More than ever, businesses and organizations want to stand for something. They want to plant a flag in their community and they want to work towards solving real problems. This goes beyond writing a check. It’s about establishing an identity independent of your products and your services, one that aligns with the values of both your customers and your employees. When you start to want to make an impact, the hard part is knowing where do we get started, right? That’s where Rackspace found itself in 2008, when the company moved into a dead mall on the wrong side of town. They wanted to be a good citizen of the neighborhood, yet they were unsure where to start. Fast forward more than 10 years and the Rackspace Foundation has positively impacted the lives of thousands of families on the northeast side of San Antonio.
In The New Corporate Citizen, Cara Nichols gives business leaders the playbook that Rackspace used to create intentional change in their community by connecting with local schools. Sharing tough lessons Rackspace learned along the way, you’re going to see exactly how you can begin to enrich the lives of students and their families. No big checks are required. Here’s my conversation with Cara.
This is The Author Hour podcast. I’m your host, Benji Block, and we’re honored today to be joined by Cara Nichols. She’s just come out with a new book. The book is titled The New Corporate Citizen: An Innovative Model to Corporate Philanthropy. We’re glad to have you here, Cara. Welcome to the show.
Cara Nichols: Hey, thank you. Glad to be here.
Benji Block: Okay, for listeners that might not be familiar with you, Cara, and maybe some of your work, can you just provide a little bit of context and background to what led to this?
Cara Nichols: Yup. So I spent roughly 10 years looking after the Rackspace Foundation. So Rackspace is a — at the time, I’m not sure what they are now, but — they’re a $2 billion tech company. When we, Rackspace, decided to move our headquarters, we were looking for an interesting way to help bring the community up with us. So I spent 10 years figuring out how we were going to do that. We ultimately decided to do that through the neighboring schools that were around the headquarters. What we found — we didn’t really know that we were creating a model at the time.
But a few years in, we looked around and went, “Hey, this is actually something.” Then we found that people started asking for “the Rackspace model.” I was being asked to come in and talk to other organizations about how we created this model and what it looks like and how it operates. Then those speaking engagements sort of evolved into a thought about how do I scale this? This would be — It’s great to go out and speak with people about it, but how can I open-source this model that we created?
The former chairman of Rackspace, Graham Weston, and I were talking one day, and he just sort of magically — I think the stars were all aligned. He said, “Hey, would you consider writing a book about this?” I said, “Well, actually, I’ve been thinking the same thing.” So it evolved from there.
Benji Block: Wow. Well, I’m excited to dive into more of it. I love when books come out of that need because you’re talking to something that I think many will be interested in. I think it will be extremely helpful. I love that people were asking and, hey, here we are, and this book is going to be super helpful. You dedicate the book to the underdogs. I think that heart shines throughout the pages of the book, but explain where that comes from and where your passion personally has come for underdogs.
Cara Nichols: One is I think the obvious constituents that we were serving with the Rackspace Foundation, and that’s the kids in underprivileged schools. Oftentimes, they are the underdogs. They’re not expected to win the football championship. They’re maybe not expected to go as far educationally. We just have different expectations for those kids a lot of times. Maybe not knowingly, but it happens. I was able to very quickly see the injustice in that and sort of put a name to it and go, “This is not what we’re about.”
So, first and foremost, it’s dedicated to the underdogs being the students that we served. But also, it’s to the reader who might feel that they’re not equipped or they don’t have the right pedigree or the right experience to go and do something like what we did. I was in that boat. We figured it out and made it up as we went along. There were many, many times when I questioned my ability to lead the foundation just because I thought I [didn’t] have — This is not what I’ve done before. But it’s really the heart that is required, and that’s it. So you can be the underdog, as long as you have a passion for this work and for creating positive change.
Benji Block: Yeah. You have that passion, right? I was reading, and you say that like in your time at Rackspace, you didn’t start in the position that you kind of landed in eventually, right? You had your eyes on the prize is what you said, and the prize was you leading community affairs and getting to work on the Rackspace Foundation. So talk about that transition, where you started, and why in your mind it was like, “Man, that’s where I ultimately want to be.”
Cara Nichols: When I first started at Rackspace, I was working in marketing, and I was working with the copywriters and designers. That’s something that that I loved dearly at the time. But I also knew that at Rackspace, I could see how much heart the company had for the community.
Benji Block: I love that.
Cara Nichols: The woman that was in the position before I was in the position, Mari Aguirre, I could just watch what she was doing from the sidelines and just be in awe and just be… yeah, I guess really just in awe of all that she had the opportunity to do. I wanted that. I wanted to have a role that was more than just bringing home a paycheck and making my contribution as a good worker. I wanted something that I felt I would be able to shape and something that I felt that I could really be fulfilled by it beyond just a job.
Benji Block: Yeah. I’d love to hear — because you’re looking on kind of in anticipation, you’re going, “Okay, that’s the type of place I want to end up in.” So tell me a little bit about like the history of the Rackspace Foundation. What was the heart behind that? Then we’ll get into some of what makes this unique. But let’s start there; what was the heart that it was started with and what makes it a little unique there?
Cara Nichols: Yeah. Rackspace has a really cool story that shaped its entry into working with and investing in the community, and that begins with Hurricane Katrina. When Katrina hit, obviously, New Orleans was being evacuated to Houston, and Houston was being evacuated, and we had roughly 10,000 people coming to San Antonio. At the time, our then chairman, Graham Weston, was listening to these stories on Texas Public Radio about how these refugees were coming to San Antonio, and he absolutely felt that he wanted to help but didn’t know how.
So through a couple of conversations, they landed on — He happened to have a piece of real estate, which was part of the old Windsor Park Mall in the northeast side of San Antonio, which is actually a dead — It was at the time a dead mall, and he had one of the buildings and ended up saying, “I’ve got real estate. Can we turn this Montgomery Ward building into a shelter?” So very, very rapidly we have mobilized all kinds of contractors from plumbers and HVAC and security and all of the everything that you would need to create a shelter, which was actually managed by the Red Cross. But Graham contributed the space.
When Rackers — that’s what we call employees of Rackspace — when Rackers got word of the evacuees were going to be coming to this old Montgomery Ward building, they jumped in and said, “How can we help?” It turned into greeting the refugees when they came off the buses and helping with intake and donations; obviously emergency donations, and food and blankets and all of the things that one might need when they’ve lost everything and come to a new city with just the clothes on their back.
But one of the most meaningful contributions I think that came out of the Hurricane Katrina story was that the Rackers noticed that the Red Cross upon intake for the evacuees, were doing everything with pen and paper, and it was this very like analog system.
Benji Block: Old system.
Cara Nichols: Yeah. Rackers looked at that and went, “Hey, we can do better. We can create something that’s better.” Ultimately, that idea turned into a system that essentially scraped all of the publicly available websites that had [the] refugees’ information so that they could be reconnected with family members. A lot of them were dispersed to many, many cities, and so families were broken apart. Friends were broken. It’s so easy to lose track of one another, and so they built a system that would help reunite families. So, yeah, it was a super meaningful contribution and really something that the Red Cross was not equipped to create but technologists were. They used what they had to create something that was really meaningful.
Don’t Let Scale Be An Intimidating Factor
Benji Block: I love when there’s crossover between business and nonprofit world. There’s so much that one can offer the other and vice versa. So I love that. But I do wonder, kind of paint the through-line picture for me because I understand Katrina. It’s like almost this once-in-a-lifetime type event. We have to mobilize. We have to help the people that are going to be refugees in our city. But then that sparks an evolution obviously over time, where what we were talking about before where it’s like, “Okay. Well, we want to help kids that are around us.” It’s a little bit of a different mission. So, how do things evolve over time?
Cara Nichols: Yeah. So the shelter was eventually spun down, wound down as the evacuees found permanent homes. Through a couple of unrelated events, Rackspace ended up moving into the dead mall and taking it and making it our headquarters. There were so many questions around that time about is this really what we want to do, move into this side of town that has deteriorated? It’s a dead mall. Who has moved into a dead mall before? What company has done that before? No one.
Benji Block: Yeah, especially a growing, thriving business.
Cara Nichols: Tech company.
Benji Block: Yeah. You guys could have been somewhere else, right? I loved reading that portion of the book, like you could have gone somewhere else. There was discussion of even moving the company out of Texas. So there’s a lot there that obviously we want readers to go read. But, yeah, I mean, that is a big decision to move in.
Cara Nichols: I think in Rackers’ minds, they were envisioning something like Apple’s headquarters, and that isn’t a dead mall.
Benji Block: Slightly change your plans.
Cara Nichols: Yes, yes. So because there were so many questions around that, Graham said — There was actually talk about maybe we should build a wall around the headquarters. So the headquarters, its nickname is The Castle. Maybe we should build a wall around the castle and keep our stuff safe and keep ourselves sort of apart, physically distanced from the community. Graham said, “That’s not the company that we are.” As we evolve, succeed, we’re going to bring this community up with us. This once dead mall is going to be a point of pride, and people will come from all over the world to see this building and see how we’ve transformed this community.
Fast forward to knowing that we wanted to invest in the community but not knowing exactly which mechanism we would use for that, we looked around at what the community had and just what the sort of natural assets of the community were, and there were a ton of schools. We actually have seven schools that were, I mean, within a stone’s throw it seems like, of the building and tons of kids. So we thought maybe the schools would be a great way for us to start investing in the community. We reached out to the principals. At this time, I should note that Mari Aguirre, who I had previously mentioned, she was in the role at this time. She reached out to the principals and said, “We’re here. We want to help. We don’t want to just be tenants of Walton Road. We want to be true citizens of the neighborhood. How can we help?”
We started working with the schools, and it naturally evolved into a model where the mechanism will be education. The constituents will be kids. What we’re going to fund is the gap areas where we can essentially level the playing field for these kids, so we can create opportunities for them that are equal to or surpass their middle income or even well-resourced schools. Let’s level the playing field for them.
Benji Block: To paint a picture, I mean, these schools, like you say, and some of the schools, as many as 100% of the kids are on the free or reduced-price lunch programs. A significant number of the kids are like ELA or English language learners. My wife is a middle school teacher, so it’s here in the area. I was like reading this. She was like, “Oh, yeah. This is like our heart too.” So I love the decision because, obviously, like kids are our future. So, you build there. Those kids are going to grow up. You, I mean, can change a whole community if you’re helping change schools. That’s a great vision. I also think from the story, one of the main things that I take away from you guys is the vision; obviously [it] has to flow from the top because the decisions early on to be like, “Man, we really have a heart for this,” ends up dictating so many decisions in your story. That’s a really beautiful part of this.
Okay, these are very complex issues, right? There are a massive amount of people, like students, involved. I mean, you chose seven schools, so it could sound very big to someone that’s like, “Okay, I like the story. But like where do you even start? Like what are the smaller steps?” So I wonder if we could maybe go into that a little bit as like what were some of the first things you decided to do in partnership with these schools to actually help.
Cara Nichols: Yeah, and you’re exactly right. The undertaking is messy. The kids that we serve, they just have adult problems that they have the burden of carrying on their shoulders. Parents who are incarcerated, homelessness, food insecurity, all of the things that you think, “This is not what childhood is about. This shouldn’t be what childhood is about.” Yet it is, and so let’s acknowledge that reality for them and help them. Let’s level the playing field for them.
Benji Block: So where – Because the problems are so complex, what are those first few things you guys do? Because I love that vision like we’re going to level the playing field. But what do you do to start to solve complex issues like this?
Cara Nichols: When we began, we literally started with just one school. How it evolved into seven came online very quickly after that first year. But the first year, it was just one school. But really people could start with one classroom or even one kid. I think there’s no amount of effort that’s too small to be acknowledged here, so don’t let scale be an intimidating factor. We started with the one school, and it was with things that we could see. They were very tangible. It was beautification projects. It was like painting murals around the school. It was creating a community garden. We, even on the first day of school, created just this culture of excitement around returning to school. It was a pep rally, that atmosphere for when the kids got to school that first day. We really focused on creating a culture amongst the teachers. So culture is something that I think a lot of workplaces focus on, but schools may not all understand that they have a culture, whether they focus on it or not.
Benji Block: Good point.
Cara Nichols: But we really wanted to create an intentional culture around excitement that the kids were back and that school was underway. So we just kind of responded to these one-off, they were like ad hoc requests of the school. Like I said, that was very tangible things. But that’s not to say that you have to go in with like buckets of paint and paint murals to make an impact. Anyone can go in and say, “I want to be a reading buddy.” Or I want to take my team of whatever workers at whatever company, and we’re going to be reading buddies for this class, or we’re going to be mentors for this class, or we’re going to be lunchroom volunteers to help make sure that kids are getting the right amount of like socialization with adults and with their peers and then focusing on social-emotional learning and things like that.
I think there’s nothing that’s too small, and there’s nothing that is worth overlooking. I think whatever skill that you have is something that can be applied. For example, what you do in your job. But it also could just be that you have a heart for a classroom or a school, and you want to get others involved from your workplace.
Benji Block: Yeah, I love that because the bar really is pretty low, as far as like entry-level.
Cara Nichols: So low.
Start With What’s Manageable
Benji Block: Because schools need help, right? Then there’s this unique part. So I guess it leads into essentially what will be two follow-up questions for me. But the first one would be you go in — and essentially the approach is super needed. But also, it’s like kind of a typical approach, right? You’re doing the things that, at first, it’s what you would do, right? Like we’re going to do a garden project. We’re going to do this school project, whatever. Over time, you evolve this into a lot more involvement, right? It makes it to the point where there is a method that people refer to as like this Rackspace Foundation method.
So what, over time, did you guys find to be some of those differentiators that really set you apart and maybe deepened the relationships with the schools?
Cara Nichols: A few years in, we started asking ourselves, how do we know that this work is making a difference, and are we making the most impact that we can make? I should have mentioned earlier, the Rackspace Foundation is funded 100% by employee donations. So it was not these anonymous corporate dollars that were going towards programs. It was programs that our employees volunteered out of their paycheck to support. There was a different kind of onus there to be responsible with the dollars of my coworkers and friends, for example. It just takes a — It’s a different type of accountability. I think there’s social accountability there that was really important to me.
Benji Block: For sure.
Cara Nichols: A few years in, we started wondering how much [of an] impact are we truly having, and we got connected with Trinity University here in San Antonio, their Department of Urban Studies. Dr. Christine Drennon was the leader that we connected with, and she looks after the Department of Urban Studies. We said, “Hey, we’ve got this thing that we’re kind of doing over here. We’ve been doing it a few years. How do we know if this is what’s right, if the programs that we’ve chosen are right? How do we know if we’re making an impact at all?” She was the one who helped create a multi-year study for Trinity University focused on the neighborhood that we had adopted.
What essentially happened is they created a database, if you will, of community assets and community needs, and looked at it from all different perspectives. So it was focus groups with teachers and with students and with homeowners and with renters and with long-time neighbors that had lived in the area and with people who had just moved in. It was this whole cross-section of opinions about what the community had in its corner and where the community had opportunities. So they came back with this assessment.
A cool side note about this multi-year assessment is that Dr. Drennon used her senior year students in urban studies to carry out these studies. So we always had an intern who was on our team, learning and being the boots on the ground, so to speak, to see the work in real-time and being able to sort of put their hands on it. Then coming back to us at the end with this recommendation of here are the places that we think Rackspace could make the most impact. So we looked at their recommendation up against the current slate of programs and they’re — I mean, gosh, talk about lucky. We were actually on the right track. We were actually on. We had to make a few modifications, but the lion’s share of programs were really on the right track.
What was determined is that the best way we could support these kids was throughout of school time programs, and that helps with things as basic as creating more food security in the hours outside of school to supervision, to creating new skill sets, and discovering new talents that the kids had. It operated in such a way that it met a lot of the needs of the community, just through focusing on out-of-school and enrichment programs.
Benji Block: Did it highlight more to you though like, “Okay, we’re going to do more of that,” or was there kind of one big takeaway, like one big finding that really sticks out to you when you got that back?
Cara Nichols: I think the biggest finding was that we were sort of like, “Wow, we are doing the right thing.”
Benji Block: That’s so cool. That’s really good.
Cara Nichols: We didn’t know that we would — I was prepared to have to wholesale change our programs. But what we did do is we doubled down on a lot of or on some of the programs. So for example, Communities in Schools is one of the big programs in the seven schools, and they provide social workers to the schools. We doubled down on Communities in Schools and made sure that they had even more resources to be able to do the good work that they were doing because we realized that these kids aren’t going to be able to focus on learning nouns and verbs when they don’t have access to clean clothes, and the uniform that they need for school has been worn for five days straight or more. Or they’re sleeping in their car with their parent or whatever the case may be. So the social workers were the really big win I think for us. That was an area that we just said we need to go all in.
Benji Block: You talk about the idea of a coordinated village towards the end of the book. What are your thoughts there? Because obviously, I mean, you enrich the schools, but you’re just mentioning, these kids are coming from all sorts of different backgrounds, right? I mean, there’s a lot going on. So you’re a portion of that. But what have you learned when it comes to that, this idea of a coordinated village?
Cara Nichols: I think the biggest takeaway, the biggest learning was that those who are working in the schools, the teachers, the counselors, the family specialists, the social workers, the administrators, they know what their schools need. They know what their kids need. We are in a system where schools receive title funds, state funds, federal funds, whatever, that are so restrictive and need to be applied to the exact fine print that’s listed in the grant, or that’s listed in the funding award. Really, those who are in the trenches cannot do what they know their kids need and what would be best for their kids because of those restrictions.
When a company comes in and fills the gap and says, “What do you truly need outside of those federal funds and outside of those title funds and outside of the state allocated funds? What would serve your kids and your families best?” and giving them that flexibility to do what they know is right for their kids has been the biggest takeaway. It’s been the biggest learning because they’re the experts. That’s not to say that bureaucratic funding and programs are not helpful. They absolutely are. But that’s not where the story ends. So a lot of kids end up slipping through the cracks or just sort of like barely hanging on by their fingernails because there’s just not enough margin in their lives. There’s not enough time. There’s not enough energy. There’s not enough money. There’s not enough adults. There’s not enough role models. So when companies can come in and fill those gaps and say, “We just want to help. Tell us what you need. We want to help,” that makes a huge difference in the entire landscape of the school.
Benji Block: Wow. Well, this book is going to be an incredible resource, and this is kind of where I want to start to wrap things up with you. But I would love for you to talk to someone, a business leader listening. They’re going, “Okay, I love a lot of what’s being outlined here. I would be interested in maybe trying to start our own thing or partner.” What would be your push? Where would you tell people to start with that?
Cara Nichols: I would say start wherever it’s manageable. Start as large or as small as you want to start and be receptive to what you’re seeing, what you’re hearing, what you’re learning along the way because that will guide you to the next right step. There is a model that we created, and the book is definitely there to serve as a guide and hold a torch at the front of the line and go, “This way, guys.” But the key is really having the heart and the desire to do something about it, to act, and to know that this work matters, regardless of your job title. It matters whether you’re the CEO or just an entry-level employee. That you can be the catalyst that helps shift this for so many kids. So I would say jump in where you feel comfortable and allow it to unfold. Allow the work to lead you.
Benji Block: That’s so good. I think adaptability early on is always necessary because then it allows you to get the work going. But I love that you guys have gone before, and you have kind of held the torch in a sense where you’re saying, “We have this direction,” and I think people are going to learn a lot from that.
When someone’s done with the book, what do you want them to [takeaway] — What’s their main takeaway? What do you want them to be feeling? Is it just kind of a push in the back to go out and start helping in their community?
Cara Nichols: I really want them to feel that this is doable. I want them to feel that they have a partner. I wrote the book that I wish I had had when I started this work. So I want them to feel that A, they’re not alone. B, they have a partner and an advocate, and it’s doable. It’s doable and it’s so important.
Benji Block: Cara, for those that want to stay connected to you and your work, where can people reach out and stay connected?
Cara Nichols: Yeah. LinkedIn is always great. But also my website, threefolded.com, is where they could find out more information or get in touch with me. They want to talk specifics. I love hearing when people have taken bits of the story and implemented it. Hearing how people are making it their own is incredibly gratifying, and I love to be able to share those stories as well. So, yes, definitely stay in touch or get in touch, if you would like to talk more or share your story.
Benji Block: Well, it’s been a great conversation. I love the work that you’ve done through this book and, obviously, through the philanthropy that you guys — I mean, what an awesome plan you guys have laid out, and really choosing to be adaptable shines through this story. Choosing to actually move and help is wonderful. So, thank you for your work.
Again, the book is called The New Corporate Citizen: An Innovative Model of Corporate Philanthropy. It’s on Amazon now. You can go pick it up. Thanks so much for being on Author Hour with us today, Cara.
Cara Nichols: Thank you so much. It was awesome being here. Thank you.