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You may have missed the memo, but top business executives from the largest companies in the U.S. descended on Detroit late last week.

They wanted to learn from Detroit, specifically how business leaders made smart philanthropic investments and how this could be modeled elsewhere.

I had an opportunity to sit down Thursday with Quicken Loans founder and Detroiter Dan Gilbert, Jamie Dimon, CEO of JP Morgan Chase, and Alex Gorsky, CEO of Johnson & Johnson. We had a candid conversation about what kinds of community investments really pay off.

The Business Council is an exclusive, invite-only group of around 200 CEOs which meets three times a year to discuss a variety of topics. And for this meeting, the matter at hand was corporate social responsibility. While the gathering is typically held on the coasts, Detroit was chosen for the first time because the work that’s taken place here has captured the business community’s attention.

“Let’s highlight Detroit,” says Dimon, on the decision to hold the meeting here.

And Dimon knows firsthand what has worked in the Motor City. Banking giant JPMorgan Chase has made active investments in Detroit since 2014, totaling $150 million. Now the company is taking what it’s learned here and starting similar work in Chicago and Washington, D.C. Much of that money has gone to affordable housing, work skills, economic development, small business development and entrepreneurs of color.

Dimon says the most important lesson he learned in Detroit was that it’s essential to have a political partner. Both he and Gilbert spoke highly of the relationship they’ve forged with Mayor Mike Duggan and Gov. Rick Snyder, and the essential partnership among government, business and the philanthropic community.

“A good mayor is just invaluable,” says Dimon. “If we can’t work together with the civic society and the government, we’re not going to do it. It’s a waste of money.”

The CEOs also focused on their need for a talented workforce. Gilbert points to the shift from manufacturing, which relied heavily on muscle, to an economy which is “all brains.” The jobs of today take a different kind of training. And he says more Detroiters need to be trained for the available opportunities in the city right now, from construction to hospitality work. Quicken is helping fund training programs at vocational centers in the city.

As Gilbert says, “one of the biggest misses we’ll have around here” is if Detroit's boom leaves out Detroiters.

“What a shame that there be people who need jobs and need work and don’t have the skills,” he says.

Fixing failing schools is definitely one of the top priorities for the CEOs, given the connection to talent, but it’s also one of the most elusive projects to tackle.

“That’s probably the toughest one right there,” says Dimon. “It’s probably the biggest disgrace in America, talking about inner-city schools. We’re failing them. There are solutions all over the world, we can find them, but it’s very hard because of politics.”

Gorsky, a west Michigan native, points to how his company has partnered with higher education institutions for innovative development that benefits not just the economy but the “broader ecosystem.” He says that he’s beginning talks with some of Michigan’s top research universities, which could open the door for investment in the state.

The executives agreed that altruism is essential for a company's success. 

“Every company is philanthropic,” Dimon says. “You participate in the community. That’s called humanity.”   

ijacques@detroitnews.com 

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