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Women in CSR: Kathy Mulvany, Cisco

By Andrea Newell

Welcome to our series of interviews with leading female CSR practitioners where we are learning about what inspires these women and how they found their way to careers in sustainability. Read the rest of the series here.

TriplePundit: Briefly describe your role and responsibilities, and how many years you have been in the business.

Kathy Mulvany: As senior director of corporate affairs, I’m responsible for helping to steward Cisco’s overall corporate social responsibility (CSR) strategy, build awareness of our CSR programs around the world, and engage with a broad set of stakeholders including customers, shareholders, governments, nonprofit partners and advocacy groups. Within Corporate Affairs, I oversee a number of teams, including CSR strategy and planning, marketing and communications, the Cisco Foundation and corporate grant making, CSR reporting and stakeholder engagement, as well as our veterans program.

I’ve been a part of Cisco’s Corporate Affairs organization for seven years and with Cisco since 1996. One benefit of working for a large corporation is that I’ve had the opportunity to move around within the business, which keeps it fresh while broadening my expertise and professional network. Having worked in various Cisco organizations over the years, including Corporate Marketing, Latin America Marketing and Office of the Chairman and CEO, I can honestly say I’ve found my passion in Corporate Affairs with CSR.

3p: How has the sustainability program evolved at your company?

KM: Cisco has come a long way in developing our CSR expertise, technology solutions and partnerships over the last several years. We’ve moved from our early days of traditional corporate philanthropy and employee volunteerism to more strategic engagements that align closely with our business strategy and leverage our core competencies as a global IT company.

We have also broadened our CSR focus over time from social investments in education, economic empowerment and critical human needs to one that encompasses environment, society and governance (ESG). We have also made good progress on embedding CSR into our business functions through executive and cross-functional engagement, goal setting and metrics. And over the last five or six years, we have come to understand the importance of telling our CSR story as a means of inspiring and engaging our employees as well as our customers and partners. Now more than ever, our employees understand that CSR drives not only social and environmental value, but business value.    

3p: Tell us about someone (mentor, sponsor, friend, hero) who affected your sustainability journey, and how.

KM: My sustainability journey has been influenced most notably by Tae Yoo, senior vice president of Corporate Affairs. Tae established the corporate affairs organization in 1996 after leadership positions in Cisco Business Development and our European-based Global Distribution Channels.

I first met Tae while managing communications for our Chairman and CEO, John Chambers. John was (and still is) a strong advocate of CSR and worked closely with Tae. As such, I built a relationship with her over a five-year period that led to my joining her organization in 2006. Her leadership and guidance have been instrumental in giving me the confidence to take on new challenges and tackle obstacles. She has taught me the importance of taking the long-term view, creating public-private partnerships versus trying to go it alone, staying relevant to our core business, remaining humble, and never ever losing site of the end goal – positive, sustainable impact.

3p: What is the best advice you have ever received?

KM: If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. Being resilient is a characteristic that will serve you well on your CSR journey. Tackling challenges as complex as STEM education, access to healthcare, greenhouse gas emissions or supply chain labor takes time and patience. And it will often feel like two steps forward and one step back. Being able to pick yourself up, dust yourself off and learn from your mistakes or missteps will lead you in the right direction.

3p: Can you share a recent accomplishment you are especially proud of?

KM: From a communications standpoint, I’m especially proud of our co-branded Impact X editorial hub on the Huffington Post. We launched it a year ago to highlight stories where people, technology and social impact converge. It features content from Cisco, but more importantly, it highlights our nonprofit partners and other social innovators, demonstrating the power of people and technology to multiply impact. Response to Impact X has exceeded our expectations with more than 3 million unique visitors. Nearly 30 percent of visitors have commented on, shared, or liked our content. It has been a wonderful way to bring our CSR work, and that of our amazing partners, to life, and share it with a broader audience.

I’m also very proud of the work we did in 2013 with stakeholders across the company to establish and obtain corporate funding for Cisco’s next set of five-year environmental sustainability goals. Setting multi-year environmental goals sends a clear message to stakeholders both internally and externally that a company takes sustainability seriously.

3p: If you had the power to make one major change at your company or in your industry, what would it be?

KM: Our industry is growing – and fast. An estimated two million new highly-skilled IT jobs will be created globally in the next 10 years, and that number will only grow as the industry continues to innovate. We need qualified candidates of all backgrounds to bring fresh concepts, new ideas and high-tech skills to these positions. Currently, however, there is a gender gap within the IT industry. I’m encouraged by individual company and collective efforts to address this issue, but more work is needed.

At Cisco, our Networking Academy program provides the foundational ICT skills needed to design, build, and manage networks, along with career skills such as problem-solving, collaboration, and critical thinking. The program has reached 4.75 million students of all ages, socio-economic status and backgrounds around the world. Our surveys show that many of the graduates go on to have successful ICT careers or start their own small businesses. Globally, 20 percent of our students are female but some regions, like the Middle East, are as high as 35 percent female. We’ve also sponsored an annual “Girls in ICT Day” – with more than 2,000 female participants last year – to encourage more women to pursue careers in IT. However, it will take industry-wide, collective engagement to really make an impact on the gender gap.

3p: Describe your perfect day.

KM: From a professional standpoint, a perfect day is one spent with those individuals who are benefiting directly from our CSR programs. For example, I had the opportunity to reconnect recently with one of our Networking Academy students over Cisco TelePresence. Having grown up in a very remote part of South Africa, and found his way to a nonprofit university in Johannesburg, he shared with senior executives how the ICT skills he obtained have transformed his life and led to a career in IT that allows him to support himself and his family.

Even better is when I have the chance to talk directly with our partners and beneficiaries in their local communities to understand what’s working well and what areas need improvement. Last year I travelled to South Africa, Rwanda and Kenya to meet with program partners and beneficiaries. It is those personal connections that give meaning and purpose to my life and career. Each and every one of those days was a perfect day.

Andrea Newell headshot

Andrea Newell has more than ten years of experience designing, developing and writing ERP e-learning materials for large corporations in several industries. She was a consultant for PricewaterhouseCoopers and a contract consultant for companies like IBM, BP, Marathon Oil, Pfizer, and Steelcase, among others. She is a writer and former editor at TriplePundit and a social media blog fellow at The Story of Stuff Project. She has contributed to In Good Company (Vault's CSR blog), Evolved Employer, The Glass Hammer, EcoLocalizer and CSRwire. She is a volunteer at the West Michigan Environmental Action Council and lives in Grand Rapids, Michigan. You can reach her at andrea.g.newell@gmail.com and @anewell3p on Twitter.

Read more stories by Andrea Newell