"A Brighter Future For All." A Stalwart Energy Funder Tackles the STEM Gender Gap

photo:  wavebreakmedia/shutterstock

photo:  wavebreakmedia/shutterstock

Almost four years ago, we looked at the philanthropy of the Exelon Foundation, the giving arm of Exelon Corporation, a Fortune 100 energy company that most Americans have never heard of.

As noted at the time, the Chicago-based corporation was particularly keen on supporting STEM initiatives. Energy companies depend more on tech-savvy workers than many people realize, so it's not surprising that Exelon is tuned into this area—along with so many other companies worried about meeting their needs for highly skilled labor. 

About two years later, Exelon hired a D.C.-based senior executive to lead its philanthropy and customer engagement. The announcement fit into a larger strategic pattern. After acquiring Pepco Holdings and taking over utilities in East Coast locations like D.C., Baltimore and Philadelphia, Exelon's reach began drifting eastward. Would this shift affect its traditionally Chicago-focused philanthropy?

The answer is yes and no.

The Exelon Foundation recently partnered with the U.N. Women HeForShe initiative to launch the inaugural STEM Innovation Leadership Academy to provide hands-on learning and mentorship opportunities for teen girls. The first academy will be based in Chicago. The second will be based in—you guessed it—Washington, D.C.

Launched by U.N. Women in 2014, the HeForShe initiative was created to foster a movement with a systematic approach and targeted platform where men can become agents of change for gender equality. The STEM Innovation Leadership Academy is one component of Exelon’s three-year, $3 million commitment to the initiative.

In 2017, Exelon President and CEO Chris Crane was named one of HeForShe’s Thematic Champions, a program that recognizes global leaders who stand out as visionaries for gender equality and women’s empowerment.

The formation of the academy comes on the heels of an Exelon-commissioned survey that found that only 50 percent of the next generation of women are optimistic about the future of women in STEM. In addition, many high school girls believe companies view men as more qualified for STEM jobs than women.

"Initiatives such as the STEM Innovation Leadership Academy empower female students through education and mentorship, enhance our workforce through diversity and equality and ultimately foster fundamental change and a brighter future for all," said Crane.

 "By creating opportunities for young women to learn about and pursue STEM-related careers, we are nurturing the next generation of leaders."

Exelon has been a stalwart STEM funder for years, now. It's also made a noteworthy push to incorporate gender equity into its compensation practices. Upon naming Exelon the utilities industry's "best corporate citizen" in 2016, Forbes said:

A lot of companies make a big show of talking about diversity and inclusion. At Exelon, there’s something behind that talk. The energy company has had a formal diversity and inclusion program since 2008, and in October, it adjusted about 100 salaries based on its annual evaluation of racial and gender pay equity.

The launch of the STEM Innovation Leadership Academy comes on the heels of some other big gifts addressing the field's persistent gender gap, including tech firm VMware's $15 million gift to launch Stanford University’s VM Women’s Leadership Innovation Lab, and Google allocating six years of free rent to the CU Boulder-founded National Center for Women & Information Technology. 

Each of these gifts, along with Tesla's $37.5 million commitment to K-12 STEM education in Nevada, find funders upskilling workers to meet local demand.

In the case of Exelon, the academy will include several energy-focused workshops led by the National Energy Education Development Project, as well as visits to Exelon Generation’s Dresden Generating Station for a hands-on experience in the plant’s simulator control room, and to the Museum of Science & Industry. 

All of which brings me back to the Exelon Foundation's increasingly eastward-looking philanthropy.

First and foremost, it's important to remember that even though Exelon has operations and business activities in 48 states plus an ever-growing footprint on the eastern seaboard, the foundation remains committed to the greater Chicago region.

In December of 2017, the foundation achieved a new record in corporate philanthropy and volunteerism, committing $46.5 million in charitable giving to more than 3,000 nonprofits, and volunteering 200,000 hours. In addition to STEM, arts, and education causes, Exelon provided support for two big regional conservation projects, the Lakeshore Preserve and ComEd’s Green Region Program.

That same year, the company was named to Points of Light’s list of the 50 most community-minded companies in the country. 

Exelon's largesse stems from a point we made back when we first looked at the funder's philanthropy in 2014: Energy companies are loaded. Exelon may not ring a bell for most Americans, but its 2017 revenues stood at approximately $34 billion. And in a letter to shareholders earlier this year, Exelon predicted a dividend growth rate of 5 percent annually over the next three years.

Bottom line? Exelon's support for STEM education and closing the gender gap is likely to continue to expand—both financially and geographically—over time.