Not long ago, Kiara Blue found herself at a precipitous crossroads. She had always dreamed of a career in technology, but as a young woman of color, she felt isolated among fellow students who didn’t look like her, and she didn’t see how she’d ever be able to repay the cost of college.
“I was feeling alone, and rapidly sinking into debt,” she recalls. “So, I ran. I ran from college and I fell into a cycle of dead-end jobs, living paycheck to paycheck, desperately hoping for something different.”
Microsoft’s trailblazing Employee Giving Program has helped transform the lives of people like Blue, whose hopelessness ended when she found Year Up. The organization seeks to bring low-income young adults out of poverty and into a professional career in a single year — and it’s one of more than 31,000 nonprofits that Microsoft employees have supported since 1983.
Microsoft matches each employee’s donations to nonprofits and contributes $25 for every hour an employee volunteers. The program has brought more than $1 billion to nonprofits’ efforts to help people around the globe and raised a record-setting $125 million last year alone.
“Fostering employee giving is a great source of employee pride and morale, and it’s one way our employees can personally contribute to our mission to empower every person and every organization on the planet to achieve more,” says Mary Snapp, a corporate vice president and head of Microsoft Philanthropies.
The Employee Giving Program and other efforts by Microsoft Philanthropies “invest our greatest assets — our people, technology, grants and voice — to advance a future that is for everyone, where the benefits of technology, and the opportunities it can open, reach those who need it most,” Snapp says.
Part of what changed Blue’s troubled trajectory was Jacky Wright, Microsoft’s Seattle-based vice president of IT Strategic Services. Wright serves on the board of Year Up Puget Sound in Washington state and mentored Blue as the young woman worked her way through the program.
Wright says when she was younger, she never realized she could pursue a career in technology; she “fell into computer science” after spending years in school without any exposure to it at all.
“Now, the ability for me to be a role model, to move the dial and expose young adults to this world — possibly one that could lead to rich careers that are a way out for people born less fortunate — that is really important to me,” she says.
Year Up, a nonprofit supported by individual employees through the Microsoft Employee Giving Program as well as Microsoft Philanthropies, provides low-income young people a year of professional skills training, internships and other development opportunities. These young people receive a stipend that allows them to focus on the program without having to work in a full-time job on top of it.
Wright has helped many of them land jobs, increasing diversity in corporate ranks. About 80 Year Up participants intern at Microsoft each year, and Wright hopes to see that number soon reach 200.
“I take my role and responsibility as a woman of color in technology very seriously,” she says. “What can I do to affect change? The way to do that is through education.”
Blue, who says she was raised in “one of those towns you pass through to get to something better,” is grateful for the help she received from Wright and Year Up. She landed a Microsoft internship working for Xbox and is now a risk analyst at Expedia.
“Jacky is an incredible woman; I appreciate her offering insight when I had issues in my life,” Blue says. “Thanks to huge efforts from Microsoft’s Giving Campaign, a ton of Year Up students not only have the financial support and access to higher education, but are also welcomed into different departments by managers who are genuinely invested in their personal and professional success.”
She adds: “When a person is given the chance to flourish without compromising themselves, they get the chance to showcase their best self.”
To Wright, few professional triumphs can compare with the pride of watching someone like Blue blossom. “She is a really intelligent, really sharp young lady who started college but never finished, and was in a rut when she joined Year Up,” explains Wright. “But she would take three or four bus rides just to get to the program — she was so highly motivated.”
They’ve become really close, which has been “such a rewarding experience,” Wright says. “We forged a relationship that helped her navigate what she had to do to have a better life.”
Just over 2000 miles away, Kevin Sheck is leading another effort to help close diversity gaps and inequities in the technology industry. A St. Louis-based technical account manager of Premier Support, the 16-year Microsoft veteran not only volunteers between 500 and 800 hours per year, he also maximizes the company’s match on donations, directing $15,000 to a youth program he helped create.
“For me, it is doing something I love to do for the benefit of others,” he says of STEM 2U Youth Programs, a volunteer-led organization that encourages kids’ interest in science, technology, engineering and math through robotics, clubs, camps and more. “The greatest impact you can have on diversity is to help youth explore what they can accomplish before biases limit their possibilities.”
Sheck estimates that his efforts have reached about 200 school children, many of them like one 5th grade boy who began the program recently. “He was walking around, not knowing what to do, very quiet,” he says. “I stopped what I was doing and said, ‘Let’s go look around together.’ I spent a few minutes with him, getting him started.”
He recalls the boy’s animated response to seeing the Lego bricks that STEM 2U uses in its program. “Suddenly, he was off and running!” he says. “When his mother came to pick him up, he said, ‘Mom, I’m not done yet!’ That breakthrough happened in one hour.”
The moment was just one of the many ways the thousands of nonprofits that benefit from the Employee Giving Program are making a difference in the world, doing everything from providing shelter and helping international refugees to protecting forests.
“Dana, Emily, Joey, Matthew, Diana, Paige, Ella — these are not just names, but real kids directly impacted by the Microsoft Giving Campaign,” Sheck says, listing off students he’s mentored. “Every parent knows the joy of helping their own child learn and grow as a person. Now imagine the joy of helping tens, even hundreds of children learn and grow, to achieve more.”
The Employee Giving Program’s matching contributions “make it possible to provide programs that are accessible to all youth, regardless of their individual financial situation,” he adds. “The company multiplies our impact from providing both volunteer time and money to organizations that are in need of both.”
On the surface, Sheck and Wright may seem to have little in common with Anne Disabato — with the exception of their place of employment. A Seattle-based technical account manager, she joined Microsoft out of college, relocating from Chicago, and has been with the company for two years.
But one of the reasons she wanted to work for Microsoft, she says, was “because they are such strong corporate citizens.” When a nonprofit fair came to Microsoft and presented various options, Disabato found herself attracted to an organization known worldwide for helping communities.
“United Way had an Emerging Leaders program that was geared toward someone like me, someone new to the community who wants to volunteer but isn’t sure what commitment level they’re ready for,” she explains. “For me, that was a good way to sample things and figure out where I fit in.”
Working with United Way of King County in Washington state, Disabato says she immediately took to the way the organization is “treating the symptoms and causes of inequality by making an impact at a policy level and a city level to solve the problems systematically.”
Through the Emerging Leaders program, she has volunteered at such places as North Helpline Emergency Services & Food Bank, Plymouth Housing Group’s Pat Williams apartments (assisting the homeless) and the Marra Farm Giving Garden (growing fresh, organic produce for local food banks). These days, she co-chairs the Emerging Leaders volunteer committee.
“A lot of young people who work at Microsoft are focused on their work, but we are gifted with the ability to understand technology,” says Disabato, who has overseen a growth in volunteers from 80 to the current 1,200. “And even in small doses, we can use that to make a huge impact on our communities.”
Disabato considers the Employee Giving Program a powerful opportunity to help people who need it.
“It’s incredible to have a company culture that not only encourages you to give back, but will fund it,” she says. “You can find what you’re passionate about, and just go for it.”
Lead image: Jacky Wright stands with some of the people who landed Microsoft internships through Year Up: John Orbino, Tomas Abebe, Bashir Abbas, Angelie Mendoza, Tyler Bonnevie, Steven Tran and Kiara Blue. (Photo by Scott Eklund/Red Box Pictures)