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Cisco Demonstrates How Social Investment Can Power an Inclusive Future

Cisco’s social investment model focuses on helping nonprofits serve communities better, specifically by scaling early-phase, technology solutions with the potential to drive inclusivity and empowerment for all. 
By Amy Brown
social investment living goods

(Image: Mobile-powered healthcare access enterprise Living Goods is just one organization to benefit from Cisco's unique social investment model.)

Worldwide, 650 million people still live in extreme poverty. More than 1.5 billion people lack access to banking and financial services, and 617 million youth lack basic mathematics and literacy skills.

Cisco is one company working to improve access to technology-enabled solutions that can address some of these gaps and power an equitable and inclusive future. 

“We want to create a world where there is equal access to opportunity,” said Mary de Wysocki, senior director of corporate social responsibility at Cisco . “We know that technology can create opportunities and new ways of learning, break down barriers, and even generate brand new industries.”

But at the same time, she added: “We’re very mindful of the fact that not everyone today has equal access to digital connectivity. We need to be thoughtful about how we innovate and how and where we make investments. Because if we’re not mindful, that can create an even greater digital divide.”

Inclusivity in the areas of education, economic empowerment, and critical human needs such as food and housing is central to Cisco’s purpose as a company. Fundamental to how Cisco fulfills this purpose is a unique social investment model pioneered more than 20 years ago and anchored in the company’s 2016 commitment to positively impact 1 billion people through its social impact grants and signature corporate social responsibility (CSR) programs by 2025. Last year, Cisco reported solid progress toward that goal, having already impacted 469 million people.

While Cisco’s longstanding commitment to corporate social responsibility guides its approach, the commitment is also driven by employee expectation, de Wysocki said. “Quite frankly, it’s not just a responsibility, but it’s also what we hear from our employees: They want to work for a company that has a purpose, that can provide even more meaning to their job or their role.”

Recent research on purpose confirms the increasing importance of corporate introspection, with the coronavirus pandemic prompting people to pay even closer attention to how companies treat their stakeholders and if action lives up to lofty commitments.

An innovative model for social investment

Cisco’s four-phase social investment model focuses on helping nonprofits serve communities better, specifically by scaling early-phase, technology solutions with the potential to drive inclusivity and empowerment for all. 

Investors often look to support entrepreneurs and nonprofits with later-phase solutions, because these are lower risk, de Wysocki explained, so Cisco’s approach reaches innovators who are often overlooked. “We felt there was an opportunity to be a seed engine, to come in at the early stages and support these solutions all the way through the cycle of innovation — from blueprint, to validation, to scaling and replicating their solution, and to show demonstrated social impact,” she said. 

These social investments are focused in areas where Cisco believes its technology and people can make the biggest impact: education, economic empowerment, and critical human needs such as food, water, housing and disaster response. With that scope as a framework, the model follows these four phases:

  1. Identify innovative technology solutions that address issues in Cisco’s areas of focus
  2. Develop a framework for action, then test or pilot a solution and assess the results
  3. Scale the successful implementation and replicate it to fit similar situations
  4. Operate and maintain the initiative to the point where it can sustain itself

From blueprint, to impact, to independence 

One example of a nonprofit that fits Cisco’s approach is Living Goods, which uses a mobile platform to deliver on-call, affordable healthcare to families in Kenya and Uganda while also providing income for some 10,000 Community Health Workers.

According to Cisco, which funded the development of the mobile platform, Living Goods today serves 8.8 million people and has reduced the mortality rate for children under age 5 by 27 percent (based on a randomized controlled trial in Uganda). The organization has been acknowledged for building an innovative double-bottom line model, empowering local health workers to earn an income while dramatically improving the health and well-being of people living in poverty. COVID-19 assessments are now built into Living Good’s existing app, supporting governments with prevention, monitoring and response.

“We try to help the organizations we work with to understand how their solution would resonate elsewhere in the world and help them identify a path toward financial sustainability,” de Wysocki said. “That is so critical in this nonprofit space. So often you see nonprofits get a funder for a couple of years and then the partnership may not continue. Then so much time is spent trying to find the next funder, and the focus and priorities may have to shift if the funder wants something different. They can end up shifting their original vision. With our focus on impact measurement, our intention is to help these organizations truly define their value framework [and] tell their story about the impact they are having in the world.”

In keeping with its investment model, Cisco maintained a relationship with Living Goods from its initial seed funding in 2012 until today. Following another round of grant support from Cisco in 2013 and 2014 to refine the mobile platform, Living Goods now uses the platform in every aspect of its business. The two organizations are now in the midst of a multi-year partnership designed to enable Living Goods to leverage digitization more deeply and serve more people with better products, services and health outcomes. 

MIND research institute social investment

Supporting equal access to the digital economy 

Another long-term partner working closely with Cisco is MIND Research Institute, a nonprofit social impact organization specializing in neuroscience and education research. Its mission is to mathematically equip all students to solve the world’s most challenging problems. It is the creator of ST Math, a visual instructional program that leverages the brain's innate spatial-temporal reasoning ability to solve mathematical problems. Educators across the U.S. use this program with students in pre-kindergarten through 8th grade.

That equitable access leads to equitable opportunities for growth is a key tenet of the program. Some 70 percent of students using ST Math are traditionally underserved, and two-thirds of MIND’s partner schools serve low-income students. Studies have shown a much lower level of proficiency in math among African-American and Hispanic students, evidence of the systemic gaps in service faced by students of color which result in digital divides, said MIND Research Institute CEO Brett Woudenberg. Groups including the Economic Policy Institute (EPI) warn that these achievement gaps will only widen due to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

In response, the MIND Research Institute has moved quickly to offer free math education to students living at home, and over 1 million students have taken advantage of the no-cost access to ST Math since school closures began in mid-March, Woudenberg said.

Along with the solid foundation in math, MIND’s aim is to prepare students to become part of the technology workforce of the future. Cisco has been a capacity-building partner for MIND for over a decade, helping it reach 1.2 million students with ST Math.

The uneven path to the science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) workforce has resulted in a lack of diversity in that workforce. Despite making up 11 percent of the total U. S. workforce, only 9 percent of the STEM workforce is Black. And while 16 percent of the workforce is Hispanic, only 7 percent of STEM workers are. Women are also underrepresented when it comes to computer and engineering jobs: Despite comprising half of the workforce, women hold only 14 percent of computer-related jobs and 14 percent of engineering jobs. Yet computer-related jobs have grown over 330 percent since 1990.

Cisco’s focus on impact measurement has also proved valuable. “Because of Cisco’s investment, MIND now has a ‘best in class’ ability to access and analyze data about how the program is being used and how it is making a difference for students every day,” Woudenberg said. “In addition, Cisco continues to enable MIND colleagues to work and collaborate remotely through its teleconferencing infrastructure, which proved to be critical during this pandemic.”

Encouraging the next generation of entrepreneurs

The future of the workplace is an ever-present theme in how Cisco approaches social investment, particularly in enabling the necessary digital skills for young people to thrive in a connected world. The World Economic Forum estimates that by 2022, 75 million jobs may be displaced by shifting labor between humans and machines, while 133 million new roles may emerge.

A particular focus is on investing in young social entrepreneurs through the Cisco Global Problem Solver Challenge, which aims to recognize new business ideas that leverage technology for social impact. It awarded $350,000 in prizes in 2020, with the grand prize going to Savanna Circuit Tech, a solar chilling transit system to help dairy businesses and cooperatives in sub-Saharan Africa cut post-harvest losses.

As interest in and impact of the prize grows, Cisco is expanding it to offer a total prize pool of $1 million this year, with the grand prize winner receiving $250,000. (You can read more about the Challenge, and some of the impressive and inspiring winners, in a future part of this series.)

“We need more jobs around the world, so it is super critical to think about these young people and encourage them to think about being entrepreneurs and to leverage technology for solutions,” de Wysocki said. “As technology innovations continue to create new business models, we envision a world where everyone can have opportunities so they can compete in the digital economy.”

This article series is sponsored by Cisco and produced by the TriplePundit editorial team.

Images courtesy of Living Goods and the MIND Research Institute 

Amy Brown headshot

Based in Florida, Amy has covered sustainability for over 25 years, including for TriplePundit, Reuters Sustainable Business and Ethical Corporation Magazine. She also writes sustainability reports and thought leadership for companies. She is the ghostwriter for Sustainability Leadership: A Swedish Approach to Transforming Your Company, Industry and the World. Connect with Amy on LinkedIn and her Substack newsletter focused on gray divorce, caregiving and other cultural topics.

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