Powering a More Inclusive Future Often Starts With Your Organization

on June 19, 2020

This week Cisco held their customer and partner conference with over 120,000 registered attendees across the world as well as 600 analysts and press. The event was initially scheduled for the week of June 1 but was postponed following the killing of Mr. George Floyd and the protests that arose from it.

While many announcements were made during the event in areas such as networking, collaboration and research, I want to talk more about some of the initiatives Cisco spoke about in their corporate social responsibility effort.

In a blog published on Tuesday, Cisco’s CEO, Chuck Robbins, wrote: “We know our responsibilities don’t end with technology. It’s now about making the world we envision possible. Over the past six months, we concluded that our new purpose is to Power an Inclusive Future for All.”

To do that, Cisco developed a framework to guide decisions in how to respond to what they see as a crisis, an injustice, or a global challenge. Four primary pillars of response anchor this:

  • The Most Vulnerable, led by Tae Yoo, SVP, Corporate Affairs, will focus on the non-profits and partners that support underserved communities and those disproportionately impacted by systemic issues and crises.
  • Families and Community, led by Fran Katsoudas, EVP and Chief People Officer, will focus on expanding care and well-being services beyond our employees.
  • Research and Resilience, led by Liz Centoni, SVP Emerging Technologies & Incubation, will focus on technology solutions that can advance healthcare research and address social inequities.
  • Strategic Recovery, led by Maria Martinez, EVP and Chief Customer Experience Officer, will focus on helping healthcare and education institutions adapt their operations so they can continue to provide care to impacted communities and critical pathways to job opportunities during times of uncertainty.

There are two points I really appreciate about these pillars. The first is that they are born from four critical business components: corporate affairs, people, technology and customers. This, to me, is the only way corporate social responsibility is entrenched in the business rather than a project. Being entrenched in the business is what will make it effective because it will drive change while making a difference to the bottom-line.

The second point I appreciate is how these four pillars are entrusted to four senior women leaders of a diverse background. As a woman and someone who follows diversity and inclusion in tech closely, this does not surprise me. Cisco made top lists in the Fortune 2019 Best Workplace for Women, 2018 Best Workplaces for Diversity and just this past March Cisco took 3rd place in the Great Place to Work For All 2020 Leadership Awards.

I have been arguing for a long time that building a great company culture is one of the best ways to attract and retain talent. And not just talent from a skillset perspective but talent that shares your value and is a driver of change within the organization. Listening to Cisco’s Chief People Officer, Fran Katsoudas talk about how they built and scaled a program to support mental health is an excellent example of how to foster a safe space within your organization:

“Mental health is embedded and integrated into everything we do, which is I think exactly where it needs to be. We built some internal response elements around things like “safe to talk,” where our employees create this environment where people can seek out advice or get some help. We have leveraged technology; we have something called talk space where people can text and get some relief as well. When we started having our COVID check-in sessions, where we were just answering basic questions from employees, we had a mental health expert with us to answer questions about anxiety and stress and depression. Our biggest learning is embedding mental health in the conversation make it one of the most natural conversations and helped to acknowledge that mental health is health.”

The role of leaders is undoubtedly becoming more complex as technology and politics become more intertwined, but also as employees are holding their employers accountable in the role they play within society. Over the past few weeks, we have seen many tech companies speaking out against racism and donating to organizations focused on bringing about equality. Still, there is no question that tech, as an industry, could and should be doing more.

Responding to a pandemic is something that nobody will ever be criticized for. One would think that standing up against racism and working towards a more inclusive world would be met with the same degree of positivity. Yet this is not the case. Corporations navigate politics and shareholders and ultimately, it boils down to the conviction of the CEO in doing the right thing.

This week is not the first time we have heard Chuck Robbins talk about the role he wants Cisco and its technology play in the world. For years Cisco has been working with local governments in several countries to close the digital divide by bringing together the private and public sectors and move communities forward. When asked about how a company goes about balancing its employees’ needs with corporate social responsibility while still delivering value to shareholders, Robbins made it very clear:

“It’s a complicated balance that we’re all trying to deal with. But I will tell you two things, as you think about the community efforts, the purpose of the company, what inspires employees and motivates them and makes them excited about showing up, which in turn leads to more innovation, which in turn leads to more success for our customers. I think they’re all connected.”

I will continue to follow closely the steps Cisco will take to drive its vision of inclusion. I hope Chuck Robbins is right in believing this time will be different, that social justice and inequality will remain not just on Cisco’s agenda but on the tech agenda till hard solutions to hard problems are found.