BELLEVUE, Wash. — The QA portion of Microsoft’s annual meeting is the one time each year that shareholders in the company get to stand up and grill the top executives about anything and everything, from serious matters of politics, the environment and the health of the business to the occasional offbeat proposal. This year was no different as shareholders close to home in the Seattle area and as far away as Germany fired off questions of the company’s leaders.
At a time when Microsoft is neck-and-neck with Apple for the title of the most valuable company in the U.S., shareholders surprisingly didn’t mention the company’s market value or its stock price. In years past, when the company’s shares were stagnating, Microsoft’s stock and Wall Street’s opinion of the company were recurring subjects of criticism for shareholders asking questions.
Early on in the session, Microsoft President and Chief Legal Officer Brad Smith called up Rev. Jesse Jackson, who, fresh off an appearance with Gov. Jay Inslee at the Washington STEM Summit yesterday, was waiting in line to speak. Jackson has appeared at Microsoft and Amazon shareholder meetings in the past, and he has commented on a wide range of subjects, from privacy and security to incarceration of minorities to the importance of diversity and inclusion in technology.
“Inclusion leads to growth, and when there is growth everybody wins,” Jackson said.
Jackson lauded Microsoft for its work on diversity and inclusion at some levels, citing leaders such as John Thompson, Microsoft’s board chair. He implored Microsoft and the rest of the technology industry to work harder at reaching out to underrepresented minorities.
Here’s what Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella had to say to Jackson:
Diversity and inclusion is a very core priority for us, in fact even compensation for me and the senior leadership team is tied to actually making progress on this year over year. And just a couple of weeks ago we released our annual report, which shows in a very transparent way all of our diversity statistics. It’s good to see the progress we are making, whether it is ethnic and racial diversity or whether it is gender diversity, there is progress. But we are grounded that there is a lot more distance to cover and every year, and every day we continue to push.
Specifically in the black and hispanic communities, one of the new initiatives we started was to go to 50-plus institutions, which are HBCUs as well as predominately latino and hispanic colleges, and we are now able to attract a much more diverse student body. The intern class that I spend a lot of time with each year is more diverse than ever before, each year we are more diverse. And the entering class reflects that.
One of the other things we are working on is inclusion. Once you get diversity in, one of the main things that is going to keep them at Microsoft is their ability to find that sense of inclusion and belonging inside the Microsoft community. We are working on that everyday, which means everyone at Microsoft need to be trained and mindful and practice the inclusive behaviors.
In responding to Jackson, Microsoft CFO Amy Hood pointed to a Microsoft initiative to work with minority-owned businesses as partners and vendors. Smith addressed privacy, renewing his frequent call for federal regulations. When legislation is passed, Smith said it will be “a good day for people, and it will be a good day for the industry because it will give people the confidence they deserve when using our industry’s products.”
Other investors were curious about Microsoft’s plans for Skype, Xbox games for the blind and LinkedIn’s ability to help students.
A few questions delved into the company’s past. One Windows 7 user said the Internet Explorer browser in that operating system doesn’t load a lot of key features of websites and asked why Microsoft is “outsourcing browser support on an OS that so many users are still using.”
Smith fielded that one, answering with a grin: “You might consider Windows 10.”
It wouldn’t be a Microsoft event without a little inside baseball that is definitely over the head of everyone but the most devoted followers of the company. One shareholder referenced the original X-shaped buildings that are scheduled to come down as part of sweeping refresh of the Microsoft campus, noting how “prophetic the early founders were in buildings 1-10 because they look like Xboxes.”
He suggested Microsoft install a K-12 Renaissance School as part of the campus renovation project. He recommended naming it after the mythical Building 7, which is stuff of legend.
And who would run the school? “The original software architect,” the shareholder said, referring to co-founder Bill Gates, who was in the room.
The Microsoft execs chuckled at the idea, though Smith used the opportunity to talk about the company’s desire to make the tools that help schools around the world. But it doesn’t sound like that the proposal is going to show up in the newest plans for the campus renovation.
“I think we are better served being inspired by your idea than pursuing every aspect of its literal interpretation,” Smith said.