Talking Purpose With Carolyn Berkowitz, featuring Justin Schmitt of USAA

ACCP is excited to continue our 2023 Talking Purpose feature with Justin Schmitt, AVP of Corporate Responsibility at USAA. Justin is an accomplished CSR professional, and we are excited for him to share his insights with us.

How did you get your start in corporate citizenship?

I’m fortunate to have a leadership role at USAA, a brand that serves our nation’s military community. I’ve had many great teammates along the way, many of whom served our country in the Armed Forces.

Looking back, I think I “accidentally” started practicing corporate citizenship in my first job out of college before I ever dreamed of a Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) career. I worked as a sports editor at a small daily newspaper and felt the paper could do more to show its heart and support local causes.

During the summer, when school was out and the sports season waned, I planned a newspaper-sponsored community fun run called the “Main Street Mile,” with proceeds benefiting a local nonprofit providing pet adoption. It was a simple thing, and families could participate with their pets while supporting the animal shelter with much-needed financial support.

After three years at the newspaper, I received a Mayborn Scholarship to attend graduate school at the University of North Texas, where I earned a master’s degree in journalism. Afterward, I worked for Allstate for 12 years in a function that combined corporate communications and philanthropic grantmaking. ‘

Over the past 16 years at USAA, I’ve learned and grown – sometimes I skinned my knees, but I toughened up and, in an important way, serve and support our nation through my work. My former boss Wendi Strong gave me an opportunity when she appointed me to work for Harriet Dominique on our Corporate Responsibility team, which was then going through a profound reinvention to define and achieve USAA’s vision for corporate citizenship and social impact.

Between 2015-22, USAA’s Corporate Responsibility team directed more than $312M to nonprofit organizations, with 60% in support of active-duty military personnel, veterans, their families, and caregivers. We work closely with many of the most capable and inspirational nonprofits and mobilize USAA’s talented employees to make a profound impact.

Since 2015, USAA employees have personally contributed approximately $61M to nonprofits and logged nearly 1.8M volunteer hours, results that reinforce the company’s core values and put USAA in the top quartile of corporate employee engagement.

While a career within CSR is in and of itself rewarding, doing it for a brand that supports military families’ well-being and resiliency makes it more special to me.

The field is evolving rapidly. What are the most important skills and knowledge citizenship professionals need to stay ahead of the curve and be successful in the future?

The best corporate responsibility professionals are like a Swiss Army knife: multiple sharp, specialized skills to address societal and business challenges and opportunities. The essential skills are business knowledge, CSR expertise, high EQ, and humility.

Other skills and qualities I admire (and strive to cultivate) include strategy design and implementation, creativity, hustle, optimism, good listening, qualitative and quantitative measurement, empathy, and top-notch relationship-building.

What advice or lesson learned do you most often share with members or your team or other CSR professionals?

Many people aspire to do something differently. They want a better job, a fresh challenge, or to reach the next rung on the corporate ladder. My advice: do your current job with your whole heart, to the best of your ability.

Yes, planning for your future and pursuing training and education to build new skills and capabilities is always wise. Don’t let that come at the expense of your current job, and don’t drain your team’s energy. Take personal accountability. Volunteer for that extra assignment. Readily lend a hand to others, including your boss. Be consistently kind to everybody. Make mistakes and learn from them. Strive to get 1% better every day. If you do that, you will build a reputation for excellence that will equip you for new heights.

Taking out your crystal ball, what current trend will still be a force five years from now and why?

The next great frontier in CSR is cross-sector collaboration. Significant and complex societal issues cannot be solved by one entity alone and require leadership and ecosystem change.

Equip your organization to accept a leadership role on issues critical to your business and essential to your stakeholders – and leverage your company’s unique resources and influence to inspire others to work together toward common goals.

Our USAA CR team is currently working on issues of critical importance to our nation’s military community, like mental health and well-being, veteran suicide prevention, and economic mobility. We’re finding innovative ways of working internally and externally to address persistent societal problems.

It’s an exciting time, and I’m blessed to work for a brand that empowers action, boldness, and aspirational goals.

One fun/personal question – who’s someone you admire and why?

I’ve always loved Paul McCartney. He grew up with modest means in post-WW2 England and lost his mom as a young teen. Growing up, he was captivated by American R&B legends.

He developed an unprecedented combination of vocal range, musicianship, and original songwriting alongside his fellow Beatles. As a unit, they were tight. They were outstanding individually, but their sum was greater than their parts. They had put in more than 10,000 hours of work before they came to America. Their level of innovation was unfathomable.

McCartney had a driving work ethic combined with optimism and a social conscience. “Hey, Jude” was a love letter to a child whose parents were divorcing. “Blackbird” was a Civil Rights-era song about social justice. McCartney recalled a time in 1964 when The Beatles refused to play a concert to a segregated audience in Jacksonville, FL, because they knew it was wrong; the concert they eventually performed there was to a non-segregated audience.

My takeaways from Sir Paul: Find the thing that inspires you. Become a student and master of your craft. Push for innovation and teamwork. Along the way, embrace the beauty of diversity, equity, and inclusion, “and then you’ll begin to make it better….”

Thank you again to Justin for joining us! We look forward to continuing our series in May, as we speak with corporate social impact thought leaders and learn more about their journey.

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