things that again impressed me about this cohort of kids. They’re not just smart; they’re doing it for a reason that is well-informed.
Denver: Absolutely. And you’ve added some nice bells and whistles. I guess these regional competitions, you can watch virtually now?
David: Yes. One of the things that we did–and it’s really consistent with what you know is happening in the field is just constantly asking: How do you increase the return on investment for the people that you serve? One of the things that we asked ourselves was, “Is there a way that we can do this less expensively and provide some time back to these young men and women who are incredibly busy with their Fall?”
So, this past year, we moved those regional competitions at Caltech and Notre Dame, as I mentioned, to virtual competitions. So, we’re now going through the web. I’m at one of those universities with the professors, but those kids are coming in by web presenting their research and having the Q&A sessions by research. And when you think about the carbon load in the atmosphere that doesn’t result, if you think about the costs, and we’re able to shift those into some other programs that we have as a foundation… we’re really happy with the results of that.
The goal here is to make sure that we’re not only supporting folks within STEM, but helping them understand how they can use their talents to serve the globe. That’s one of the things that we, as a US society, have had some dominance in. And it’s something that we ought to continue to be proud of.
Denver: That’s great. One of the places I think where STEM students can have a tremendous impact is helping to create innovative and low-cost solutions to the world’s pressing health needs. And to that end, you have something called the “Siemens Foundation PATH Ingenuity Fellowships.” What are those?
David: Well, that’s another very exciting program that we opened just last year. We’re about to release our second year of applications with PATH. For folks that don’t know, PATH is based in Seattle. This is a global health nonprofit that is really one of the most impressive nonprofits I have been around over my career. I’ve worked with them previously. They are the largest recipient of Gates Funds. They are a recipient of USAID Funds. Annual budget of about $350 million.
Essentially, what they’re doing is working with universities, with corporations, and taking exceptionally sophisticated technologies and making them relevant to poor folks around the globe. And so what we did last year is pair a number of the most impressive researchers that we saw coming along at the university and graduate level with PATH. They had some research that they really needed to be about. We paired those fellows with very healthy stipends. One of the things that we wanted to make sure is that those young men and women were being paid fairly through their summer. And as we did that,they were paired with mentors from PATH… brought their research along. I heard that research presented towards the end of the summer, and it was just a wonderful pairing.
The goal here, of course, is to make sure that we’re not only supporting folks within STEM, but helping them understand how they can use their talents to serve the globe. That’s one of the things that we, as a US society, have had some dominance in. And it’s something that we ought to continue to be proud of. And when you’re out there seeing these folks, and you’re seeing what PATH is doing, you know that it’s continuing on. So that’s another great thing to be a part of.
Denver: Absolutely. Well, it was a little over a year ago, I guess, David, that the Siemens Foundation announced that it would be dedicating millions of dollars to a STEM Middle-Skill Initiative in concert with some big major national players. Tell us the thinking behind this. Why is this so important to Siemens? And what are the goals of the program?
David: Happy to do that as well. So, Denver, earlier, you asked me about that early conversation that I had with the foundation board of directors when I came into the foundation a few years ago. There was great resonance as we have the conversation about saying, “Hey, let’s get some wicked focus here in terms of what we’re doing. Let’s be very clear about what we have to offer society and be about that.” So we go back to that model that we used. What are the big social opportunities and issues of our time? What are the key assets that we have to offer as a foundation and as a company in that dialogue? And where have we been as a foundation? What’s our sweet spot?
That very quickly brought us to a sweet spot that was defined by youth and by STEM. And when we looked at what was happening in that big hairy, audacious issue for us, it really was around this middle class. It’s an issue that has only taken on greater import over the last three years, as we just saw in this past election. We have a shrinking middle class. We have a very real perception that there’s less opportunity in the society than there used to be. Essentially the social compact of our country– which is you work hard; you put your nose to the grindstone… there’s an opportunity to move ahead. And that is at risk. I think we can all agree that that’s at risk. That is no longer a political statement.
And we looked at the assets of the company… this is a great German company, right? Siemens, 348,000 employees around the globe. This is a German engineering conglomerate that is in the energy field, IT, manufacturing, building technologies. They’re absolutely enormous. 50,000 employees here in the US. We have 10,000 apprenticeships a year at Siemens in Germany. And so, it’s a long way of coming around to the fact that we knew that there was an opportunity here in middle-skill job development.
Denver: Define middle skill, if you will.
David: Absolutely. Those are jobs that require more than a high school education, but less than a four-year education. So it might be a two-year degree; it might be an apprenticeship; it might be work-based learning. But those are jobs in STEM that pay on average $53,000 a year. These are jobs that are in high demand. Employers will tell you they cannot get enough middle-skill job folks. These are jobs in IT, in health care, the people that may draw your blood or the technicians that are manning MRI or CAT scans, computer industry folks. Those are the jobs that we’re talking about. A third of those jobs pay more than the average BA. So we looked at that, and we said, “Boy, if we can continue to get the word out and ramp that up, that’s exactly where we think that we can have the greatest impact.”
In the US, we’ve got a stigma that we’ve got to get over. There’s a perception that these are low-wage, high grime, high noise jobs, and that’s just not the case anymore.
Denver: Do you have to work on changing the perception of these jobs?
David: Yes. It absolutely starts with perception. There’s no doubt about it. When folks think about middle-skill jobs, they tend to very quickly go back to their grandparents’ days. In the US, we’ve got a stigma that we’ve got to get over. There’s a perception that these are low-wage, high grime, high noise jobs, and that’s just not the case anymore. These are jobs that take a great amount of skill and background in what they do. They are jobs that come with no ceiling. There’s just a floor. If you want to go on for your four-year degree, you can. If you want to have a career that’s interesting and challenging as you move forward in that, that’s what these jobs are about.
So, you’re absolutely right. And that’s one of the things that we’ve really focused on here, is to say we have to rebrand this area. So you mentioned a couple of partners that we’re really proud to be working with. One is Aspen Institute. With the Aspen Institute, we’re doing two very important things. Number one, they’ve got the Aspen Prize for Community Colleges. Aspen is really driving that conversation about: How do we identify best practices? How do you improve the quality of community colleges in the United States?
If it’s a middle-skill job you’re looking for, community colleges are most frequently the way through to that.
If you’re looking to go on to a four-year, a lot of folks are figuring out that starting out at a two-year college, and then transferring to a four-year is a very effective and economical way to do that.
Denver: One of the most underappreciated assets in this country, I would say, are community colleges.
David: Yes. Absolutely. There’s no doubt about that. This is an opportunity for the folks that we’re talking about here, in the middle class, to pick up an education at a very low cost, with very low debt. Again, if it’s a middle-skill job you’re looking for, community colleges are most frequently the way through to that. If you’re looking to go on to a four-year, a lot of folks are figuring out that starting out a two-year college, and then transferring to a four-year is a very effective and economical way to do that. So, we are seeing some change, but we’ve got to continue to get the word out. No doubt.
One of the things that we’re doing with Aspen is we’ve got a Siemens Technical Scholarship that we work with Aspen on. There’s a scholarship opportunity involved in that, obviously by the name. But the most important thing that we are doing is we are identifying the key programs of community colleges that are moving kids through these jobs in healthcare, IT, and energy. From that, we are identifying those stories and those individuals who are really most inspiring.
Last year, we had an opportunity, as an example, to sit down with a pulmonologist. Somebody who had a middle-skill job in pulmonology was one of our award recipients. Well, this is an individual who was really in a challenging position economically at a time when his child was about to be pronounced dead because he had been left by a sitter in a bathtub. As he was in the hospital talking to the folks that helped heal his child, he took an interest in pulmonology. He asked them how they got there. You can see this video footage if you go to the Aspen or the Siemens Foundation website. You’ll see that he is passionate about what he is doing. He is paying it forward now, and he’s supporting his family while he’s doing that.
Denver: That’s a great story. You also have a partnership with the National Governors Association?
David: We do, and we’re very proud of that sponsorship as well. There are a couple of different things that we’re doing there. The first thing that we’re doing is we are providing funds for technical assistance to the awardees of the American Apprenticeship Awards that came from Department of Labor last year. $175 million commitment in terms of grants from DOL. What our work does is really provide technical assistance to those awardees, so we’re incredibly happy about the work there.
The larger investment, however, is in a competitive program that we ran with National Governors Association to identify the most promising states where work-based learning and apprenticeships could be scaled. And so those were awarded just about a year ago to states like Utah and Montana and New Hampshire– six states in all. What’s happening in those states is they now have a task force that are meeting regularly within the state government. We’re going out and meeting with the governors and with those teams, and they are, as I said, scaling what has already been proven at one level… so that more and more folks can benefit from their work.
I think there’s a lot to celebrate in our society, even as we struggle at times to get there. Things are changing. We’re starting to get to a tipping point at various fields.
We tend to make sure that young men and women are seeing that this works best when we have men and women advancing– the best and the brightest advancing, regardless of gender.
Denver: Well, this is a great initiative, David. We have about 5.6 million young people in this country who are neither working or in school, and the fact that you’re paving an alternative road for many of them may be an answer to a lot of people’s dreams. I’ve seen studies that indicate when girls are provided the right environment and the right support, that they actually outperform boys in math. But for a variety of social factors, girls have been less inclined to pursue studies and careers in STEM-related fields. Is that changing? Is it changing fast enough? And what still needs to be done?
David: Yes. That’s a question that I, and my staff, and the partners that we work with are discussing all the time, I think we can all say out of the chute: It’s never changing fast enough until you’ve got a sense of equity and fairness, and we’re not there yet. I think there’s a lot to celebrate in our society, even as we struggle at times to get there. Things are changing. We’re starting to get to a tipping point at various fields.
When we’re at George Washington University last week, for example, the dean of the engineering school and I had a conversation at one point. And then he said, “Look. We’re really proud of what’s going on here. 41.5% of our incoming class this fall were young women.” And I said, “Well, how does that compare to what’s happening nationally?” Well, it’s about double the national average that’s happening out there. So, still a ways to go, but it’s also on the radar screen.
At Siemens, there are a couple of things that we’re doing that have been very helpful to that. In the Siemens competition– and I really give credit to the folks that came before me on this one– when the competition was put together, they deliberately put together a team competition because they were pretty clear and pretty certain that young women were going to be more likely to get involved in the competition by coming in in teams first. It’s just a cultural dynamic. There’s a collaborative style that young women tend to have, and we’ve seen that. We actually were down a little bit this year in terms of women, but still, about 43% of our competition were women. Last year, it was 48%. But we see those folks, we see that truth coming.
What we’re trying to do is look at that team collaboration style when we look at the competition finals and what we broadcast last week. We had leaders. We had Aprille Ericsson, who is a NASA project manager, there as one of our speakers. We tend to make sure that young men and women are seeing that this works best when we have men and women advancing– the best and the brightest advancing, regardless of gender.
Denver: Agreed. You have been deeply involved in philanthropy, David, your entire life. And by your entire life, I mean your whole life. Your mother served as the CEO of the Minneapolis Foundation. Your mother-in-law had the same role over at the Pillsbury Foundation. And as you alluded to before, you were the CEO of the Medtronic Foundation. You worked in Minnesota on the Decade of Discovery in Diabetes, and you sit on a host of boards… and other things. What do you see as the next chapter in corporate philanthropy? Do you envision any significant changes in the next decade or so?
David: Oh, absolutely. I think the pace of change in corporate philanthropy is really what is most fun to be about. I’ve been in these kinds of roles for a good 25 years. When I first got into it, when we talked about strategic alignment, or taking advantage of the assets of a company to serve society, there was really heavy skepticism. I understand where that came from. There was a sense that you’re going to blur lines, or not be able to defend lines between the corporation and the foundation, and that’s valid. But when I came into Medtronic, one of the first things we did is say, “Why are we only doing 11% of our grant making in healthcare when we’re the largest medical device company in the world? Don’t we have a moral obligation to use our products, to use our expertise and our networks to serve society?”
Denver: It’s your core competency.
David: It’s our core competency. And if we’re worried about the lines, then let’s figure out how we make sure that that is a bright line and make sure that we’re not just a step behind, but that we are five steps behind that line. We can do that, and we did. That’s what’s happening in corporate philanthropy today. And in fact, the stakeholders that we have as corporations and in society, no longer care whether it’s a nonprofit dollar or a for-profit dollar. There’s only slight exaggeration to that. They want to know what your return is in serving the society. If that’s a start-up company that’s creating better water and cheaper electricity for folks in need in Africa, then again, they’re agnostic as to whether–
Denver: Right. Who’s getting the job done?
We’ve got to get real with ourselves about the issue, and then we’ve got to make smart investments with government, with business, and with the educational system.
Denver: Well, let me close with this, David. The fact that the United States has fallen behind in STEM education and workforce training, that’s not news. These issues have been discussed for a number of years now, and the implication is that jobs and American competitiveness are at risk. But it seems that we’re having a devil of a time in closing that gap. Why has it been so difficult? And what things do you believe need to be done to more aggressively address the situation?
David: I think the first thing that we all have to do is get clear on what the problem is. We have so many different ideas and concepts, and so much has been politicized when it comes to our educational system… that we’ve got to get wicked clear about that. The first thing that folks need to know is we have an aging population, and we have a skills deficit. The thing that we’ve been talking about as being out there in the future? It’s here now, and if we’re going to continue to thrive as an economy… and therefore as a society…we have got to figure this out better. So the first thing is: we’ve got to have that conversation as a society, and once and for all understand that: whether you’ve got a cold stone heart or not, this is what we have to do to keep it going.
From there, we’ve got to put the dollars in. And so, when we’re focused on middle-skill jobs within STEM, we’re absolutely convinced that you’ve got to put the money in as a society. A lot of state governors are figuring that out. You’re really seeing a deep divide between the states that do invest and the states that don’t. And the business community is jumping in there with a lot of those universities, community colleges, et cetera, and getting it done. So, we could go on. We can probably talk for another hour about what the answer is. But the first thing is: we’ve got to get real with ourselves about the issue, and then we’ve got to make smart investments with government, with business, and with the educational system. It is happening. There are great templates out there. And I’m optimistic. I’m absolutely optimistic about what’s happening.
Denver: Well, the urgency is certainly here. It has arrived, as you said. Well, David Etzwiler, the President and CEO of the Siemens Foundation, thanks for being on the program this evening. Tell us about the foundation’s website and what listeners might find of interest there.
David: Sure. I’m happy to do that. We’ve re-done that in the last year, so it’s a great website. I hope folks will go. The website address is siemens-foundation.org. When folks go there, they will see an overview of who we are and what we do as a foundation. They’ll see links to each of the programs that we’ve talked about, and more, Denver.
Denver: And also how to get into your competitions, right?
David: How to get into the competitions as well. Absolutely.
Denver: That’s just great David. It was a real pleasure to have you on the program.
David: My pleasure as well. Thank you for having me.
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