Conversations #78: Supporting Social Impact & Sustainability as a Female Leader

Conversations #78: Supporting Social Impact & Sustainability as a Female Leader

Written by Angela Baker


Women Who Code Conversations 78     |     SpotifyiTunesGoogleYouTubeText

Joey Rosenberg, President of Product and Communications at Women Who Code, sits down with Angela Baker, Chief Sustainability Officer at Qualcomm. They discuss sustainability challenges, the reality of climate change, and the need for companies to integrate sustainability goals into their operations regardless of size.

When you talk about sustainability, what does that mean to you at its core? 

When I talk about sustainability or looking at it from the lens through which we’re looking at it at Qualcomm, it’s a broad set of issues. It includes environmental sustainability and what we can do as a company to address or mitigate the impacts of climate change. It also includes working at Human Rights, working with our Human Resources team on human capital management, and helping the company become a responsible corporate citizen. That doesn’t happen just with my team or me. It happens with several folks across the team.

When I was reading about Qualcomm’s approach to corporate responsibility, two things stood out to me. One was this three-pronged approach: empowering people, transforming communities, and protecting the planet. The other was the goal to leverage the power of technology to enrich people’s lives through purposeful innovation. What do these things mean in practice? 

Any organization has to look at where they can affect the most change. There are lots of issues in the world that need to be addressed. I am a believer in technology as a force for good. It can help us manage a lot of these global challenges. We can’t address everything. We can’t boil the ocean. We need to look at what we can affect. Within our operations, how can we reduce our carbon footprint? How can we look at our scope 1 and scope 2 emissions? Also, working across our value chain and with our suppliers and customers to reduce their footprints? How are we innovating purposely? How will the technology we’re building and designing positively impact people? Whether that could be for education, healthcare, or environmental sustainability. We have some of the best engineers in the world. We are working with those teams to determine how they can be leveraged to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, optimize water usage, or make the grid even smarter. When we talk about purposeful innovation at Qualcomm, it’s looking at how what we’re building has a purpose and how we’re looking at how it can address some of these large-scale global challenges.

These things you’re mentioning are the most pressing challenges facing humanity worldwide. What does that look like in your everyday? What technologies are you using? What kind of stakeholders are you engaging with? How are you chipping away at these issues? 

I have one of the best jobs at Qualcomm. My days always look quite different. I’m not an engineer. That’s not my background. We have a lot of great engineers that are working on these issues. On any given day, we have several stakeholders with whom we are engaging. The investor community might have been pushing for a lot of change in the space. It might be policymakers. We’ve seen a lot of leadership coming out of the US, Europe, and a lot of different countries around the world that are looking at climate change, Human Rights, or some of these big issues. Certainly, our employees are significant stakeholders. They’re very passionate about several of these issues, customers and suppliers.

Government affairs is where our Corporate Responsibility team sits—a lot of working with policymakers and engagement on global policies. We are also working with our engineering teams and our facilities teams on our energy and usage and things like that. We could be working with folks focused on employee travel or commuters or working closely with the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion team. They have a separate focus but are tied to environmental and social governance, so we work closely.

Having worked at the Office of Innovation at the US State Department, can you talk a bit more about the role of policy and politics in the environment and environmental work, and share any of the experiences you’ve had in that role or your current position? 

These worlds are coming together. We’re not going to get to where we need to be regarding reducing the impact of climate change without the policymakers. Companies and individuals are doing a lot. We will need policies to help us improve and incentivize green technologies, such as the IRA out of the US. I do much work within the ESG space and other programs the team works on. For example, our Tech for Good program works on education and healthcare issues. As an American tech company, we won’t come in and say we will fix healthcare. We have to work with the governments working on these issues for long periods. We have a tool that can help, and that is technology.

My start was all political. Out of college, I was working for then-Governor Jennifer Granholm, now the US Energy Secretary. She’s very inspiring and great. Then, I worked in presidential politics for a while, and then I worked for Secretary Clinton at the State Department.

At that time, we looked at how technologies could be leveraged for global civil society. I was part of a team trying to bridge this world between tech companies, specifically US tech companies, globally, civil society, policymakers, government, the US State Department, and the Foreign Service. It was an exciting place to be. Certainly, Secretary Clinton is a very inspiring leader, and that was under President Obama, so it was incredible.

What was it like to have access to such senior leadership at the state or national level? 

It’s incredible. Whenever I talk to young people who want to get into sustainability or corporate responsibility, and they don’t necessarily know what path, I always encourage them to get involved in politics. It’s an incredible field. You get access to smart, energized people who are trying to make a change. It’s part of something bigger than yourself. These are experts in their field, and you really get an up-close seat to work with them.

Your whole career has been about the impact and driving real, tangible change. What’s the most impactful thing you’ve accomplished in your career? 

In the last year at Qualcomm, we were one of the first large-cap semiconductor companies to set a net zero target, reducing emissions to zero across all three scopes, including our value chain. That was a lot of work to get that done. I’m proud of getting that target set and planting a flag in the ground. We’ve got the next 17 years to focus on decarbonizing and reducing our emissions.

One of the things that I noticed that’s happening through Qualcomm is some of these impactful social programs. The two that stood out to me were wireless reach, and if I understand correctly, have impacted more than 20 million people across 47 countries to bring wireless technology to underserved communities. The other one is Qualcomm Thinkabit Lab, which, if I understand correctly, shows students from all cultural and socio-economic backgrounds that they can be part of inventing the wireless world of the future. Tell me about your role in either of those or your team’s roles and what that looks like.

You nailed it. So, great job on the research. I came in through Wireless Reach, my first job at Qualcomm. I came in on that team. We knew at the time, 2006, starting with CDMA and getting people connected to the internet. We have been looking at programs leveraging our design technology for impact, health care, education, entrepreneurship, public safety, and the environment. It has reached over 25 million people now, I think that’s the latest number we’ve published. Qualcomm technology has reached billions of people. These are very targeted programs where the teams go in and say, “Tell us what your problem is.” People submit a request for proposal, and then we say, “We think we might have a solution,” or they say, we think Qualcomm technology can help.

We’re looking at a Connected Vehicle-to-Everything program in the United States. It will reduce accidents and emissions. We’re a component company. We don’t make the end device. We have several STEM education programs. We’re trying to build that talent pipeline. We are looking for fourth to seventh-graders. We’re trying to impact where we see girls lose interest in STEM. Also, traditionally under-served communities in STEM, and to get kids engaged from all different backgrounds. We know in 10-15 years, those kids will be building technologies. We want diverse voices at the table. We want kids from LGBTQ backgrounds. We want communities of color. We want women.

Thinkabit Lab is our home-grown maker space. The morning the kids spend studying their strengths, interests, and values. A lot of times, when kids think of an engineer, they think of sort of a cog in a wheel. You and I know there are so many different kinds of engineers in STEM fields. The kids are always really excited to learn about a patent attorney. They have the highest salary. There are lots of things you can do with a STEM degree. We are exposing kids and bringing in Qualcomm engineers who might look like them to talk to them about what they do on any given day. We fund several programs like First Robotics and other programs that are trying to reach kids from all different kinds of backgrounds to get them interested in STEM. We can build that talent pipeline, which will benefit everybody moving forward.

You’re working for this big tech company and in sustainability, so what first interested you in Tech, how did you stay interested over time, and how did you get here? 

My dad wanted me to study engineering when I went to college. I came home and said, “I’m going to study Political Science,” and he said, “You won’t make any money doing that. Why would you study Political Science?” I made it to a Tech company anyway. I have two International Relations degrees. I’m very focused on conflict analysis, resolution, and international relations. I’ve always been interested in what tools people can leverage. Governments can leverage. It was sort of happenstance that I got to Qualcomm. In 2013 or 2012, Secretary Clinton announced she was leaving the State Department. I thought, maybe this is my time to try the corporate sector. I was on a delegation to Brazil with several tech executives. We were doing these things called Technology delegations, like trade delegations. The State Department was to bring tech executives to other countries and help bridge the divide between what US technology companies could do in different markets and things like recruiting foreign talent.

I told everybody on the flight that I was going to look. There was a woman who worked at Qualcomm. She said you should call me when you leave because you won’t know how to negotiate your salary. In politics, you take what they offer you. I called and emailed her. She said they had a senior position on Wireless Reach at the time.  I ended up joining. It was a very long process. I think four or five months of interviews. I’d been working in the Office of Innovation for so long. I was very interested in the power of Tech and the cross-sector of technology and social impact, which is discussed a lot now. In 2010 and 2011 it wasn’t as prevalent as it is now. I wanted to continue with the international focus and innovative, cutting-edge technologies, so Qualcomm was the place for me.

Do you have any advice for members about how to transition into Tech? 

It’s important because tech companies need people with Humanitarian backgrounds or Liberal Arts degrees. The government needs engineers and people that have worked in tech companies. One of the things that I look for when I’m interviewing folks for the team is if you have a good background in communication. Technology, especially on the corporate responsibility side, showcases the benefits of our technology, telling the human stories of technology and those types of things. Suppose you have any background in Communication, Narrative, or Digital Strategy. Those types of skills, I think, can be impactful. Research has repeatedly shown that diverse voices at the table produce better products.

Can you talk a bit about these last ten years and arriving in your position, particularly as a woman in tech? What’s that been like? What are things that have helped you along the way? Have there been any surprises or obstacles that you weren’t expecting? What’s that been like? 

Before I came to technology, the corporate sector, everybody said the government moves so slowly, it’s hard to do things, and there’s no bureaucracy in Corporate America. This is not true, especially the bigger the company. Sometimes a little bureaucracy is not necessarily a bad thing. It’s good to have some checks and balances. I have been fortunate with bosses throughout my entire career. Technology celebrates trying new things, whether or not they work out.

Hierarchy is not as important as in some traditional sectors. There is still some of that, but you should be willing to put yourself out there, throw an idea out, try a new thing, and try to get on a different project. At Qualcomm, people are very open to talking with you about their journey. You should have conversations with people. What’s the culture like here? How are these things valued? Ask those questions. Don’t be afraid to do that.

Tell us more about the role of companies in sustainability. What is it really? How can it be improved? What’s the importance of ESG programs? 

Environmental Social Governance that’s what ESG stands for. It’s looking at environmentally speaking climate-related issues. What can you do as a corporation to reduce your footprint? Whether that’s reducing your emission, using less water, or using fewer natural resources, social is everything from the impact of what you’re building, your value chain, and working with your suppliers and your customers, you’re a human capital, treating your employees well and Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion programs.

Governance ensures that these things aren’t happening in a silo at the company. Even the board and the executive team are engaged in these decisions. You’re not just doing these things sort of willy-nilly, they’re strategic for the company. More efficient companies that use less waste will operate more efficiently. It’s better for expenses. If you keep your people happy and you retain them longer, that’s also good. You’re not training people all the time. It is a business imperative to do ESG. That’s what investors have been saying. The bottom line is also very important, but you can’t have one at the expense of the other. These companies with big value chains have to look at how they can reduce their footprint. Climate change is happening. Companies and governments need to address it.

What would you say to someone reading all these things and saying, “You know what, my company needs an ESG program, or I need to expand or elevate the ESG program at my company.” What advice would you have for them? 

Ask questions. You might already have a program. It just might not be that well advertised. Executives know this is important, but employees are a key constituent of executive teams.

Employees do have the power to engage with other employees. There might be things already happening that you don’t know about. Try to find out. If you see a gap, maybe there’s a way you could solve for that.

What about at an individual level? Do you have any advice for them? 

It’s a highly complex field. It’s not complicated to get into, necessarily. Companies are focused on ESG right now. Educate yourself on these issues. What do scope one, Scope Two, and Scope Three mean? You don’t have to be a climate scientist, but understand what that means. Do you see ways that you could create efficiencies? Or that might reduce the carbon footprint? Or might it use less water? Those ideas are not going to come from the sustainability team. We’re looking at the strategy. We know we need to procure renewable energy. We know we need to change some processes, but I’m not a process engineer. If that’s something that you work on, you might have a solution at your fingertips already that the company just isn’t implementing.

Get educated. There are lots of different parts of ESG. We focus heavily on the environment, but the social aspect is equally important. Human resources, human capital, talent acquisition, retention, and retainment are also super important. If you’re not so into climate, there are other ways that you could work on ESG issues. Look at what you’re passionate about and find a company, an organization or a non-profit that is also looking to drive change in those areas.

Speaker: Angela Baker, VP, of Corporate Responsibility and Chief Sustainability Officer, Qualcomm
Twitter: @bakerac1

Host: Joey Rosenberg, President, Product and Communications, Women Who Code

Producer: JL Lewitin, Senior Producer, Press and Digital Content, Women Who Code