04/23/2012 12:19 pm ET Updated Jun 23, 2012

Recycling Employee Skills

Like me, Paula Davis didn't last long in her first job out of college. But, she ended up working at some of the leading brands in the world -- even for Michael Jordan at one point. Today she runs the Alcoa Foundation, which recently pledged to contribute one hundred thousand skills-based volunteer hours to Billion + Change. We spoke recently about her career and how Alcoa is using the skills of their employees to make an impact in the world.

If I gave you 10 billion dollars to create the Paula Davis Foundation, what issue would your foundation focus on supporting?

Personally, I think the greatest gift that you can give to society is a job. Important organizations are the ones that focus on enabling people to be self-sufficient and to acquire a skill that builds independence. That's the definition of sustainability.

Have you been able to bring this insight into your work running the Alcoa Foundation?

Causes related to employment issues are something I feel strongly about -- particularly with regards to veterans. I've always felt very blessed to have been born in a country that is served so devoutly by its military. My father and uncles all served, so I suppose there is a personal connection.

We launched a partnership with American Corporate Partners, which is a mentoring program for young U.S. veterans returning from conflict overseas. When we launched that program, our goal was 50 people. We had 50 in the first week and another 50 the next. By 150, American Corporate Partners had to cut us off. We really think about employee engagement in terms of involving our people in the development of partnerships, not just logging volunteer hours, and there was clearly a desire for people to lend their skills to this organization.

That is such a need right now with the return of veterans. Another critical area that I was pleased to see you support is the environment.

We recognize, of course, that we are a very energy intensive business, so a lot of our efforts are focused on strategies for reducing our carbon footprint, lowering emissions, etc. We focus on "reduce, recycle, replenish." We try to create environmental ambassadors to spread that ethic, and emphasize recyclability of our products -- like aluminum -- as well. Our people understand that a can is a can, and can be recycled and back on the shelf within 60 days. There is a huge opportunity on the recycling front.

In terms of replenishing, we recognize that we are also very land intensive. We have programs focused on replenishing 10 million trees by 2020, and we partner with research initiatives focusing on life-cycle analysis, measuring environmental footprints. We see it as our responsibility to contribute our expertise to these programs, building the knowledge that drives sustainable planning and design efforts and environmental urbanization.

It is easy to see how a marketing firm can help an NGO, but it's interesting to think of what a mining, manufacturing and engineering company can offer. Can you provide an example of how your employees share their skills?

The best example would probably be the Sustainability Consortium out of the University of Arkansas. There was an environmental research initiative of several different companies, working to figure out how to measure the true environmental footprint of services. There are a few different schools of thought on this -- one is "cradle to cradle" and another is "cradle to grave." Cradle to cradle is something that we really endorse because it includes the recyclability of products and services, as opposed to the "first life cycle." This is something that people in our energy group and construction groups can inform on -- how to truly capture the emissions of a product and the recyclability of a product, lending their expertise to support this knowledge

The Alcoa Foundation pledged 100,000 hours to Billion + Change. That is a big goal to make publicly.

We were attracted to Billion + Change because it allowed us to put a goal out there. Since you have to track your service, it gives us the chance to set a goal for ourselves as we build new programs.

I really wasn't concerned about reaching that volume of volunteer hours. Since I joined Alcoa two years ago, I have seen the tremendous generosity of our employees. At one point we conducted some focus groups and presented the idea of volunteer recognition -- and people were adamantly against it. They were telling me that they didn't want to see any advertising around this work, they didn't want their name recognized -- they said that they were doing it because it's a responsibility they have.

A lot of students graduating this Spring aspire to a position like yours. What was your path?

My first job out of college was as an entry-level receptionist at a publishing company -- it didn't last very long. What ultimately made my career was that I had a great mentor, but in the meantime I took risks. I actually worked for, a company started by Wayne Gretsky, John Elway and Michael Jordan at the height of the dotcom boom. It was a really interesting experience because I was there when it was a start-up until that bubble sort of burst and the company shut down. It was an unbelievably useful experience that I would never have had if I wasn't willing to take risks.

Now that you are leading one of the largest corporate foundations in the world, do you get a lot of request to provide mentoring to emerging leaders?

Just in the past five to ten years, I've noticed people coming to me more often seeking a mentor. I know how important it is to have a great mentor when you're getting your career started, so I try to embody the characteristics that I thought were most important. For me, this includes patience, a wealth of knowledge in different settings, and being someone who you can trust and really believe to have your best interest in mind. This is really something that I've loved to do. I feel that I'm inherently a teacher, and hopefully will be by trade someday.

Alcoa Foundation has taken the Billion + Change pledge volunteering its best business skills and talents to serve the needs of nonprofits and communities at home and around the world. Together, Billion + Change pledge companies are inspiring the largest commitment of pro bono and skilled volunteering in history. Has your company taken the pledge? Learn how at