Civic, social engagement important for future leaders, says Cascade CEO
At the start of her Meijer Lecture Series talk on February 22, Christina Keller, CEO and president of Cascade Engineering, posed a question to her audience composed mostly of students from the Meijer Honors College.
“How many of you think when you graduate you’re going to have to make a decision between taking an altruistic route or making money,” asked Keller. “You can find a way to navigate that line between making money and making an impact. It’s a spectrum. It’s trying to find where you fit on that spectrum.”
Cascade’s designation as a B Corp certified company recognizes it among the top in the world for its “high social and environmental performance.” More than 3,300 companies like Ben & Jerry’s, Patagonia, and The Body Shop have earned the B Corp certification, a designation by nonprofit B Lab.
Keller spoke about her company’s ”Welfare to Career,” program as an example of Cascade’s altruistic nature while also benefiting its bottom line. The program helps those on public assistance build careers with Cascade.
However, when the program was first implemented in 1999, Keller said Cascade had issues retaining employees because of socioeconomic barriers.
“At first we failed miserably,” said Keller. “We just tried to put people who received government assistance into jobs. There were a lot of structural barriers that we uncovered.”
Barriers like access to transportation or child care hindered employees from opportunities, said Keller, keeping retention levels less than 50 percent.
Confronted with these new set of challenges, Keller said the company forged into unknown territory. Cascade employed an on-site social worker to help staff navigate through the programs and resources available to them.
Today, more than 800 employees have progressed through the “Welfare to Career,” program with a 99 percent retention rate.
Her advice to students was to “wade into the issue and sit with the tension.” Those challenges may provide initial setbacks but confronting them yields innovative solutions.
“In order to make a positive impact, sometimes you may have to wander into uncomfortable space,” said Keller. “Listen to how you perturb the system, and then adjust.”