Interview with Shari Slate, Chief Inclusion & Collaboration Officer, Senior VP Inclusive Future and Strategy at Cisco

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Q: As a global technology leader, how is Cisco supporting its workforce in the face of the COVID-19 Pandemic? How will your decisions now impact the future of the way you work? 

Shari Slate, Chief Inclusion and Collaboration Officer , Senior Vice President Inclusive Future and Strategy at Cisco

Shari Slate: At Cisco, supporting our global workforce in these challenging times is a top priority. We certainly didn’t foresee the pandemic, but in so many ways we were ready for it. For the past several years, we’ve focused on creating what we call our Conscious Culture – an inclusive, people-centered workplace designed to optimize the ways we experience Cisco every day. Everyone owns the environment and experience. We believe it is this ownership – along with high degrees of transparency and trust – that allows us to support each other and continue to do our best work. 

The pandemic has expanded our understanding of what it truly takes to pull together in times of uncertainty. We’re accelerating and amplifying key aspects of Cisco culture – like our now weekly Check-In videoconferences with our CEO Chuck Robbins and our Chief People Officer Fran Katsoudas and the entire Executive Leadership Team. We don’t shy away from critical conversations on topics like mental well-being. These conversations have led to a whole new set of solutions for achieving health goals digitally for Cisco employees, their families, and the community. As an example, our U.S. employees can now share a free emotional crisis support helpline with friends and family who don’t have access to resources. We’re also reaching across our communities to embrace the needs of families. We provided free care to children of first responders in cities across the U.S. in partnership with #FirstRespondersFirst and Bright Horizons. COVID-19 has also reminded us of the compounding effect of underlying health issues such as diabetes, heart disease, and depression. We’re now offering a set of solutions that leverage technology and personalized health support to help our people and health professionals better manage these issues. 

Being connected – checking in – leaning into difficult issues– acknowledging the physical, mental, and emotional impacts – and delivering real solutions are part of our Conscious Culture. They are critical to our ability to adapt – and to continue to innovate, thrive and succeed as a company. We’re also elevating the ways that we support and strengthen our capabilities to work remotely in the face of the pandemic. We’ve encouraged flexibility and work from anywhere options for quite some time. The pandemic is creating an opportunity for us to take our proficiency in virtual collaboration to the next level given that working virtually has shifted to full time necessity. Webex – the leading enterprise solution for video conferencing and online meetings – is a Cisco platform. We know through years of thought leadership development with both diversity and technology leaders that the skillful use of collaboration tools can accelerate an inclusive and innovative work environment. We believe it is an imperative to ensure that the right mind set – and a solid skill set – to make sure that diverse perspectives and ideas are engaged and encouraged, and that people feel welcome, respected, valued and heard in a virtual environment. 

We believe that the actions we are taking and the decisions that we are making now will outlast the pandemic and fundamentally change the way we support our people — for the better. 

Q: What other developments are you seeing in your company due to the current climate – whether it be the pandemic, the social justice crisis, or other challenges? 

Shari Slate: This convergence of the global pandemic, economic insecurity, and the social justice crisis in the United States have inspired us to act in a bold, deliberate, and intentional way. 

In response to the pandemic, we committed $225 million in cash, in-kind, and planned-giving to support both the global and local response to COVID-19, focusing these resources on supporting healthcare and education, government response and critical technology. Part of the funds went to the United Nations Foundation’s COVID-19 Solidarity Response Fund, supporting the World Health Organization’s (WHO) worldwide efforts to help prevent, detect, and manage the spread of COVID-19. We’ve also rallied our 77,000+ employees – launching a “Let’s Give Together” giving campaign and a gift matching campaign through the Cisco Foundation. So far, our employees’ giving plus the Cisco Foundation match have raised over $3.3 Million. 

We’re getting behind those on the frontlines of the pandemic and those who are most at risk. In Santa Clara County, the home of Cisco headquarters, we are supporting Destination: Home in providing financial assistance and resources to individuals and households who would be at risk of homelessness due to coronavirus-related illness. With help from our partners, we have brought video conferencing and networking solutions to medical facilities and doctors as well as schools in China, Italy, and South Korea. We’ve donated over $1M worth of collaboration and networking technologies globally, with more to come. 

In September, we unveiled to the public Cisco’s Social Justice Beliefs and Our Commitment to Action – the latest milestone in our journey to fight injustice and inequality. Over the years, we’ve taken a stand — and considerable actions — to help protect the equal rights, safety, and dignity of our people and our communities around the world. We firmly believe in Technology for Good; Commitment to Justice; Addressing Insecurity of Being; Culture of Coalescence; and Curiosity, Proximity and Empathy. And these beliefs are constant, serving as an ever-present inspiration for our team and for Cisco globally.

 We believe that what affects any one of us affects all of us. So – in this year marked by unprecedented events and unimaginable tragedies – we are creating a bridge. We are connecting long standing challenges with new possibilities for overcoming them. Cisco’s Social Justice Beliefs and Our Commitment to Action will enable bold, deliberate, intentional action whenever – and wherever — we see injustice and inequality. Those actions are fundamental to our vision of powering an Inclusive Future for all. 

And – in the name of supporting everyone’s commitment to action – we’re giving Cisco employees across the globe encouragement to vote by giving each their respective election day as a holiday. 

Q: How does Cisco view the digital divide – and what are you doing to help bridge the gap in access to technology for all regardless of socioeconomic status?

Shari Slate: We believe that access to broadband internet is a universal human right – not a privilege. Without it, no individual – no community – no country can reach full potential in the digital world. The pandemic is shining a spotlight on undeniable truths about the inadequacies of our digital infrastructure and the inequities within access to our digital world. According to data from the UN Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), about half of the world’s population is unconnected. That’s 3.7 billion people without access to critical services, education, telemedicine, and opportunities to establish and grow a business or career. At a time when the coronavirus crisis is accelerating digital solutions, tools, and services – speeding up the global transition towards a digital economy – it’s also exposing the widening gap between the connected and the unconnected. 

UNESCO also reports that COVID-related school closures have impacted one and a half billion students across 188 countries. For some of those students it was a challenge – adapting to a new normal – to attend school online. For the millions of unconnected students, it was a hard stop. Imagine the long term impact on those children – on their families and communities already devastated by the pandemic. That impact could last for generations. The UN estimates that bridging the divide will improve the world’s economy by $7 billion and lift 500 million people out of poverty. 

At Cisco, we believe we have a moral and economic obligation to close the digital divide so that no one is left behind. We’re taking the lead in bringing together government leaders, industries, academia, and nonprofits from around the world to accelerate bridging the digital divide by directing our energy to creating solutions that move the world toward global inclusion. Solutions that not only overcome the challenges of accessibility and affordability – but also close the gap in digital literacy. That’s a key issue for 25% of all adults – and a major roadblock for inclusion in the digital economy. 

We’re putting ideas in action to revolutionize the current model for digital access, including expanding our own Country Digital Acceleration (CDA) Program. We’ve been partnering with government leadership teams all over the world since 2015 and we’re now active in 34 countries. Our relationships have been key in responding to the pandemic quickly and strategically by deploying resources to areas that need the most relief. We have more than 70 COVID related projects underway to enable remote work, support education and health care, and improve public safety, and support our first responders in the fight against the virus. 

As the executive sponsor for the Caribbean, I have been closely tied to Cisco’s Country Digital Acceleration initiatives in the Cayman Islands. We’ve been working to accelerate digitization in Cayman since last year, starting with a new Cisco Networking academy at the University College of Cayman Islands (UCCI), and exploring ways to support UCCI’s vision to be a ‘nation builder’. When the pandemic hit and the government initiated a 3-month lockdown, we turned our immediate focus to solutions to provide free public Internet access once the Islands reopened. Free public internet addressed two fundamental issues. First, it helped the people of Cayman maintain connection with their families, friends, and online resources in a time of crisis. Most people on the islands have internet connectivity solely through their mobile device. And most pre-pay for their service. The economic downtown and job loss meant that many could not afford basic access. Free access solved that – and left no one behind. Second, universal access helped businesses and governments fully make the shift to online services and operations to limit physical interaction and contain the spread of the virus. 

This solution has been critical in helping the people in Cayman not only work through this time of crisis but also position the country to foster regrowth and reinvention post-COVID. 

Q: As an Inclusion leader, what key lessons have you learned along the way during these challenging times? Any words of advice?

Shari Slate: So many – but I’ll focus on three lessons that I believe have been fundamental over these past months. 

  1. Pay close attention to your people. Checking in with your teams is more important now than ever. During this time, people are isolated from family and friends and working from home without physical connection to colleagues. As a result, we’re seeing increased loneliness, especially for those employees that live alone. So, we need to ensure we keep fostering connection. Make sure you are supporting the mental well-being of your team. Make sure each person knows that it is okay to not be okay today. It is ok to  go on a walk during meetings. Ensuring your people know how to engage the necessary resources if they need help and support. That level of acceptance is critical. Not everyone has the same capacity to articulate where they are mentally, emotionally, and physically in a time of individual and collective crisis. It helps to create regular forums for open and courageous conversation that leads to a true understanding of what support is needed.

  2. Make sure no one is left behind when it comes to getting good at working remotely. Everyone on your team will have a different level of proficiency in working from anywhere. Make sure that everyone has access to the tools and support to work from anywhere effectively and successfully. It is critical to make resources available to learn the basic level functionality of the tools that keep them connected and collaborating.

  3. Give back – together. One of the best ways to deal with our own anxiety and overwhelm is to focus on doing something for someone with needs we can fulfill. Creating that opportunity as a team or a company amplifies the impact. Inspire action and create an impact together!

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