Student competition at TrailheaDX highlights Salesforce's efforts to address inequality in STEM education

At TrailheaDX 2019, Salesforce's Ebony Frelix Beckwith spoke with TechRepublic about how philanthropy is ingrained into the company's culture and their efforts to combat inequality in STEM education.

Student competition at TrailheaDX highlights Salesforce's efforts to address inequality in STEM At TrailheaDX 2019, Salesforce's Ebony Frelix Beckwith spoke with TechRepublic about how philanthropy is ingrained into the company's culture and their efforts to combat inequality in STEM education.

At TrailheaDX 2019, Salesforce's Ebony Frelix Beckwith spoke with TechRepublic about how philanthropy is ingrained into the company's culture and their efforts to combat inequality in STEM education. The following is an edited version of the transcript.

Bill Detwiler: Tell me a little bit about Salesforce's history of philanthropy. They've had the 1-1-1 philosophy for a very long time... since the beginning. So talk to me about that history, and maybe some of the recent events or the projects that you're working on right now.

Ebony Frelix Beckwith: Salesforce philanthropy dates back to the beginning of the company. So what I love about it is it wasn't an afterthought—it wasn't something that we added as an add on. It was something that from day one was built into the DNA of Salesforce. What I love it is they bet against their future success. So they said when Salesforce becomes successful, our communities around us are going to be successful. 

We have over 40,000 employees who are volunteering—they volunteered over 4 million hours to date. Our philanthropic footprint is worldwide. We've given over $285 million to causes that we care about. Our focus is on education and workforce development and also issues that are barriers for children learning. This is why this is so exciting that we're here today and have this wonderful event that we just came from.

Bill Detwiler: Speaking of the event, this was the first year that you all have done this future trailblazer pitchfest, right? 2019. So tell me about the event, how it got started. Tell me about the wonderful teams from the schools that were involved.

Ebony Frelix Beckwith: We've been working with education organizations and school districts around the world for many years now. And so today we had San Francisco and Oakland Unified School District students—about 135 students—who participated in this pitchfest. And we had seven teams come together. And what we tasked them with doing over the last six weeks was to find an issue that they were passionate about amongst the SDGs—the UN sustainable development goals—and come up with a solution to a global challenge. And so I just was amazed, I was blown away by the seven teams and what they were able to produce. Now, this is just local San Francisco—we've done it in Sydney and Paris and Toronto and other areas... these young students came up with some really innovative designs.

The winning team came up with an idea around Scare Net. The idea was to help collect all the trash that's in the oceans. It was attached to a boat, and the boat communicates with another boat so when the net gets full, it can communicate to the other boat if the net is stuck, or if something happens they're able to send communications back and forth. The net is biodegradable, and I mean they had a lot of amazing technology built into the solution, and for a six-week challenge for them to come up with that idea was just amazing.

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There was another team who was focused on quality education. One of the things we know is there are barriers to education like safety, and so their subtopic was school safety. They designed an aluminum curtain that will come down in the event of an active shooting event. And so the teacher can press a button, and it will wall off the doors and the windows and keep the students safe within the classroom. So just a lot of innovative ideas that came out of this program.

Bill Detwiler: I talked to Sarah (Franklin, EVP and GM of Trailhead and Developer Relations, Salesforce) yesterday a little bit about the importance of starting early when it comes to changing the inequality gap that you have in tech, in the tech workforce, and in education, too. So talk about that a little bit from Salesforce's philanthropy efforts. What else is Salesforce doing in education, specifically in elementary school and middle school, to help show young students that a career in technology, despite their background, despite where they come from, it might be or it can be for them?

Ebony Frelix Beckwith: We believe that education is the greatest equalizer, right? And we want all of our young people to have the skills and experience they need, and the opportunities and the access they need to thrive in the 21st century. One of the things we do is we have tours where students can come to any of our Salesforce campuses and see what it's like to work in a technology facility. We have them engage with our employees, and our employees go out to the schools. We have a Circle the School program where we've adopted over 100 schools worldwide where we actively engage with the principals and the school leadership and the students to figure out what they need to help improve the schools. 

SEE: Photos: 20 STEM projects to try (TechRepublic) 

We have programs like Maker Faire and hackathons, and we also grant to many districts and education institutions around the world. In fact, we've given over $95 million to education initiatives around the world. So, it's not just a one-size-fits-all approach, and I think that's the equity lens that we want to look at. We assess the needs of each individual school and each individual district and come in and design programs, whether it be employee volunteering or philanthropy with our strategic grants or whatever it may be that fits the school and helps them be successful.

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By Bill Detwiler

Bill Detwiler is Editor in Chief of TechRepublic and Tech Pro Research and the host of Cracking Open, CNET and TechRepublic's popular online show. Prior to joining TechRepublic in 2000, Bill was an IT manager, database administrator, and desktop supp...