Supporting Social Justice: A Q&A with Cisco’s Shari Slate

Global HR

​Protests and social unrest over racism, the killing of Black individuals and the workplace inequity that people from underrepresented communities experience have prompted employees, clients and customers to look to the organizations where they work and the businesses they patronize to use their resources to make a tangible difference.

In response, Cisco created the
Social Justice Beliefs and Commitment to Action initiative, a five-year plan to invest in partnerships, programs and its own operations to support social justice work.

SHRM Online reached out to Shari Slate, chief inclusion and collaboration officer and vice president of inclusive future and strategy at Cisco in San Jose, Calif., to learn more about the diversity, equity and inclusion (DE&I) initiative launched in September 2020. 

Slate joined Cisco in 2010 as an inclusion and collaboration strategist and was promoted to chief inclusion and collaboration officer in 2014. Under her leadership, Cisco has achieved its highest diversity levels for five consecutive years. Last year, she helped develop and implement Cisco’s social justice initiative.  

The following comments have been edited for clarity and length.

SHRM Online: What was the catalyst for creating the Social Justice Beliefs and Commitment to Action initiative?

Shari Slate: Like many companies, Cisco has been on a journey to tackle inequity and injustice for a long time, but 2020 was a reckoning and shined a light on the gap between our efforts and our aspiration. We didn’t just start this journey last year, however; we learned a lot over the past 20 years that helped shape our values and culture.

By the time of George Floyd Jr.’s murder in 2020, we were ready for the opportunity to take on this monumental change to work for social justice. It was the eve of our annual global customer and partner event, and our executive leadership team listened to the Black community to better understand the impact of what was happening in the world; forty-four thousand Cisco employees joined that call. The dialogue was raw, emotional, painful and heartbreaking, and that dialogue set Cisco on a path of bold action.

We decided to take protecting the equal rights, safety and dignity of our people and our communities around the world to a whole new level. We started what has become Cisco’s Social Justice Beliefs and Commitment to Action initiative.

SHRM Online: Cisco is working to partner with historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) to develop long-term inclusion strategies. How is this accomplished?

Slate: Our goal with this initiative was to create impact that would drive generational change. We believe that education is the foundation for that and preserving the legacy of HBCUs would be critical for our success. HBCUs are responsible for producing 40 percent of Black engineers, 80 percent of Black judges and 40 percent of the Black members of Congress.

We are contributing $150 million to the
Student Freedom Initiative—$100 million to directly support HBCUs with critical technology upgrades and $50 million to fund the nonprofit’s endowment, which will help pay for thousands of future students’ education.

[Editor’s Note: The Student Freedom Initiative is a 501(c)(3) organization begun in 2020 by philanthropist Robert F. Smith, chairman and CEO of Vista Equity Partners. Through partnerships, it provides funding for schooling to students attending institutions that serve minority students. It initially will benefit junior and senior college students majoring in STEM careers.]

These contributions will help to:

  • Support STEM students. The initiative is establishing an “Access to Education” endowment available to students studying science, technology, engineering and math this fall at nine HBCUs. Starting with a $50 million anchor investment, Cisco will help the endowment reach its $450 million goal to support 4,500 HBCU students in perpetuity.
  • Build technology excellence. Cisco is providing $100 million in hardware, software and services to help modernize the technology capabilities and support needed at HBCUs, so all those schools comply with IT infrastructure standards set by the National Institute of Standards and Technology.
  • Promote success before and beyond graduation. The company created the Cisco Networking Academy, an industry-standard IT education program available to all HBCUs. The Cisco Global Problem Solver Challenge will award cash prizes to early-stage technology entrepreneurs solving the world’s most pressing social and environmental problems. Cisco will partner with SkillsCommons and MERLOT to introduce HBCUs to license-free content for online course delivery and increased access to research and potential investment opportunities.
  • Inform and engage. Cisco’s HBCU Advisory Board will bring together Cisco leaders to share best practices and engage other partners, employees and community stakeholders, and we will communicate companywide engagement and investment progress for HBCUs.


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SHRM Online: Do any of your employee resource organizations (EROs) play a role in your DE&I strategies?

Slate: EROs serve as a vital component of our inclusion and collaboration strategy. We have a thriving Inclusion and Collaboration Community (I&CC). In 196 chapters across 44 countries, our I&CC has more than 25,000 active members participating in EROs, networks, virtual groups, inclusion leadership teams and an array of annual flagship events. EROs execute events and programs. Examples:

  • Connected Black Professionals. In January 2020, Cisco’s leaders met with ERO representatives to learn more about the experiences of Black employees. Cisco also initiated a reverse mentoring program that involved C-suite leaders and people managers having conscious conversations with their executives and senior professionals. One C-suite leader said it gave him a safe space to ask questions and build a relationship with a person that he would not naturally be exposed to through his traditional network.
  • PRIDE ERO. Helped get appropriate gender-neutral signage for campus bathrooms.
  • Interfaith Network. Influenced how areas can be used on campus for prayer spaces.
  • Connected Disability Action Network. Provides feedback about accessibility for all employees using Cisco’s technology, tools and resources.

SHRM Online: Not all organizations have the monetary or people resources to launch initiatives like these. What are some “lessons learned” smaller organizations can apply in furthering DE&I, especially as it relates to social justice?

Shari: Be clear about what you believe. Your beliefs will drive your company’s actions. Be authentically transparent with your data; this will bring to light opportunities to make progress and allows leaders to focus their attention on the things that really matter.

Be sure to stay true to your purpose, but be flexible in the details as you go and give yourself permission to change course as you learn. Share learnings with your employees. Tell them what worked, what didn’t and why; this will inspire the company to evolve and innovate new practices that will deliver on equity, diversity and inclusion. 

Slate is a member of the

World Economic Forum’s Global Future Council on Systemic Inequalities and
Social Cohesion
; the Business Roundtable: Diversity and Inclusion Working Group; and World 50: Inclusion & Diversity Impact. Slate also

serves on Textio’s board of advisors
. Textio, based in Seattle, uses artificial intelligence to analyze language used in job descriptions. Slate will work with Textio’s leadership team to help its inclusion and collaboration approach across all areas of the business.

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