CEOs Who Give Back

June 06, 2019

Case categories include: Leadership   

By Warren Lutz

In the Bay Area, Marc Guillet is known as the CEO of Agile Physical Therapy, one of California’s premier private clinics specializing in the evaluation and treatment of sports related injuries. Globally, however, Guillet is known for something else entirely.

Eleven years ago, Guillet started a non-profit foundation, A Foundation Building Strength (www.buildingstrength.org), to raise awareness about nemaline myopathy, a congenital and hereditary neuromuscular disorder that affects roughly one in 50,000 births. It can cause severe muscle weakness, robbing children of the ability to breathe, swallow, speak, and play like other kids. Most cases of NM require some form of mechanical breathing support, feeding support and/or mobility support. To date, Guillet has helped raise roughly $4 million for different research projects around the world, including clinical trial preparedness in five research centers.

Guillet, whose youngest daughter was diagnosed with nemaline myopathy, never expected to play such a role—but he has embraced it nonetheless. “We just saw an opportunity where something wasn’t being done quite as well as we could have done it on our own, so we took steps to change things,” he said.

That’s just part of the story, however. Around the time Guillet started his foundation, Mark Johnsen, CEO of Wealth Architects, was referred to Guillet’s office following ankle surgery. It turns out they met years earlier when Johnsen played soccer at UCLA and Guillet worked in the school’s athletic department. A close bond was formed that continued when Guillet joined the Alliance.

Then last year, Guillet asked his friend for a favor. He knew Johnsen was an avid distance runner. Would he run the New York Marathon to raise money for A Foundation Building Strength?

Johnsen said yes, and began reaching out to his network and asking friends and clients to chip in. The experience was eye-opening. “I tend to be a pretty private person, but when people asked me about my running, it gave me an opportunity to say I was running the New York Marathon to help a friend’s foundation,” Johnsen said. “What I found fascinating was how much the people who work with me every day wanted to support me—people opened their checkbooks in a really big way.”

Did they ever. Together they raised nearly $90,000—although Johnsen is quick to give all the credit to Guillet, saying his friend did the hard work of starting and running a foundation that has had a global impact. “I’m just really proud of him,” Johnsen said. “The part that was most impactful for me was being in New York and seeing how Marc and Dana (Guillet’s wife) have really made a huge difference in the lives of so many people. It gave me a lot of motivation and inspiration to get across that finish line.”

When it comes to finding ways to “give back” to their communities and the world at large, Guillet and Johnsen have plenty of company among their Alliance colleagues. While the Alliance is not a philanthropic organization, Alliance members share a deep desire to make a positive impact on the world. Collectively, Alliance members contribute an enormous amount of their time, energy and passions to a wide range of worthy initiatives outside of their professional roles—and have learned plenty along the way.

While some Alliance members are contributing locally, others are doing it globally. Over the past 10 years, Michel Lopez, CEO of translation services provider e2f, has helped several hundred children in Madagascar receive a better education by financing improvements at an elementary school located in a slum. In addition to supplying new water pumps, toilets, furniture and a computer room, e2f pays its employees for time they spend teaching at the school. In 2012, e2f partnered with the Friends of Houe Foundation in Vietnam to help run a children’s shelter located next to the company’s office. The company’s Malagasy employees are offered the opportunity to spend time at the school to teach  French and English, work that the company pays  them for as well.

Lopez says CEOs who want to help impoverished communities in developing countries need to choose opportunities carefully. In Madagascar, he says, “I specifically asked a local university professor to identify a project for us, with very strict criteria. We studied several projects and settled on this school because it was properly run, but had extremely limited means.” One of the projects the company turned down was an orphanage that had no children living in it who were over 10 years old. “I thought, something was wrong here—what happens to the children after they turn ten?” Lopez said. “They should be keeping them until they are adults.”

“You have to be careful not to just throw money at a problem, because you could be contributing to a bigger problem,” he added. “It’s much better to do things on a small scale first, so you can be sure that 100% of what you’re giving is not only being used, but being leveraged to do more.”

SpineGuard, which makes a medical device that enhances safety for spinal surgeries called PediGuard, donates the devices to U.S. surgeons who make humanitarian trips to Africa and Central and South America. Keri George, the company’s Director of Clinical Affairs who oversees the program, says the traveling surgeons are treating pathologies and working in conditions that are rare in developed countries. “Not only are they dealing with time zone differences and language barriers, but also sub-sterile environments, a lack of medical implants, limited anesthesia and other factors,” she says.

But they’re also doing extraordinary work. In one of hundreds of cases in which SpineGuard products have been used, a seven-year-old boy with thoracic deficiency syndrome and congenital scoliosis received a “growing rod” to repair a badly curved spine. Every four months, the boy undergoes surgery to lengthen the rod as he grows. Today, the boy is 11 years old and a few inches taller. Without the surgeries, George says, he probably wouldn’t be alive. 

According to SpineGuard CEO Stéphane Bette, giving back to communities in need helps the company forge stronger connections with its customers as well as give his team a higher sense of purpose. “There are some commercial benefits, I’m not ignoring that,” he said. “But fundamentally, it’s about doing good and giving our people the feeling of belonging to a noble cause.”

CEOs do not need to go oversees to find ways to give back, of course. Rod Kalune, CEO of RK Logistics Group, a third-party logistics provider, has sponsored many local organizations over the past 20 years. They include Special Olympics, recreation programs in the city of Fremont, and San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo’s STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) program, in which his company has teamed up with the Silicon Valley Leadership Group Foundation to inspire scientific curiosity and wonder in young people. RK Logistics has also donated more than 200 used laptops to local organizations over the years.

Being of Hawaiian decent, Kalune says he takes “Ohana”—meaning one’s extended family and community—to heart. He enjoys working with local organizations so he can see the results. “I’m able to watch and see how our contributions are being used and how effective they are, and which ones may not have an impact, so we can move in and out with ones we are comfortable with.”

Ross Fernandes, CEO of Q Analysts, a provider of quality assurance and testing and ground truth data services for AI and ML for Fortune 500 companies, has a different strategy for giving back. Since his company has a distributed workforce of 400 employees located in the U.S. and several other countries, Fernandes created an annual “Giving Thanksgiving” event in which employees choose from different relief causes and Q Analysts matches all donations. Over the past several years, the company has generated tens of thousands of dollars toward hurricane relief efforts, fire victims, Doctors Without Borders, Habitat for Humanity, the American Red Cross, and many other organizations. “When you run a distributed workforce, it helps to find multiple causes that people can rally around,” he said. “Individually, when you want to do something, it’s relatively hard, but when you organize as a team, you can really see the results.”

Each December, Fernandes added, Q Analysts’ corporate employees in the Bay Area have the option to take a paid day off to do charitable work as a team at a local charity—an option he plans to extend to the company’s corporate employees in Seattle.

For some Bay Area CEOs, community giving is not something extra that is done in one’s spare time, but central to their organization’s mission. Such is the case for Sandy Walker, CEO of YMCA of Silicon Valley, a nonprofit committed to providing youth and families opportunities to lead healthier, more fulfilling lives.

“YMCA of Silicon Valley has a goal to double the number of youth served across Silicon Valley to reach 250,000,” Walker said. “When we work together to give all kids the support they need to thrive, they will grow into healthy, caring adults who give back to their community.”

A current challenge for the Y is addressing the large income and opportunity gap that exists among Silicon Valley residents. According to Walker, soaring housing costs have made it difficult for many families to even meet basic needs. To help, the Y is constantly looking for donors to provide financial assistance and subsidize programs and services that address critical community needs. Thousands of individuals and companies have contributed to the organization, yet Walker says there is always a need for more. “The donations we raise every year enable people of all ages, backgrounds and income levels to access programs offering educational support and healthier living,” she said. “Our goal is to reach out to those families struggling with self-sufficiency and partner with them, so they know they can always count on the Y to help them connect with their community.”

A particular focus of YMCA of Silicon Valley is early learning. Recently, the organization launched Nana y Yo, whereby the Y partners with informal caregivers to create educationally rich environments that prepare young children for kindergarten. “Through the Y’s program,” Walker said, “we are linking more families to each other, so they can give their children the literacy-rich environment they need to be ready for school. Our community is stronger when all kids and families have the chance to flourish—and the Y provides the support to make that happen every day.”

For Peter Cooperstein, CEO of Amici’s East Coast Pizzeria, finding ways to give back is just as important as making great food. It explains why Amici’s has been involved with a host of philanthropic causes over the years. Each time Amici’s has opened up a new pizzeria, Cooperstein says, all sales from the grand opening go toward a specific local charity. And every week, Amici’s donates pizzas to charitable groups and homeless shelters.

But the company’s biggest fundraising event happens each year, when Amici’s donates 100% of its sales from its two San Francisco restaurants to the city’s Homeless Prenatal Program (HPP) to help poor and homeless families overcome childhood poverty. The idea for the fundraiser came from San Francisco Giants manager Bruce Bochy, an Amici’s spokesperson whose wife serves on the HPP board.

“Giving back is one of our core values,” Cooperstein said. “While our goal was to have a successful business, we believed that getting involved in the community was the right way to go about it.”

One thing Cooperstein has learned about giving back is that it’s contagious. Amici’s media partners, KNBR and NBC Bay Area Sports, have provided free advertising spots promoting the HPP fundraiser, and several Amici’s suppliers have donated food for the events as well. “These events are really a win-win,” Cooperstein said. “They not only help worthy causes, but they get our customers and our employees feeling good about Amici’s. But the key, besides supporting a great cause, is to partner with charitable organizations which will help these events succeed.”

The leaders profiled in this story are just a small sample of the collective impact Alliance members have made beyond the walls of their organizations. We invite all Alliance members to share with us their stories of giving back to the community and the world at large, so we may continue to engage, educate and inspire one another. Contact us and we’ll spread the word.