How to Make a Difference: PwC & the Gangs of Chicago

The corporate world is on a bandwagon. It’s growing and gaining speed and everyone seems to be jumping on board. What do we call this rolling and sometimes rickety phenomenon? It’s known as “Corporate Social Responsibility” and there are a few – an important few – companies on board that have earned a moment to be recognized.

This month, we can’t stop talking about PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) USA.

PwC USA has a solid track record of significant community investment. In recent years, under the insightful leadership of Shannon Schuyler, they have addressed a variety of issues threatening students living in difficult circumstances across the nation. But when a gang fight broke out at the recent programs, some executives wondered if things had gone too far.

But wait – let me back up

The Five Millions Kids Initiative

Earlier this year, PwC launched a partnership with Operation HOPE to teach financial literacy and empowerment. The Five Million Kids Initiative (5MK) would require PwC to commit it’s 525 intern volunteers to work on some of the toughest high school campuses across the country. For many young students, math and money have little connection. The 5MK initiative makes education feel relevant to students through practical lessons in the “language of money.” It is meant to be a key aspect in curbing soaring high school drop-out rates in some of the most economically affected areas across the United States.

An initiative like this presents notable risks – it is not something to jump into unprepared. Shannon explains that the partnership is an extension of a strategic focus that PwC has been building over the years.

PwC’s 3-Tiered Strategy for Community Investment

1. The Right Perspective.

It takes effort to see from a perspective other than our own, but its necessary when the desire to “make a difference” is genuine. PwC shifted their corporate view to that of the students in low-income school districts. What are their lives like? What difficulties do they face? Why do they struggle with learning? One basic need became clear: they’re hungry.

PwC employed the help of Feeding America and provided breakfast for children who would otherwise spend the day distracted by a growling tummy.

2. The Right Foundation.

When they started with the right perspective, PwC was able to consider another basic issue: by the time kids in low-income schools get to high school, they have already missed years of essential training in the foundational concepts of math and money. Without a strong base, the difficulty of learning financial literacy is multiplied.

PwC decided to provide the right foundation by engaging the MIND Research Institute, which uses innovative techniques to engage student’s visual reasoning abilities to solve multi-step problems. By the time these kids reach high school, they are primed to learn math for life skills.

3. The Right Partner.

The choice to focus their community investment initiatives on math and money came naturally to PwC. Shannon Schuyler explains, “Money is the core of what we do. Our people can teach this because we know it. ” The alignment of business strengths and resources with community solutions makes sense for PwC.

Money, however, wasn’t the only area of expertise required for the PwC’s initiative. They also needed a direct line to the appropriate schools and students who could use their help. The only way to find this direct line was by securing the right partnership – which is where Operation HOPE comes in.

When the time came to implement 5MK, Operation HOPE found the right schools, put together the (award winning) financial literacy curriculum Banking on Our Future and trained the 525 PwC interns. In turn, PwC found and hired the interns and committed the time, resources, volunteers, financial support ($50,000 for the 2-week program) to make it all happen.

This is a true partnership. Both organizations were able to draw on the unique expertise and resources of the other for mutual benefit.

PwC is committed to taking a leadership role in developing the next generation of leaders who will ensure a sustainable marketplace,” Shannon explains. “We believe the core to that effort is a focus on math proficiency and financial literacy. Our involvement with Operation HOPE provides our interns a unique opportunity to impact students across the US with life-lasting skills and experience the satisfaction of making a difference in the life of a child.”

PwC & the Gangs of Chicago

Unfortunately, no amount of good planning can prevent an unexpected crisis. It can however, find you poised to respond to it with grace and candor – which is exactly what PwC needed one peaceful afternoon in Chicago.

The session was taking place as normal. Interns and students were working together through the Banking on Our Future curriculum, when a crescendo of activity began to build. In only moments, a full-fledged gang fight broke out and needless to say, the PwC interns were scared out of their minds. To mitigate the danger, the fire alarm was pulled and the group was told to evacuate the school and go home.

Once outside the building, a group of interns began to protest the easy exit. “These kids don’t have the same options we do,” they explained. “This is their life – they don’t get to choose to walk away.” But the risks were high for a company like PwC and the situation needed to be discussed.

The conversation found it’s way to the executive level of PwC within days. What if something happens to a student on our watch? What about the interns? Should a company the size and stature of PwC really take the kinds of risks this program requires? But the words of the interns did not fade easily. “The kids in the schools don’t get to walk away; this is their life… and they still need our help.”

In the end, canceling the program was never really an option. “Our interns wanted to continue their work and our leadership felt that it was the right thing to do,” Shannon told us. So, a few days later, PwC returned to the school – this time with a long line of busses. They gathered the students and brought them all to the Chicago office of PwC where they continued the classes. In this space, the students were not only able to focus on their studies – they also found the opportunity to initiate a discussion about the effect of gangs on their lives. Both student and intern – not to mention other PwC staff – were moved and educated.

We created quite a buzz in the office,” Shannon says. “People began to ask questions about the program and somehow it all became a bit more real.”

More Than a Bandwagon

We at Realized Worth have dozens of conversations each week with companies who want to get active in their communities. Many of them express their desire to make a difference – and to that end, they’re willing to put up the cash, resources and time. Rarely, however, do we speak with companies who are willing to put real skin in the game. This is understandable, but it’s also the reason the bandwagon is full of people whose stories will never be told.

Since interviewing Shannon a month ago, we’ve been sharing about PwC’s 5MK initiative at conferences and with clients as an example of a “best practice” of community engagement. The 5MK program and PwC’s 3-tiered strategic approach is to be commended – and their guts are to be emulated. Because of their genuine commitment to make a difference and their willingness to take risks, PwC under the leadership of Shannon Schuyler, has become a leader in Corporate Social Responsibility.

About Shannon Schuyler



Shannon Schuyler has been with PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) for twelve years and is currently the Corporate Responsibility (CR) Leader and a member of the board for the firm’s foundation. She oversees the actions, programs and initiatives for the firm’s internal strategy around PwC’s four CR pillars: Marketplace, Community, People, and Environment.

Be sure to watch for Shannon’s own blog posts on Huffington Post. She’ll be attending and writing at the National Conference on Volunteering and Service, the world’s largest gathering of volunteer and service leaders from the nonprofit, government and corporate sectors. Follow NCVS on Twitter and read the NCVS Blog here.

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