October 4, 2017 Emily Lierle

How GAP, Inc. Ignited Social Change

Corporate America has come a long way in turning HR actions into people strategies. More businesses are adopting forward-thinking people initiatives to jumpstart talent acquisition efforts, fuel employee engagement and spark social change. Though we still have room to grow, GAP, Inc. may be the company to thank for igniting this era.

Gap’s Impact

In 2014, GAP initiated a plan to raise the minimum wage for 60,000 employees. That initiative sparked national conversation, placed GAP on the map as a leader of social change and led the way for other companies to make similar adjustments. 

The minimum wage movement stemmed from a GAP program, which is still being implemented today, called Women In Opportunity. This program was created to improve the experience for women as customers and employees. Seeing the effects of this program, GAP’s leadership team was looking for even more ways to spark social change.

GAP’s former chief human resource officer and senior vice president, Eric Severson, spent over a decade at the company and played a role in initiating the increase in minimum wage to $10.

A factor that influenced this choice was listening to what GAP’s own employees had to say. “We paid a lot of attention to what the majority of our employees, who are millennials, were saying about the role they wanted their company to play in improving the general community and taking a stand on social issues.  We also looked at research, which has conclusively shown that the millennial generation has more faith in the ability of companies to affect positive social change than government. And they want their companies to do that,” he said.

Where We’re at Today

Fast-forward to today and businesses of all sizes are embracing this notion of using company initiatives to take on social issues. More businesses are looking to be change agents for employees, their community and beyond.

A great example of amplifying GAP’s initiative is Seattle-based Gravity Payments, a credit card processing company. The around 120-person company continually makes headlines because of the CEO’s choice to raise minimum wage to $70k a year  and taking a pay cut to do so. Since the announcement in 2016, the company reports an increase in employee engagement, an influx in applicants and higher customer retention rates.

Last year, Starbucks announced a wage boost for all employees and even a boost of stock awards for employees who had been there two years or more. Starbucks has also received praise for its other social initiatives like, hiring military and paying college tuition for employees.

Making an impact doesn’t have to involve just wage alone. Recently, the U.S. arm of Deloitte has been applauded for its emphasis for advancing women in the workplace. The company provides flexible schedules, extended family leave, a women’s network and a sponsorship program for senior employees to mentor junior employees. The Deloitte Women’s Leadership Launch is a yearly conference held to give women employees that are Master’s degree candidates a chance to network with industry executives.

Deloitte’s inclusion efforts are a piece of a bigger strategy to keep and attract talent. Last year, the company hired 20,000 people and 66% was made up of women and minorities, without a guideline on diversity in the recruitment process.

Implementing people-focused initiatives  isn’t just a “good” thing to do. Investing in employees, whether that be actual income or other types of benefits, is emerging as a key component of attracting and retaining talent. Research shows that the millennial generation is more interested in working for a company that places value on purpose and social impact.

Businesses don’t have to make a huge statement to make an impact. A simple way to be apart of the change is creating a modern office environment and a clear purpose-driven culture. Some companies choose to give paid time off for employees to volunteer and others are paying employee student loan debt.

Creating a social impact may not always be easy, but it can be very rewarding.

“What became very clear to us is that companies that are first movers on important social issues can have an impact much beyond their own workforce,” Severson said of GAP’s original initiative.

How is your business making an impact on employees? The community? The world?

(Originally published in an interview with Brian Mohr on the Built on Purpose podcast. Listen to the Eric Severson’s full interview here and more interviews at yscouts.com/podcasts.)


Y Scouts, a leadership search firm, finds purpose-aligned as well as performance-proven leaders to help organizations achieve their missions faster. Ready to supercharge your leadership search and get the right person in your organization? Contact Y Scouts.