Why Does Microsoft Do So Much Corporate Giving in Chicago? Ask This Woman

Microsoft is famously based in the Pacific Northwest. So why does the Redmond, Washington-based tech giant do so much corporate giving in Chicago?

A woman named Shelly Stern Grach plays a big part in keeping the Windy City on Microsoft’s radar. Grach serves as Microsoft’s Director of Civic Engagement for the Technology and Civic Engagement Group at Microsoft Corporation, but she's based in Chicago, where Microsoft has a substantial operation. 

Microsoft’s established giving priorities are education, employability skills, and entrepreneurship skills.  But Grach primarily focuses on supporting economic development and STEM education programs that accelerate the Mayor’s Plan for Chicago. Grach is also passionate about digital literacy programs, such as the ones at Erie Neighborhood House that promote success and development in the community.

“My personal mission is to not have Chicago become a tale of two cities. The more we can weave programs together from all the great tech companies and others that want to support 21st century skills, then the more we can start closing this opportunity divide,” she told Crain’s Chicago Business.

Microsoft gave $13.5 million in grants in 2013, a figure down 22 percent from the previous year. (A figure separate from the tens of millions of dollars in company matches of charitable gifts by employees or hundreds of millions of in-kind gifts, generally software, made globally each year.)

Of the 1,400 grant recipients in 2013, the Chicago-specific list included Year Up, City Year, Boys and Girls Clubs, and Lakeview High School, which has a STEM education focus. Other Microsoft support around town went to Metropolitan Family Services, the Field Museum, Adler Planetarium, and the National Latino Education Institute.

Although Chicago seems to be at the forefront of Microsoft grantmaking, Grach has also been responsible for building economic development programs in 18 states from Texas to Ohio. With over 30 years of senior sales and marketing experience on her resume, she works to manage nonprofit board relationships, employee engagement programs, thought leadership programs on innovation, business leadership, and broad education outreach. Before joining the Microsoft philanthropy team, Grach was AT&T’s Vice President of Sales.

Under Grach’s leadership, Microsoft developed its Tech Soup program, which provides software to nonprofits and public libraries, and Youth Spark, another Microsoft program that donates software and services serves at-risk youth. Tech Soup has a national focus, and Youth Spark has a global focus. 

However, the Chicago resident is deeply entrenched in civic life in Chicago, serving on the boards of numerous business development, career tech, and economic development organizations in town. And there’s no indication that her focus will shift away from Chicago anytime soon. She’s also looking for programs that not only bring technology to young people, but also to their tech-challenged parents.

We’ll leave you with one piece of advice from the Microsoft power player: Know the difference between Microsoft corporate philanthropy and Bill Gates’ philanthropy before even thinking about submitting a grant application.

“When people come asking for a large sum of money because they think we're Bill Gates, it shows they haven't done their homework,” she said. “It goes to being prepared.”

You can keep up with Shelley Stern Grach on Twitter, LinkedIn, and on the Microsoft Chicago blog that she writes for every once in a while.