Toyota Motor North America (TMNA)* is the University of Michigan’s second largest corporate partner. Connections in research and philanthropic support of students, student organizations, and programs are found in most schools and colleges across campus. The breadth of their connections is a reflection of their shared investment in priorities that are important to both organizations.
As a unit that works closely with Toyota to connect them with programs and faculty across campus, the BEC understands the deep nature of Toyota’s commitment to ideals that the University of Michigan shares. Toyota was recognized recently by Diversity Inc. as one of the top 10 diversity employers in the country, and their engagement in programs that support diversity, access and equity serve as a strong case study for other companies that work in academic settings.
*Toyota’s subsidiaries Toyota Research Institute and Toyota Research and Development represent the bulk of Toyota’s relationship at U-M. They both have active facilities within 5 miles of the Ann Arbor campus.
A focus on mobility
Much of Toyota’s community relations can be summed up under the auspices of mobility. This probably comes as no surprise for the company many of us think of as a major automobile manufacturer. What is less obvious is the variety of mobility platforms at Toyota – from elder care to health care to equity in transportation.
It is fitting that Toyota’s community engagement takes many approaches, from investments in STEM education, arts, environmental sustainability, and safety.
U-M alum, parent and Group Vice President – TMNA Advanced Mobility Research & Development in Saline, Jeff Makarewicz explains, “We’re focused on mobility for all in a variety of forms. Our goal is to improve the quality of life by finding better ways to move and connect people and things, with a primary focus on safety, freedom of movement, and sustainability. This also includes upward mobility – how do we help people in our community move upward, have access to food and alleviate food insecurity. We want to help with social equity and are putting funds into those areas.”
Many of Toyota’s connections serve as best practices for companies that want to move the needle on a diverse workforce, partner on pilot initiatives, provide equitable access for students, and fund areas on campus and in the community that meet the mobility needs of the most vulnerable.
Most recently, the vulnerable turned out to be Michigan Medicine’s front-line healthcare workers in the face of a global pandemic.
Quick COVID commitments
When COVID-19 hit, Toyota contacted their BEC liaison, Senior Director Umesh Patel. Patel connected Toyota with Michigan Medicine to understand the hospital system’s needs. Since the local facilities had shifted manufacturing to make high quality, hospital grade face shields, this coordinated effort yielded a delivery of 5,000 face shields to U-M hospital staff.
While all of that was happening, Toyota employees went to work and cleaned out their supplies of PPE. Very early in the pandemic, donations were sent to Michigan Medicine – over 7,000 pieces, filling an entire Michigan developed Toyota Tacoma truck.
“This was a great effort on the part of Toyota team members to collect all the PPE and work with Umesh on getting it where it was most needed. This process gave us a conduit to communicate with the university. Umesh followed up and alleviated pressure from the hospital to coordinate direction. Having the BEC as a go-between allowed us to simplify and make transactions occur swiftly.”” shares Praveena Ramaswami, lead for community relations at Toyota R&D.
Toyota’s support went far beyond U-M. In light of increasing needs at local nonprofits, Toyota donated five Toyota Sienna vehicles to programs like Meals on Wheels – vehicles that happen to be designed, engineered and procured in Washtenaw County.
“These were organizations that faced mobility challenges in light of COVID-19 – serving veterans, families, homeless populations, those dependent on Meals on Wheels. The coronavirus forced organizations to pivot and find out how to safely deploy services in a new way. We were in a position to give them a Sienna minivan to meet the immediate demand in our own community where we also work and live,” comments Ramaswami. In just the first few weeks of the pandemic, the van donated to Meals on Wheels delivered 3,800 pounds of food.
Diversity pipeline support
The shared value of a diverse workforce is an area of significant commitment for both Toyota and U-M. This has made it easy to work together on U-M programs that aim to develop a pipeline for a diverse workforce and support underrepresented students.
One of those efforts was to partner with Wolverine Pathways, piloting local industry internships for high school students in the program. Six students held internships at Toyota’s Saline facility in 2019, giving them the opportunity to learn about a career in engineering, take on a project for the summer, and get support throughout the process that most internships don’t provide – like door to door transportation. The students networked, learned about engineering careers, earned a paycheck, and had the chance to do work beyond the scope of most high school summer jobs. At the end of the summer, the interns presented a summary of their experience and students and staff alike benefited from participating.
Meg Wallace, a Senior Engineer focused on diversity and engagement, comments, “Programs like Wolverine Pathways are unique and creative. We wouldn’t be able to reach these students so easily on our own. The students who get into the program are driven and exceptional – persistent and resilient, not just smart – and Wolverine Pathways works hard to find high potential students to participate.”
The pandemic in 2020 shifted the program to ten virtual mentorships. Makarewicz continues, “We lost the opportunity for face-to-face relationship building and hands-on experience. However, in the Toyota Way spirit of respect for people and continuous improvement, we brought the learning experience to the students virtually using the latest in remote technology. This was important, because part of our mission is to inspire students and ignite a passion for STEM learning – and as the program’s name suggests, building a pathway for future success. It’s difficult to build these diverse pipelines on our own, so we’re thrilled to be able to partner with Wolverine Pathways on a pilot internship program like this.”
Toyota acknowledges the other benefit of partnering with U-M is proximity. With three research centers within five miles of North Campus, there is broad access to the university. Makarewicz shares, “We believe our makeup as an organization should represent our customer base. To that end, we want to hire a diverse workforce. Working with Wolverine Pathways is a great example of how we can build programs to do that. It’s not just about providing money, we want to engage with the students, expose them to our culture, and get them excited about a STEM education and a possible career in the automotive industry. Through Wolverine Pathways, U-M College of Engineering’s Center for Engineering Diversity Outreach (CEDO), and Summer Works mentoring programs, we have a pathway to engage students from K-12, college, and hopefully beyond.”
In 2018, Toyota gave $1 million to U-M to fund two STEM programs for underrepresented minorities on campus. The first, the Bridges to the Doctorate program, provides fellowship support for top domestic master’s students from diverse backgrounds with a strong interest in transitioning into a Ph.D. program and the academic potential to do so.
The second funding program provides scholarship support for students from dual-degree partner schools in the Atlanta University Center consortium (AUC), an association of historically black colleges and universities. Through the AUC’s Dual Degree Engineering Program (DDEP), students receive both a BS from the HBCU and a BSE from U-M.
Mobility and access in the community
Town and gown events are another way Toyota connects to university programs that benefit the local community.
The Big House 5k draws participants from all over the area to run for a cause and Toyota is a key sponsor of the annual event. Ramaswami says, “Every year we have hundreds of team members who run in it – this year we had almost 500 team members and family members registered to participate.” Since the event was canceled, Toyota gave the sponsorship funds allocated toward the event to community participating nonprofit organizations.
The company funds community programs like the Ann Arbor Summer Festival, most recently challenging the event to work towards a zero-waste program which the festival reached a 84% diversion rate in 2019. Ramaswami continues, “We look at environmental sustainability, education and action with the goal that a clean environment needs to be equitable and accessible to all.”
You can find Toyota sponsorship notices on many events and programs around the southeastern Michigan area, but the central hub for their partnerships stems from the University of Michigan. At the Business Engagement Center, our efforts to connect Toyota to programs that benefit people who need it most are made easier with a corporate partner strongly committed to diversity, equity and inclusion.
Broadly examining diversity as a mobility issue has led to a plethora of connections at U-M that impacts Toyota, the university, and the community around us. Makarewicz comments, “We’ve been neighbors with the university for over 40 years, so there’s a natural and positive symbiotic partnership. We believe that U-M’s outreach for giving underserved youth opportunities to have upward mobility and exposure to the world of STEM is critical, and we are proud to partner in these programs. It’s a win-win situation.”