Justin Spelhaug likes to make lists, to enumerate things. Maybe it’s because he has a big role running the Tech for Social Impact group within Microsoft Philanthropies. Perhaps helping lead the company’s fight to reduce inequality, tackle poverty, protect the planet and drive massive impact is more surmountable when you break it down. It could also be that Spelhaug’s medal-winning service in the U.S. Marine Corps at the start of his career instilled a penchant for order.
Whatever the reason, Spelhaug will explain that social impact at Microsoft, where he’s worked for more than 20 years, has four components: a goal of digital transformation for some 3 million nonprofits globally; digital inclusion to provide tech skills to underserved communities, women, girls and low-income people; mobilizing not just a small group within Microsoft but company-wide programs and support; and maintaining the company’s role as a trusted technology provider.
“In our company, we’re trying to define a new blueprint for social impact,” Spelhaug said.
That means creating products and services that are affordable, user friendly and target nonprofits’ particular needs. And it includes taking the profits generated by these social-good projects, both in the U.S. and abroad, and reinvesting them back into the business to build more technology to serve this sector and to fund cash grants for nonprofits.
Spelhaug is one of the featured speakers at the Dec. 6 Global Washington Annual Conference in Seattle. He’ll be sharing some of these ideas at the day-long event that will showcase presentations from leaders locally and around the world.
“We believe in leading by example,” he said “We have to demonstrate that we know how to do this in order for others to be inspired by it.”
Spelhaug has held numerous roles at Microsoft, with jobs in Singapore and Thailand and working as chief marketing and operations officer for Asia Pacific.
He breaks the evolution of his career into three phases. First were his childhood years and the influence of his parents, both of whom worked on social issues. His father developed innovative programs to aid seniors in Snohomish County, north of Seattle, and his mother spent 30 years in sexual assault investigations with children in Seattle’s Rainier Valley. He served in the Marines and then went to Microsoft, helping create the Unlimited Potential initiative, which sought to bring tech to lower-income societies globally. And most recently, he’s worked to find a way to optimize Microsoft’s philanthropic impact, balancing social and commercial value.
“I’ve always been focused on trying to weave social impact into what I do,” Spelhaug said. That objective is likely top of his list.
We caught up with Spelhaug for this Working Geek, a regular GeekWire feature. Continue reading for his answers to our questionnaire.
Current location: Seattle
Computer types: Surface Pro, Surface Book
Mobile devices: Samsung Galaxy S8
Favorite apps, cloud services and software tools: Microsoft 365, LinkedIn and iWindsurf for sailing!
Describe your workspace. Why does it work for you? It’s everywhere — offices, planes, trains and automobiles. To make a meaningful impact with nonprofits, you need to be where they are, working hand-in-hand. That means a lot of trips to Washington, D.C., New York, London, Sydney, and Johannesburg.
Your best advice for managing everyday work and life? Work on the topics that you truly and personally care about that bring meaning and satisfaction. Doing what you love isn’t work — it’s bringing your personal mission to life.
Your preferred social network? How do you use it for business/work? LinkedIn is my major professional connector. At work, Microsoft Teams is also playing a larger role in how we get work done and providing a necessary balance to email overload.
Current number of unanswered emails in your inbox? You really don’t want to know the answer to that question — a lot.
Number of appointments/meetings on your calendar this week? This week is light — about 20 meetings — as I’m traveling for nearly two days (Seattle to D.C.). Normally it’s double that. However, I’m working hard not to have the days ruled by meetings. It’s critical to have quality working and thinking time to drive a business effectively.
How do you run meetings? Clear statement of the purpose up front, keep presentations to less than a one-third to one-half of the meeting to allow quality time for discussion, decision making and wrap-up next step actions.
Everyday work uniform? Jeans and a button-up shirt.
How do you make time for family? When I’m home — I’m home. Be that in the evenings when I get home (usually 7 p.m.-ish) and over the weekends. By keeping those limited family hours dedicated, you can really unlock quality time in your life.
Best stress reliever? How do you unplug? Sailing, windsurfing, snowboarding and cycling on the weekends (usually with my kids). There is a New York Times article about my love of Hood River, which is the mecca of outdoor sports. I also run on the weekdays, and a little red wine and friends on Friday night can also be helpful.
What are you listening to? As I draft this, I’m listening to Spotify “Brain Food” playlist to keep the airplane noise down. I came of age in the ‘90s so Pearl Jam, Chris Cornell and others are probably my staples. My 13-year-old daughter keeps me current. Recently we went to both an Imagine Dragons concert as well as Halsey.
Daily reads? Favorite sites and newsletters? The Economist, BBC and, of course, GeekWire!
Book on your nightstand (or e-reader)? “Winners Take All” by Anand Giridharadas, “Geek Heresy” by Kentaro Toyama and “Tao Te Ching” by Laozi.
Night owl or early riser? I would like to be a night owl, but unfortunately work keeps me to an early riser mode.
Where do you get your best ideas? While running at the gym.
Whose work style would you want to learn more about or emulate? It’s maybe not a work style, but I’m practicing more mindfulness in both my personal and professional life. That includes being present, listening intently to others and using the moments you have now to create the future. It’s a simple concept that can be difficult to maintain in daily practice. I’m trying!