A Corporate Citizenship Career Driven by Service Learning | Net Impact

A Corporate Citizenship Career Driven by Service Learning

Laura Asiala, Director of Corporate Citizenship, Dow Corning Corporation

Sticking with a single company for nearly three decades might seem daunting to some, but Laura Asiala has approached her career at special materials manufacturer Dow Corning Corporation with extraordinary energy and dedication. She’s worked in everything from finance to marketing to business process development to human resources to corporate communications, which means her knowledge of the company – and industry – is both broad and deep.

This depth helps her devise corporate citizenship efforts that are exceptionally effective, doing as much for the sustainability of Dow Corning as the company does for the communities in which it operates. Laura explains: “One of the reason I’m able to impact sustainability is because I really understand the business - the vision, the values, the long term direction, strategy, how we make money, what barriers exist…If you have an in-depth understanding of the business, you’re invited to participate and people will listen to you.”

Creating value through direct service

Laura traces her passion for sustainability issues not just back to her work at Dow Corning, which has a longstanding commitment to corporate citizenship, but also to the time she spent as one of the founders of Habitat for Humanity in her county. She sees her experience at Habitat as “service learning,” something her boss at the time (now Dow Corning’s CMO) actively supported as part of her leadership development.

That experiential learning helped her envision an approach to employee development that also provides real value to the company. Now, twenty years in, Dow Corning actively sends employees into underserved markets through the Dow Corning Citizen Service Corps. “We’re involved in an international corporate volunteer program with service learning at the core of it,” says Laura. “We’re immersing our people in new environments in order to serve underserved markets, make a tangible contribution, develop our employees, and gain our own insight for business and product innovation.”

Learning in the field

Working with a sustainable housing project with Ashoka in Bangalore, India, for example, proved particularly revealing. Dow Corning volunteers saw firsthand that members of the local community weren’t using solar panels, despite the lack of dependable electrical power. The reason turned out to be surprisingly simple: the panels simply hadn’t been built with foreknowledge of how people were living.

Laura sees this as a teachable moment, referring back to Harvard Business Professor Clayton Christensen’s work The Innovator’s Dilemma, and his notion to meet the audience where they are, not where you think they should be. This experience, among others, enabled the teams to document more than thirty specific business ideas, which are now in the process of further development and investigation.

This is an iterative process, one that embraces direct service and risk in order to gain learning and knowledge. For Laura, it’s critical - because she can point to her citizenship efforts and draw a direct line between those efforts and the value to her company. Decades after kicking off her career, Laura is more convinced than ever that immersion and service are necessary for corporate innovation. And it’s exactly that kind of smart citizenship that earns you a Director title.

Laura's advice

If you’re considering a big company as a place to make a difference from a sustainability perspective, consider some of Laura’s insights:

  • Profit and citizenship go hand-in-hand: Laura observes that every citizenship effort needs to add to both the community and the financial sustainability of the organization. The two simply must go hand in hand for your work to be successful. This is especially true for a publicly-traded company.
  • Do the job you were hired to do first: “Bring every skill set you have to make a measurable and material difference to your department or your group,” says Laura. “With that, you will have earned the right to bring some new ideas and some change. Do the fundamentals first.”
  • Go to work where they’re doing work you like: You’ll be much more effective if you walk into an organization liking the work they do and the way they do it. Before you accept a position, dig beyond the brand and make sure that in addition to the organization, you’re excited about the actual work you’ll get an opportunity to do.