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What gives? Tech giant Amazon finally boosts its philanthropic rep in its hometown

Amazon has been making headlines just lately — and not only for the tales you’d count on.

The Seattle-based tech giant is offering housing for homeless households, contributing giant sums to the College of Washington’s pc science program, and supporting a mass transit initiative.

Amazon’s CEO and founder, Jeff Bezos, has joined together with his household to donate hundreds of thousands to Seattle establishments such because the Museum of Historical past and Trade and the Fred Hutchinson Most cancers Analysis Heart.

This week, the corporate was publicly cheering its number of 10 Seattle-area nonprofits which can be every receiving shock vacation donations of $10,000 value of things from their Amazon want lists. Final night time, Amazon invited residents of Mary’s Place — a Seattle shelter for homeless households — to a celebration on the Cinerama movie show that included a screening of two vacation films, snacks and toys for the children.

The actions stand in distinction to the Scrooge-like rap that has plagued Amazon over lots of its 22 years: criticism for being standoffish, for its demanding office tradition and for restricted engagement in native points and philanthropy.

As Seattle’s quickest rising financial juggernaut retains rising in measurement and dominance — the corporate has 25,000 staff in the town’s downtown space with development underway to accommodate an extra 30,000 employees — it’s tempting to surprise if Amazon is present process a serious cultural shift. Are we beginning to see a kinder, gentler, extra community-oriented facet of the web retail and cloud companies giant?

Amazon executives readily dismiss the notion as if introduced with the traditional ‘when-did-you-stop-beating-your-wife’ loaded query.

There’s no change underway, the corporate’s executives say. The corporate has at all times been engaged with the group. Folks simply haven’t seen.

“In lots of regards, we’re a bashful firm,” stated John Schoettler, Amazon’s director of world actual property and amenities and a 16-year worker, in an interview with GeekWire. “We haven’t essentially informed our story very nicely.”

Amazon is much less about selling itself and “extra about revealing ourselves,” he defined. You’ll discover quite a lot of Amazon staff who’re supporting arts applications, working to spice up the variety of ladies in expertise and different worthy causes, he stated, and but “we haven’t achieved a extremely good job of conveying our involvement.”

On the identical time, Amazon and its representatives now often pitch tales touting the nice deeds of the corporate and its staff — a transfer not often seen only a few years in the past. Likewise, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos and the 13-year-old Bezos Family Foundation have stepped extra boldly into the philanthropic limelight, together with this month’s opening of the Bezos Family Immunotherapy Research Clinic at Seattle’s Fred Hutch.

However previous proof of Amazon’s purportedly sturdy historical past of giving is troublesome to come back by. When GeekWire requested Amazon spokespeople for donation totals for the final 5 years, they had been unable to supply them. Amazon, together with dozens of different firms, didn’t share contribution data for the Chronicle of Philanthropy’s latest evaluation of company giving.

Many philanthropic and civic leaders say Amazon and Bezos stay a thriller, and it’s unclear whether or not the corporate’s newer endeavors sign a real shift in company tradition in direction of extra group engagement.

“I take a look at Amazon as a piece in progress,” stated Norm Rice, a former mayor of Seattle who’s engaged on a guide about civic engagement in the twenty first Century. “It’s going to evolve. I don’t know what it is going to be tomorrow.”

And whereas Rice doesn’t essentially count on each tech titan to rise to Invoice Gates’ degree of giving, he urges Bezos to do extra.

“If you wish to stand tall as a frontrunner in the business,” Rice stated, “you must suppose a bit bit broader than the business [you’re in].”

Native residents and leaders stay involved concerning the impacts of Amazon’s continued increase, together with the never-ending import of highly-paid Amazonians driving up housing costs in an already scorching market, in addition to the potential for additional clogging native roads with visitors. Whereas some  grumbling continues, extra vitriolic assaults — together with the posting of fliers that includes the unflattering Amazon-worker nickname “Am-Gap” — have simmered down.

In actual fact, many individuals concede that Amazon’s ongoing success is benefiting Seattle in large methods — revitalizing the areas round downtown, offering good jobs and stoking the native tax base.

Amazon’s development has created “quite a lot of challenges, and I spend quite a lot of my time on the challenges,” stated Seattle Metropolis Councilmember Mike O’Brien. “Nevertheless it’s vital to remind myself that the absence of Amazon would supply a complete host of challenges that I’m not ready to take care of. The web [effect] is an effective factor.”

Even so, different group leaders yearn for Amazon to do extra — following in the philanthropic path of different company giants that decision the Pacific Northwest dwelling. However, if something has been discovered about Amazon through the years, it’s this: The corporate follows the beat of its personal drummer, doing issues in a method that’s distinctively Amazon.

This fall Seattle was dubbed “crane capital of America” by local media because of the truth that the town’s development crane rely was high in the nation. And a complete flock of these cranes are clustered at Amazon’s epicenter: Seattle’s South Lake Union neighborhood.

Amazon has 30 buildings in Seattle encompassing greater than 8 million sq. toes of workplace area, with plans so as to add an extra 2 million sq. toes. By comparability, the Columbia Heart, the town’s tallest constructing at 76 tales, clocks in at 1.5 million sq. toes.

Till latest years, the corporate sought extra standard workplace areas, occupying the previous Pac-Med constructing south of downtown and leasing different pre-existing workplaces.

Then the corporate started constructing signature areas of its personal, together with the trio of bubble-shaped, tree-filled biospheres which can be nonetheless beneath development and the Doppler and Day One skyscrapers.

“Amazon held to the previous means of doing issues for a very long time,” stated Margaret O’Mara, a College of Washington historical past professor with a concentrate on city historical past and capitalism. “The biosphere and the adjoining buildings are the primary bespoke Amazon areas and that’s actually fascinating.”

Professional-density of us applaud Amazon for its choice to settle in downtown, a transfer that helps extra environmentally-sustainable city growth, reasonably than finding their campus in the suburbs the place land is cheaper. Bezos touted that viewpoint in 2013 when he famous that an city campus is “inherently environmentally pleasant.”

The Amazon initiatives are credited for taking a brand new, extra progressive strategy to multi-use developments. The primary two flooring of the Doppler and Day One buildings embody retail area that’s open to the general public. And as an alternative of constructing alleys for dumpsters, the trash is in the basement, leaving areas for public plazas, defined Amazon’s Schoettler.

“We attempt to hold the broader group in thoughts,” he stated. “We may have gone to the suburbs or we may have put an enormous wall round us.”

The Amazon cafeterias are deliberately designed to serve solely one-third of their staff, Schoettler added. That encourages employees to dine in native eating places and purchase from the handfuls of meals vehicles that frequent the world.

“That’s a part of a vibrant downtown,” he stated. “We wish our staff to be part of that.”

Whereas the buildings and eating places have revitalized a previously sleepy, considerably seedy neighborhood, the shiny new California-esque makeover is jarring to some longtime Seattle residents. And although the plazas serve the group, the greenhouse-like biospheres will likely be largely off limits to the general public when accomplished.

“It’s not a showcase for folks to come back in from the surface,” stated Scott Wyatt, a accomplice at Seattle-based world structure agency NBBJ, which designed the biospheres.

“That is for the individuals who work at Amazon. It’s another office, a spot the place you may be amongst crops in a profound means. Take your laptop computer, work the day there, have a gathering there,” Wyatt defined throughout a presentation at the GeekWire Summit in October. “It was the assumption of our consumer that this might be a option to make happier, more healthy, extra productive and extra artistic staff. It’s an enormous funding in that.”

And whereas Amazon is exploring methods to spice up worker morale and productiveness via progressive areas, its sheer measurement and downtown setting make it a part of a broader city experiment that’s nonetheless enjoying out.

“Amazon is defining a broader ecosystem in housing patterns and this very visible footprint, and who lives right here and works right here,” O’Mara stated. The query is, “what occurs once you carry the suburban campus mannequin and plop it in the massive metropolis? It has these civic impacts.”

Amazon is blamed for serving to drive up housing costs because it recruits out-of-state employees incomes higher-than-average salaries. Site visitors in South Lake Union and notably Mercer Road — an issue that pre-dates Amazon — continues to be among the most snarled in the city.

But the corporate has stored a low profile in many civic issues, say native leaders.

“I don’t see civic management and thus far, it’s served them nicely. So perhaps they don’t should,” former mayor Rice stated. “However the greater an organization will get, the extra persons are going to ask about it.”

Others agree, and word that an organization like Amazon bears a good bigger duty because of the economically disruptive nature of its enterprise.

“There may be little question that Amazon as a company entity may very well be way more civically concerned in our group than they’re, and they need to be,” stated Nick Hanauer, an early investor in the corporate, in addition to co-founder of enterprise capital agency Second Avenue Companions and founding father of Civic Ventures, throughout a presentation on the 2015 GeekWire Summit.

“However the greater drawback is the best way in which these new enterprise fashions finally and inevitably disrupt the economic system usually,” Hanauer stated, “and now we have to discover a means to verify these disruptions should not civically, politically and socially dangerous.”

The corporate has made some inroads into civic involvement. Schoettler, the corporate’s actual property director, just lately served as board chairman for the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce.

“I discovered a lot, not solely about what’s going on right here in our group, however Seattle’s function in the larger world,” Schoettler stated. Working with the chamber supplied Amazon a option to promote Seattle in collaboration with different companies and leaders. “We’re doing that collectively and in a cohesive means as an alternative of firms going out on their very own.”

O’Brien, the Seattle Metropolis Council member who leads the council’s sustainability and transportation committee, sees an upside to Amazon’s restricted engagement in native insurance policies. If you take a look at selections round freeway development, labor points and different issues, many established Northwest companies don’t hesitate to make calls for of metropolis and state leaders, O’Brien stated.

“There’s something frankly refreshing to me, that after I had been in workplace for 4 years that Amazon hadn’t darkened my door but,” he stated.

Whereas Amazon can also be largely lacking from large fundraising occasions, stated O’Brien, “I’m keen to commerce that off, that they’re not throwing their weight round to affect coverage.”

Against this, Amazon is actively lobbying over federal laws, spending hundreds of thousands to attempt to affect laws addressing taxes for on-line gross sales and drone insurance policies, amongst different points. Earlier this yr, an article in the New York Occasions stated the corporate “has emerged as one of many tech business’s most outspoken gamers” in the nation’s capital.

Nearer to dwelling, Amazon has taken smaller steps to form the area.

The corporate donated $110,000 in help of this November’s profitable initiative to develop gentle rail traces. Amazon has helped pay for an extra public streetcar in South Lake Union, contributed to the town’s annual fireworks present and is constructing a canine park in their neighborhood.

To assist its staff commute extra simply, which reduces their contribution to visitors, Amazon provides its employees ORCA playing cards that cowl mass transit fares and the corporate runs a private shuttle service for workers. Greater than half of Amazon’s Seattle staff use public transportation, stroll or bike to work, the corporate experiences.

It’s a assist, some say, and all that Amazon is obligated to do as a company citizen.

“We, as a group, should proceed to handle transportation,” stated Nadia Shouraboura, who was at Amazon for eight years and served on Bezos’ senior management crew. She left Amazon in 2012 to discovered high-tech retail startup Hointer. “It’s not Amazon’s job — it’s our job as a group.”

However O’Brien desperately needs the corporate would do extra to help reasonably priced housing, going past the contributions they’re required to make as a part of their constructing permits.

And Rice, who was mayor for eight years ending in 1997, the yr that Amazon went public, says that giant, profitable companies do have a duty that extends past offering jobs and serving their clients and shareholders. He urges firms like Amazon to decide on vital points to concentrate on and decide to them.

“You possibly can’t go mild into that good night time,” stated Rice, quoting the poet Dylan Thomas. “Individuals are going to have excessive expectations for the company, for the long run for what it might probably do. It’s going to should be clear with its priorities. It must be clear that it’s in for the lengthy haul.”

This fall, roughly 1,000 of Amazon’s Seattle staff attended the company’s first Nonprofit Expo. They roamed amongst some 67 cubicles arrange in the corporate’s huge Assembly Heart, studying about tutoring alternatives with the YMCA, Meals Lifeline’s want for volunteers to pack donated meals and different causes.

In 2014, staff fashioned a gaggle referred to as Join@Amazon and final yr started internet hosting networking and different occasions the place they volunteered with space nonprofits. The group has helped residents on the Mary’s Place homeless shelter create job resumes, served meals on the nonprofit Ronald McDonald Home that helps households of ailing youngsters, and sorted sneakers for the Redeeming Soles charity.

“It’s vital to have an understanding of the problems going through the group and getting concerned,” stated Rafael Grijalva, who works on the Kindle crew and likewise participated on the Nonprofit Expo as a volunteer with United Method of King County. Earlier than coming to Amazon, Grijalva was at Microsoft and appreciated their dedication to nonprofits.

“Amazon is constructing its custom, too,” he stated.

Many agree that the time has come for extra engagement.

“Now [Amazon] is of the dimensions that notion issues and there’s a price to not doing philanthropy,” stated Sandi Lin, a former senior supervisor at Amazon who left in 2013 after greater than three years. Lin, who’s CEO and co-founder of the native startup Skilljar, stated philanthropy can enhance the corporate’s repute and function a recruiting device.

One in all Amazon’s most outstanding philanthropic actions got here in April when the corporate introduced that it will present housing for households served by Mary’s Place. The constructing will finally be demolished for Amazon workplace area, however at the very least till this spring some 60 households an evening have someplace to sleep.

Marty Hartman, govt director of Mary’s Place, stated she’s optimistic that Amazon is dedicated to serving to into the longer term.

“In our communication with them, they wish to proceed to help households and actually need to make an affect for the lengthy haul,” stated Hartman.

Moreover, the AmazonSmile Basis has contributed $37 million over three years to charities via AmazonSmile. This system permits buyers to pick a nonprofit and the inspiration donates 0.5 % of eligible purchases to the group.

4 years in the past, Amazon funded two endowed UW professorships in machine studying. In October, the corporate introduced a $10 million donation to assist assemble a second constructing for the UW’s Pc Science & Engineering program.

In an interview with GeekWire asserting the autumn donation, an Amazon chief once more dismissed the concept the donation was a part of a concerted effort to spice up philanthropic engagement.

“I believe it’s much less of a philosophical change, and extra simply folks noticing,” stated David Zapolsky, senior vp and Amazon basic counsel.

It’s value noting that the Bezos Household Basis has made extra contributions of hundreds of thousands of {dollars} to a wide range of charitable causes, together with the Bezos Family Immunotherapy Research Clinic. The household has donated about $30 million to immunotherapy analysis at Fred Hutch. 5 years in the past, Bezos donated $10 million to create the Center for Innovation on the Museum of Historical past & Trade, situated simply north of the Amazon campus.

The mixed figures aren’t precisely staggering for a corporation that reported $32.7 billion in revenue in the third quarter of this yr and for a CEO whose web value was most just lately estimated to be $66.5 billion.

However they’re a notable enchancment from a 2012 headline in the Seattle Times that referred to as Amazon “a digital no-show in hometown philanthropy.”

And brought all collectively, one may very well be forgiven for considering that Amazon, and in flip its staff, are intentionally pursuing a extra charitable path.

“Within the early days, once we had been small, it made quite a lot of sense to be very buyer centric and buyer targeted, and now there’s extra capability to present and concentrate on different issues,” stated former Amazon worker Shouraboura.

“We’re positively listening to from extra Amazon staff in partaking with nonprofits,” stated Ben Reuler, govt director of Seattle Works, a nonprofit that helps facilitate volunteer actions and preps folks for serving on nonprofit boards.

That enthusiasm comes even supposing Amazon doesn’t match worker money donations or volunteer hours, as some giant companies do, together with Microsoft.

Microsoft, which has its personal philanthropy division, has been a world chief for worker and company giving, donating $1 billion internationally final yr. The corporate matches worker donations as much as $15,000 and employees can request a grant of $25 per each hour volunteered to be donated. Microsoft’s 113,600 staff worldwide often give greater than $100 million annually.

The corporate moreover has an initiative to encourage IT-focused volunteering via its Tech Talent for Good program, which launched final yr. On the identical time, Microsoft additionally dedicated to donating $1 billion in Microsoft cloud services over three years to non-profits and college researchers.

Microsoft, which was based 20 years earlier than Amazon, will possible stay gentle years forward of the man tech giant in philanthropic efforts — at the very least for the foreseeable future. However Seattle-area nonprofits welcome the involvement from Amazon staff and the company, and be a part of those that hope it is a signal of excellent issues to come back.

“We do fairly nicely with Microsoft staff and several other of the downtown employers, however we’re keen to extend our engagement with Amazon,” stated Lauren Martin, director of philanthropy for the YMCA of Greater Seattle, through the Nonprofit Expo.

Amazon is “the nut to crack” in the world of philanthropy, added Mary Martin, a grant author for the Bellevue-based nonprofit LifeWire.

Seattle’s historical past may be damaged into eras, says the UW’s O’Mara, and every period begins with a gold rush and an organization or business that defines it.

There was the primary, literal Gold Rush on the flip of the 20th Century when miners flocked to the city earlier than heading north to Alaska. Then Weyerhaeuser’s logging firm turned the world’s dominant participant. That was adopted by the rise of the Boeing airplane firm, pushed in half by army demand throughout World Conflict II. Within the Nineteen Nineties, Microsoft turned a serious participant in the area.

“There was an period of Microsoft, however perhaps the subsequent gold rush is now,” O’Mara stated. “Amazon may very well be the corporate of this decade, and into the subsequent decade.”

The “gold rush” firms of the previous share sure traits — together with turning into outstanding civic leaders and philanthropic donors. Nowadays, it’s uncommon to open an arts program or peruse a donor listing for a nonprofit group and never discover some, if not all, of those firms thanked for his or her beneficiant presents. Some surprise if Amazon may very well be becoming a member of their ranks.

“It’s a maturation factor and transferring out of the entrepreneurial mindset,” stated Alex Daniels, a employees author with the Chronicle of Philanthropy who is concentrated on foundations and company giving. “As soon as an organization turns into extra established, it might probably take into consideration the way it pertains to others.”

Amazon leaders, nevertheless, say their focus at all times has been, and can proceed to be, on serving their clients. It’s a key provision of their “Leadership Principles” — to obsess over clients — and there’s no point out of group or philanthropy in the guiding beliefs. However serving the client and operating a worthwhile firm permits charitable acts, Schoettler stated. And what’s extra, the messages contained in lots of the rules — to be leaders, be curious and to invent and simplify — all help significant involvement in charitable, group causes.

“These are all a part of our pillars and the underpinning of our group,” Schoettler stated. “To serve our clients and finally to serve our group.”

However regardless of Amazon’s adherence to the occasion line, to the repeated assertion that nothing has modified culturally, even Bezos just lately steered that the corporate is able to make modifications internally to learn the surroundings and help working dad and mom. In his April letter to shareholders, he stated that the corporate, which has grown to greater than 230,000 staff globally, has reached a measurement that permits for addressing these extra points.

“We’re a bit like dad and mom who go searching sooner or later and understand their youngsters are grown — you blink and it occurs,” Bezos wrote. “One factor that’s thrilling about our present scale is that we will put our creative tradition to work on transferring the needle on sustainability and social points.”

The query now’s how broadly that “creative tradition” will likely be utilized towards vital philanthropic and civic causes outdoors of Amazon, as nicely.

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