Building community engagement from the ground up: How Alex Price and his team developed and launched Office Depot’s signature “Start Proud” program

In the past couple of years, Office Depot's new CEO has emphasized the need for them to refocus their CSR efforts on key issues that make a meaningful impact.

It was quite an experience to go to all these markets and connect with the teachers and schools. Alex Price
And, as National Director of Community Investment Alex Price was thinking through that transition, Office Depot's commitment to supporting the future of work stood out to him.

“We're all about supporting the future of work from a community standpoint,” said Alex. “But, it's also our responsibility to do all we can to make sure it's a future that's accessible to all.”

Alex and his team were tasked with creating a program to support that accessibility. That program became “Start Proud,” one of Office Depot's biggest community engagement programs to date.

Development around Start Proud officially kicked off in 2018 — and Alex quickly zeroed in on the impact they could have in schools.

Alex started by bringing two community leaders onto his team, and the three of them were tasked with launching the program. At first, Alex said, the task was just to create something — and they had only a couple of months to figure out exactly what that would look like.

Alex and his team agreed they wanted to create a program in partnership with individual schools that had under-served student populations to transform the way they started their year.

Alex and his team decided to plan around cities where Office Depot had large employee bases and the kinds of school supplies they stocked — focusing on backpacks and the necessary supplies to fill them.

The cities where they decided to launch the program included San Francisco, Detroit, Phoenix, Charlotte, and Atlanta — and their surrounding metro areas.

Then, they worked to identify the right merchants for their back-to-school product lines and asked about the ideal backpack and contents for the average U.S. elementary school student. From those conversations, they put together a list of the 25 most-needed items that they could compile in a backpack and provide to the students.

They partnered with public school officials in their launch cities to select the 10 schools that could most benefit from the program.

Those ambassadors are now our arms, legs, heads, and hearts in these communities, and we manage them from afar. Alex Price
“We knew we weren't experts in selecting schools,” said Alex. “So, we went to the big urban school districts and talked with the superintendent and the Title I office to find the school in their district that most needed a boost.”

After finalizing their list of schools, they set the launch for spring 2018 to ensure participating families would get the economic relief they needed and wouldn't have to think about back-to-school shopping over the summer.

Once they had the schools and backpacks set, Alex and his team decided to further increase the program's impact by supporting the teachers as well.

“We started thinking about the teachers spending hundreds of dollars out of pocket every year for supplies,” said Alex. “We knew we wanted this program to be for them, too.”

They worked with their local stores in each of the metro markets where they were planning to launch and put together supply drives for the teachers. Soon, he said they accumulated several pallets of supplies — enough to support all the teachers at that school for at least an entire semester.

Then, Alex and his team decided on a third element for the program: All Star Teachers.

We want our associates to be those out in their communities, taking emotional ownership of their communities and running our programs. Alex Price
“We knew every school we partnered with had an all star teacher who has been exceptional outside of the classroom,” said Alex. “That was the last thing we decided to add to our annual program. Each partner school helps us identify that teacher and their story, and we award them with a couple thousand dollars' worth of premiere supplies like desk printers, computers, shredders, and deluxe chairs.”

When it came time to deliver the supplies and backpacks, Alex and his two-person team went on a six-week roadshow across the country.

“It was quite an experience to go to all these markets and connect with the teachers and schools,” he said. “Everyone we interacted with as we were distributing all the supplies just wanted to see their communities be lifted up. They felt personally invested in the program.”

After the first year of the program was a success, Alex and his team continued thinking of ways to improve their offering.

The first thing they did was grow their roster of 10 schools to 20 — with Alex hoping to increase that number to 30 or 40 in the coming years. Then, they looked at improving the quality of the supplies themselves.

The best way to change a culture is to create these shared experiences that bring your best attributes to life. Alex Price
“The backpack was always a great gift, but we wanted the backpack to be as nice as possible,” said Alex. “So, we put resources into having a high-quality backpack, and we're putting in even more supplies. We made the offering more robust this year, and next year we're just going to keep growing that.”

As they worked to evolve the program this past year, Alex said their greatest asset has been their associates across the country.

Alex emphasized that getting the teacher supplies together and assembling the student backpack is a major logistical operation — and requires a lot of help to get done in time.

To support that process, Alex and his team turned the pre-work and assembly into its own standalone volunteer event for Office Depot team members to participate in.

“In each of these markets a few weeks before delivery day, our associates and family members all get together for a half day of assembling a thousand backpacks,” he said. “We turn it into a big party. Every year I can't believe we pulled it off and with everyone doing this outside of their day job.”

To ensure their associates remained bought into the program for the coming years, they created a Community Ambassador Network.

That network includes 25 ambassadors in each of Office Depot's hubs. Each of those ambassadors makes an annual commitment to supporting the program and getting the word out in their city when it comes time to assemble all the supplies.

“Those ambassadors are now our arms, legs, heads, and hearts in these communities, and we manage them from afar,” said Alex.

According to Alex, this emphasis on employee engagement has been critical to embedding Start Proud in their company culture.

“My team is there to help guide, consult, provide resources, direct, coach, and inspire,” he said. “But we want our associates to be those out in their communities, taking emotional ownership of their communities and running our programs.”

If you have unique services, expertise, or products that can really help your communities, something amazing can happen there. Alex Price
Alex said this program has become an energizer and inspiration for their associates. And now, as they enter their third year, he said Start Proud has become the heartbeat of the company.

“The best way to change a culture is to create these shared experiences that bring your best attributes to life,” he said. “These events have become almost like a festival, both for our associates and for the communities we've launched in.”

Looking back, Alex said Start Proud has worked so well because it's authentic and true to Office Depot.

He emphasized that, while all giving is good, it becomes excellent when your community investment aligns with your core competencies and values as a company.

“If you have unique services, expertise, or products that can really help your communities, something amazing can happen there,” said Alex. “And there's a pride you can see in your associates when that alignment is there and they can get involved.”

When building a signature community engagement program like this from the ground up, Alex said never be afraid to start small.

“Sometimes it can be a mountain to climb to get an executive team to sign off on a bold idea,” he said. “But, never be afraid to suggest a small-scale pilot. It's a lower barrier to get to approval. If you didn't hit the mark, you haven't wasted an awful lot of time or resources. And you learn each time.”

More than anything, he said, success comes from getting creative and using everything you have in your toolbox.

Alex Price has been a member of the CSR Board since 2020. You can follow him on LinkedIn and learn more about Office Depot's CSR efforts here.