A Conversation about Repairing the World While Doing Our Jobs
ESG + CSR = Better Business + A Better World
EPAM has long boasted a healthy corporate social responsibility (CSR) program. In recent years, we’ve ventured into the bigger, more data-driven universe of environmental, social and governance (ESG) criteria. It’s been quite a journey. To get a sense of how the two concepts fit together, and how they affect the culture and business of EPAM, we spoke with Elaina Shekhter, our Chief Marketing Officer and Head of Strategy, and Shamilka Samarasinha, EPAM’s Global Head of Corporate Social Responsibility. The conversation was both informative and inspiring. Scroll down to learn how we create, as Shekhter says, “real, meaningful interaction as an agent in the world.”
Within EPAM, there's been conversation about ESG attributes and data. We've also frequently heard the phrase “corporate citizenship.” Elaina, can you break down what these terms mean and how they connect?
ESG stands for environmental, social and governance criteria. It’s an umbrella term for a series of conversations that companies are having amongst themselves—and it’s related to pretty much everything. “Environment” is essentially the context for everything that we do as agents in the world, individuals, corporations and societies. “Social” is the mechanism by which we ensure continued survival. “Governance” is the rules of engagement for how we operate. So, while the specific agenda may be related to various stakeholder interests—including shareholders, employees and customers—we have the sum total of all stakeholders’ interests represented here.
Which brings me to the second part of your question about corporate citizenship. Traditionally, corporate citizenship is about answering questions like: “How do you not fall too far behind companies in your peer group?” and “How do you ensure that you’re doing the things that other companies and consumers care about?” For many companies, it’s about PR. Much of it is analytical and compliance-focused. But if you take a look at what the real reasons for our corporate social responsibility (CSR) program are, the purpose is clear. It’s about creating a space privately and publicly for people to do good for one another and their communities, to make an outsized impact.
I want, certainly for myself, to be a voice beyond shareholder relations, beyond investor relations. I seek to create real, meaningful interaction as an agent in the world.
Shamilka, can you talk about the history of our social responsibility program? Where we started and how we got here?
We started to develop our CSR program six years ago. We wanted to ensure that our CSR work wasn’t just about writing a check, and we wanted it to be a strategic enterprise.
Education was going to be a pillar of focus for us, given that we had already been in the education space since 2002. We also identified the environment as a second area where we could help our employees understand what our carbon footprint is and how we could reduce it. Finally, there’s the communities where we live and work. As a global company, we operate in many different locations, each with its own local challenges or initiatives our employees want to engage in. We leave plenty of space open for employees to come to us with social innovation ideas to positively impact their communities.
How do we act for good in the global community through our social responsibility?
Our entire CSR program is based on volunteering. We have very few people who sit under a formalized social responsibility function or team, but we’re working in more than 20 countries and have many initiatives running across our areas of focus. Last year, given all the challenges of the pandemic, really made EPAM’s sense of social responsibility come alive at a personal level for so many of us. We had people step forward wanting to respond to local needs and challenges and connecting to make it happen. That volunteer spirit is really a part of our DNA, and defines social responsibility at EPAM.
Part of the role of corporate citizenship is really being an activator, an orchestrator in these communities of people who wish to help. Since we value knowledge-sharing and education so much within EPAM, being able to take that into our communities is key to being able to act as that driving force for good.
To me, that's citizenship. Relationships with universities, local and global NGOs and other organizations, with Shamilka’s help, have grown into valuable partnerships. A great example is how we partnered with UNICEF on the HealthBuddy COVID-19 app. That could not have happened without a university relationship and knowledge sharing.
Or consider some of the initiatives EPAM ended up doing as a response to COVID. Those didn’t happen just by executive order or follow a formalized process; they happened because leaders across EPAM, myself included, said, “We have to do something; what can we do?” Only when our employee volunteers came out with a number of ideas, and thousands of them acted together, were we able to make something happen. It’s all driven by connecting, sharing ideas and working our relationships as a global company to make a positive impact.
It isn't just our money or our brand or our desire to do things because they make us look good. It's our desire to create real impact in the places we live and work.
If we're going to continue to advance as a socially responsible company, what do we have in our current skill set, and what do we need to develop as a workforce to move forward?
COVID helped people break out of their silos. Before the pandemic, everyone was doing their own projects, but over the past year, we have truly learned the power of working together. For instance, a group of people was interested in building a contact tracing app. Elaina mentioned the HealthBuddy app. The team created this app on their own time—on their own power—even as they were located all over the globe. Once they were able to publish a framework, we released the app as an open source solution on our SolutionsHub page, where UNICEF saw it, adapted it for their own application and broadened our networked response. This project was all about knowing how tap into our network and connect with people who can amplify the efforts of EPAM’s change agents to create impact for good, and that’s a skillset we have now and can continue to develop.
Our overall goal for the last few years has been to map a different organization in the service of what we think is a different culture. And culture is an absolutely critical element of a successful ESG program.
It’s not about checking boxes for shareholders or ensuring that we're committed to sustainability or diversity, although those are all incredibly important. Culture is the glue that connects all the things we do, across the landscape in environment, in social responsibility and in governance.
We’ve been working on a sort of semantic organization blueprint. We have this belief—it's a hypothesis—that we are the people we've been waiting for. We are the workforce of the future, if we can become a company of 40,000 creators. The people who are the most creative and the most special are already embedded in this company. Our challenge is to identify who they are, where they are and how we can empower them and help them empower themselves to become as creative and productive as they would want to be.
What skills do we need? Well, we obviously need technical skills because we are at our very core an engineering organization. We’re fundamentally engineers, in the most basic sense in that we make things, which is a skill that is increasingly rare in the world today. Some of the critical capabilities that we don't spend enough time talking about are things like creativity and curiosity. The value we can offer as a workforce in the combination of those “hard” engineering skills and empowering people to think differently and creatively to meet the challenges our world faces.
How do we measure all this work?
There's a basic understanding of how metrics fall into the buckets of ESG. You can measure your carbon footprint. You can measure your carbon offset credits and your impact on climate change. For companies like ours, calculating those metrics requires a little bit of science and a lot of art. We're not an airline. We're not a shipping company.
We're making some good headway, but if we're honest, we're still in the early part of this journey. As for social measurements around employee relations and satisfaction and elements of diversity, we're starting to collect those, and we measure our employee perceptions around working conditions, their level of engagement and satisfaction with various corporate programs related to things like health and safety. We have those metrics and they're quite positive. Whether we report them under the umbrella of ESG is another question, and I think we're trying to round up the governance element of how we can look at that data to see where we fall in the landscape.
Some of this is public information; we're a public company. The useful part of it for me is to try to link up the things that we do as a governance exercise with the things that we do as a force for good.
There's one element, Shamilka, that you started last year that I think is really interesting—working with our customers to help enable their ESG programs. A number of them are large manufacturers or multinational conglomerates that have interest in things that really move the needle from an environmental and sustainability perspective. Our initial goal has been to get a lot closer in these collaborations around CSR with our customers and maximize our impacts, but I think that we’ll ultimately go broader. As we gain expertise on how we’re measuring ourselves internally, we can go on to share that to empower other companies as well.
What's next: How are we driving social responsibility in 2021 and beyond, as part of this bigger ESG framework?
2021 looks promising for us. We started off trying to understand our gaps, and we needed to learn where we were and how we could improve. We’ve passed that stage. Now it's about bringing in all the stakeholders and having the leadership behind us on this mission.
There’s a lot going on that we haven't shared with the world yet. We’ve been organizing our thoughts, and being able to share what we've already done that falls into this broad ESG umbrella is an important first step. Our next goal is to get to a level playing field, from an external-ranking-and-ratings perspective.
We're also increasingly asked by large customers to provide proof-points on ESG programs and to ensure that EPAM as a partner meets certain criteria. Processing these demands will eventually lead to a self-service capability and enable us to learn more and improve our overall program. So there's connectivity with communities, with education providers, with customers, with shareholders and investors.
In 2021, we’ll lay a foundation for establishing and strengthening those connections. In 2022, and beyond, we’ll start making a significant tailored business case around specific programs, our objectives and how we're going to meet them. It’s truly exciting to consider.