Home history The importance of education The importance of education
To build a skilled workforce and a vibrant society, IBM has pledged technology, expertise and funds to students and teachers around the world
Back-of-a-classroom view of students looking at a woman standing at a chalkboard behind a desk at a Key punching school in Mexico in 1955

Throughout the company’s history, IBM’s contributions to public education have stemmed from both practical and aspirational goals. Thomas J. Watson Sr. viewed and promoted learning as the path to personal success. But IBM, being at the edge of scientific and technological innovation, could not ignore its dependence on a highly skilled workforce to remain competitive. For both reasons, the company has actively worked to fund and build primary and secondary school initiatives that impart skills students will need in the marketplace of tomorrow. This was true 30, or even 80, years ago, when soldiers returned home to the US from war to the promise of a dynamic and prosperous society. And it remains true today.

“Education is central to national prosperity in an increasingly competitive world,” IBM Chairman John Akers said in 1990, echoing a statement made by Watson Sr. decades prior, just after World War II. “Every year marks a greater demand for more well-trained minds in order to meet the challenge of a changing world,” Watson said. “This causes us to give consideration to greater financial backing for educational institutions.”

Over the years, IBM has also encouraged employees to donate their time and expertise to education-related causes. In 1961, Thomas Watson Jr. appealed to staff to get involved in local schools as advisers, public speakers and advocates, or board leaders, promising every reasonable accommodation to support them. The challenge, he said, was improving “our system of education so it can give our children an education adequate to the needs of tomorrow’s world.”

Teaching technology

From the early to mid-20th century, IBM’s education reform efforts focused primarily on university collaborations, which involved establishing computing centers and donating teaching resources. The company became a motivated partner, subsidizing 60% of the cost of its data processing systems in the 1950s to hasten their uptake in the halls of higher learning.


It also pledged money and talent. IBM established a Matching Grants to Education Program that doubled an employee’s contributions to the college they had chosen.


The company began loaning out employees to colleges serving students of color and of diverse abilities under its Faculty Loan Program. IBMers were offered paid leave to teach for a full academic year.


IBM received recognition from President Ronald Reagan for “outstanding contributions to the development of science and engineering programs at historically Black colleges and universities.”

Mass adoption of the personal computer in the 1980s opened expansive new channels for IBM to reach young minds. Just as it had been doing with businesses for decades, the company fine-tuned technology for K-12 students to accelerate learning and help build new skills. Its goal was to “harness the technological dynamics of the computer so that students can reach their maximum capacity to learn.”

Every year marks a greater demand for more well-trained minds in order to meet the challenge of a changing world Thomas J. Watson Sr. IBM CEO
A growing K-12 crisis

IBM’s leaders had for decades recognized the challenges facing public education, but as the new millennium approached, their calls to action grew more urgent. “From kindergarten to high school, American education is in trouble,” Akers said in 1990. “For as long as it takes, we are ready to work in partnerships with others to help build a world-class educational system.” Among 11 new programs announced in 1989 and 1990, the company committed more than USD 59 million over five years in grants of money, technology and technical support.

And it began to work more intensely in the area of public education policy. Akers chaired the Education Task Force of the Business Roundtable, a group of CEOs from 200 of the largest US corporations. Members of the BRT agreed to a 10-year commitment of personal time and company resources to work with state governors and other stakeholders for systemic change in K-12 education. Akers also served on President George Bush’s Education Policy Advisory Committee.

Reinventing education

Of all the executives at IBM calling for education reform, CEO Louis Gerstner was perhaps the most vocal. He made improving public education his lifelong mission and called it the company’s “number-one philanthropic cause, and the most visible example of our commitment to good corporate citizenship.”

In 1994, the company launched Reinventing Education, a groundbreaking school reform program to support secondary school achievement and teacher development. The program focused on “radical” change at the district level, pledging USD 25 million in grants to communities based on high academic standards, a willingness to pursue school reform in innovative new ways and a clear plan for using technology to help bring about change.

Sam Palmisano took up the mantle in 2002, announcing a USD 15 million grant program for training US public school teachers. With the grants, the company’s investment in Reinventing Education reached USD 70 million. That same year, Business Ethics magazine ranked IBM among 650 US public companies as its “Top Corporate Citizen” of the year for policies and programs, including Reinventing Education.

In the years since, the company has remained steadfast in its commitment to public education and has become increasingly creative about the mission. It even enlisted Elmo to help, partnering in 2016 with the Sesame Workshop to advance preschool education worldwide using its Watson cognitive computing technology.

Today, IBM focuses on programs that support education equity and workplace inclusion through a variety of initiatives. The company has committed to training 30 million people by 2030 for the jobs of tomorrow through SkillsBuild, a free education program focused on serving underrepresented communities. “Talent is everywhere; training opportunities are not,” said Arvind Krishna, IBM chair and CEO. The program offers an online platform where participants can earn market-recognized digital learning credentials from more than 1,000 courses in 19 languages. The extensive offering is a good reminder of Watson Sr.’s famous adage that “there is no saturation point in education.”

Talent is everywhere; training opportunities are not Arvind Krishna IBM chairman and CEO
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