Hyundai's Zafar Brooks; Leading the Fight Against Childhood Cancer

by Stacy Straczynski

Zafar Brooks has managed Hyundai Motor America’s corporate-social-responsibility initiatives for the last six years. He has successfully helped transform the Korean car manufacturer’s philanthropic outreach into a multimillion-dollar initiative that drives brand advocacy and, most importantly, makes a difference. The Director of Governmental Affairs, Corporate Social Responsibility and Diversity Inclusion emphasizes that this success has been a team effort and that he has learned from others.

“There are many men and women who have been in this work a long time who have great lessons to teach,” Brooks says. Compared to them, “I’m a novice,” he says.

Personal Connection

When he started at Hyundai in 2006, after stints at Volkswagen and Ford Motor Company, Brooks says he did not have a direct connection to corporate social responsibility. Brooks had his aha moment when he went on a tour of one of the children’s hospitals for which Hyundai provides cancer-research funding.

“I’ve done a lot of great things, from leading marketing departments and managing millions of dollars for divisions, but nothing that had this level of importance,” says Brooks. “These were life-and-death issues, people for whom the alternative could not be any worse. That evoked and inspired a level of passion in me I had not had over a single issue before.”

The experience of meeting the children diagnosed with cancer, and their families, recalled for Brooks a time when he felt equally powerless and needed to rely on the expertise of doctors. Brooks’ son, who was only 14 at the time, contracted a terrible sinus infection that quickly became a concern, and it resulted in two emergency surgeries within days.

“They said our best-case scenario was he’d lose his eye, but said the infection could spread to his brain,” said Brooks. “I was helpless. The only person I could rely on, in addition to my own faith, was this doctor.” Fortunately, the surgeries were successful, and his son is now healthy and has vision in both eyes.

“We all have experiences that shape us in life. My experience with my son—as a worried parent—shaped me so I could have empathy for these families and understand what they are praying and hoping for,” Brooks says.

Corporate Social Responsibility: Building Business Value

Brooks drives Hyundai’s corporate social responsibility in these priority areas: educational success; helping children, which includes funding cancer research, Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MAAD) and outreach to children with autism; environmental responsibility; and being a good community partner via blood drives, donations to local causes like Hurricane Sandy relief, and celebrating arts and culture.

The largest effort by far, according to Brooks, is finding a cure for childhood cancer via Hyundai Hope on Wheels. Brooks, who runs the day-to-day operations of the nonprofit foundation, holds one of two corporate seats on the eight-member board.

“It’s a joint effort—we give plus we match contributions from dealers. By the end of 2013, Hyundai will have awarded $72 million in research grants since 1998,” says Brooks.

Brooks feels that Hyundai customers understand that the company is trying to do social good, to be a part of the solution. “That’s what differentiates our brand from other brands—we’re committed to solving society’s problems.”

He adds, “Corporate social responsibility speaks to the heart of the human experience—and that means doing this work together.”

Brooks’ foray into corporate social responsibility began in 2007, following Hyundai Motor America’s reorganization under President and CEO John Krafcik. Brooks was offered a new opportunity to manage the company’s government leads, which he accepted, and additionally he volunteered to manage Hyundai’s philanthropic initiatives. These included the Hyundai Hope on Wheels pediatric-cancer program.

“It was a very happy accident where government relations and diversity had been reorganized under my responsibility,” says Brooks. “After a while, I started doing all corporate responsibility work and it just grew from there very organically.”

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