Why and how a travel tech company invests in CSR – Interview with Myla Tutt from Sojern

Sojern Gives Back CSR program

Specializing in traveler path-to-purchase data for over a decade, Sojern is travel’s direct demand engine for thousands of brands—from global enterprises to boutique operators—across the hotel, airline, cruise, transportation, tourism industries and more. Sojern also analyzes travel behavior in Americas, Europe, the Middle East & Africa, and Asia-Pacific to help travel marketers plan, strategize, and execute strong marketing campaigns.

Myla Tutt Sojern
Myla Tutt, Senior Marketing Manager and Head of Sojern Gives Back Programme

We spoke with Myla Tutt about the reasons behind “Sojern Gives Back” and practical issues that would help any other online travel or technology company set up their own corporate responsibility program.

Myla Tutt is the Senior Marketing Manager and one of Sojern’s first San Francisco employees. In addition to managing Sojern’s event presence, marketing materials and company off-sites, she also leads Sojern Gives Back, the company’s global CSR program.

Why Corporate Social Responsibility?

When asked about why Sojern invests time and money in CSR, Myla straight away replied “It’s in our DNA, in our values. Our company is full of wonderful people who want to have an impact.
It’s important for us to support communities we live in and find a way our business can fight global challenges.

From the very beginning, Sojern was thinking how to make more impact by giving back to the community. The company started their first CSR activities at the very early stage, when the company had only 10 people. Initially, all employees were volunteering once a year.

At some point, Myla Tutt, who back then an executive assistant, told Sojern’s CEO Mark Rabe that it would be valuable to put more structure into CSR activities, as the company was about to grow. This is how the “Sojern gives back” program was born.

How does it work?

Since 2015 each year Sojern chooses a different issue to focus on, and accordingly, they select local organisations to work with. In 2015 it was “Go Green” with environmental focus, in 2016 – reducing inequalities. In 2017, the company chose illiteracy and education.

On average, Sojern as a company dedicates 5 hours er volunteering employee each quarter, as part of their regular working hours. The company also organises monthly Lunch & Learn meetups, where the employees get a chance to meet and learn about the selected organisations, their challenges and impact. Additionally, each employee can take up to a week off paid time to volunteer at an organisation of their choice.

Sojern is also open to providing professional support to NGOs. In the past they helped run a fundraising campaign for Read Global, an organisation that builds libraries and resource centers in rural Asia. At the moment they’re discussing with Teach The World about helping them with advertising. Teach The World raises money to reduce illiteracy in countries like Afghanistan, Pakistan, by providing tablets with educational games for kids, which is a perfect fit for Sojern’s 2017 theme.

Sojern Gives back environmental programme

How is it managed?

Myla leads “Sojern Gives Back” program, and she coordinates the regional directors, who manage the program locally. Because although Sojern is becoming an international organisation with offices in 8 countries and a global mindset, they want to impact communities locally.

Our goal is to make sure that every single employee volunteers at least once during the year.
At the beginning we send a survey to find out what our employees are passionate about and what issue to focus on. Based on this we set goals for each office and initiative. For example, when organising a Book Drive in San Francisco, the company set a target of donating one book per employee. At the end over 230 books were donated, which is almost 3 times more than expected. Regional directors are sharing advice, exchanging ideas and solutions how to answer challenges on a daily basis.

At the moment the company is not measuring the impact they’re making, because some initiatives are difficult to measure. For Sojern, however, the success of CSR activities is achieved if their employees feel more connected around the world, and get a chance to contribute to a good cause.

Myla believes that the success can be also measured by the positive feedback and reactions spontaneously coming from people:

“We’ve all had that rough week or month at work, where things just don’t seem to be going your way. But yesterday, we were able to put all of that aside and volunteer with United Way for the Midlands, spending the afternoon reading with children. It really lifted my spirits, and I came back to work refreshed and revitalized. I feel very fortunate to work for a company that puts community outreach and involvement at the top of its priorities.” – Shaela Wepfer, Sojern Gives Back Omaha Regional Director

How are employees encouraged to participate?

First of all, the CSR program is explained to all newly hired employees during their induction training. From the beginning, Sojern gives people freedom to choose which organisation they want to support. For example Cheryl, an employee in Omaha, is dedicated to minimizing the number of premature births, which reflects her family’s history. And Alex from San Francisco is a volunteer at The Smart Program, supporting kids who are the first in their families to go to college.

Although some employees are more interested than others in participating in the CSR projects, not many are reluctant, because of the freedom they have when choosing the annual theme and specific organisations.

To keep everyone on track, Sojern sends out an internal newsletter to talk about CSR activities, progress and successes.

What really helps in engaging employees are Lunch & Learn sessions, when everyone gets a chance to meet organisations the company supports. Such direct interactions and opportunity to ask questions are very educative and open many employee’s’ eyes to specific issues.

Sojern also sees their corporate responsibility program as a differentiating point when looking for new talents. They believe that top talent is concerned about global issues, and wants to make positive impact that goes beyond earning money.

As a proof that having integrity and well defined values really strengthens company’s culture and employee spirit – Sojern was listed at the top of on Entrepreneur’s Top Company Cultures list. In his blog post acknowledging the recognition, Sojern’s CEO Mark Rabe said, “Our values aren’t just aspirational, they are who we are today. From Sojern Gives Back —our non-profit effort to give back to local communities—to our Orange Crush Awards—an internal gift to fellow Sojernistas who embody our values, we work hard to infuse our values throughout every aspect of our work.”

Sojern Gives Back CSR programme

Challenges

The one and only challenge Myla mentioned is the problem of scale. In the past 3 years the company has been growing rapidly. It’s getting more difficult to find meaningful ways to make an impact with such a big group of people.

It’s challenging to find an organisation to work with where you can make sure that on one hand you’re benefiting them, and on the other – that employees feel they are giving back.

Sojern is therefore looking for opportunities to support specific organisations in a way that doesn’t require actual contact with the beneficiaries, for example building something for kids without actually interacting with them. This can also include capacity building through skills sharing or professional advice for NGOs.

Advice for other companies that want to start CSR

“First and foremost, always start with employees. Talk to everyone to find out what they’re really passionate about.” – says Myla. You can do it personally if you’re a small company, or via a survey if you’re bigger. Don’t be too harsh for yourself in the beginning. Start with baby steps, for example pick one or two activities. As soon as you achieve your first small success, everyone will become very excited and join your efforts. And then, you can do more and more.

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