During any time of crisis, companies can best respond with this effective one-two punch: First, leverage their core competencies for good; and second, harness the power of partnerships, in any form, that they already have forged with other organizations. Cisco Systems offers a template for how other businesses in any sector can direct their resources to offer society a lift during this ongoing pandemic.
Over the past several weeks, Cisco has deployed its people and resources across three critical areas of need: education, healthcare and humanitarian aid.
The vast array of partnerships that Cisco has been able to develop over the years has positioned the company well when it came time to help students and teachers as they quickly adjusted from classroom to remote learning. One example of how Cisco’s philanthropic efforts have paid off is seen in the work of MIND Research Institute, a California-based nonprofit that develops software games to help schoolchildren grasp mathematical concepts. One of MIND Research’s applications, ST Math, includes over 35,000 games and puzzles, which the organization in turn says has helped boost students’ math scores across 13 U.S. states.
Cisco’s financial support has also helped MIND Research deploy a new platform just in time for this new reality of students having to learn from home. Further, the use of Cisco’s technology is also integral for the nonprofit's operations. According to MIND Research’s CEO, Brett Woudenberg, the nonprofit’s technology team is currently integrating the ST Math program within the Cisco Webex platform. In turn, parents who have seen their children benefit from this program have been moved to donate funds so that other students can benefit. “We’ve had tons of families pay it forward and provided donations as a way of saying thanks, which has been fantastic,” Woudenberg said during an interview with Cisco’s Stacey Faucett last week.
Another nonprofit that has received a Cisco grant, TalkingPoints, has helped support families with homeschooling through translation made possible by artificial intelligence. TalkingPoints’ technology allows teachers to send a message to their students’ parents, which the program can translate into approximately 100 languages. Family members can respond to the teachers in their native language, which the teacher can then read in English. “Even when parents don’t have internet or computers, parents can usually connect with teachers through mobile phones,” said Heejae Lim, founder and CEO of Talking Points. “Our multilingual family engagement platform uses AI to get rid of language barriers to help keep everyone connected.”
Cisco is in the midst of its fourth annual Global Problem Solver Challenge, which provides $350,000 in seed money to recent graduates who exhibit an entrepreneurial streak combined with ideas that can disrupt technologies. A runner-up in the company’s 2017 competition, OminVis, is now on the front lines helping to fill the gap in available personal protective equipment (PPE) that U.S. healthcare workers are still confronting.
At the startup’s launch, it developed a tool that can detect cholera in water samples in as little as as 30 minutes. Since then, that technology has adapted to help respond to this pandemic’s dire needs. Currently, OmniVis is manufacturing 3D-printed face masks that can protect healthcare workers’ faces, no matter what shape or size. The startup says it is now searching for partners to both test this product at a wider scale and also to manufacture this “OmniMask” at a higher volume.
Photo: OmniVis' Jordan Florian working on the design of the company's OmniMask. (Photo courtesy Cisco Systems/3BL Media)
Hence the lessons that Cisco’s relationship with OmniVis can teach any company: A competition or grant program targeted at entrepreneurs can reap benefits quickly, not only from a crisis management perspective, but for that same company’s brand reputation as well.
In addition to Cisco’s philanthropic legacy, the company’s array of technology services is giving a lift to healthcare systems during this crisis. To that end, the company is now offering two equipment packages to healthcare organizations at no cost. The Cisco Pandemic Equipment Brokerage program provides new or refurbished networking equipment to healthcare groups that suddenly have the need due to the COVID-19 crisis. Another package, the Cisco Healthcare Rapid Response Network Bundle, delivers networking kits for pop-up clinics and rapid response healthcare teams across the globe.
In the meantime, as shelter in place orders worldwide puts the mental health of some citizens at risk, Cisco’s Webex is answering the call — literally — in San Francisco. The city’s suicide prevention agency is relying on the conferencing platform to connect those in dire need an outlet with employees and volunteers who can safely help from their homes – timely as the number of inbound calls for help have increased 30 percent since the pandemic started.
Cisco’s information technology, networking and cybersecurity services have been instrumental in modernizing humanitarian aid responses for more than 15 years. The company’s support of these nonprofits has continued; but these organizations’ missions have pivoted rapidly as the world turned upside down for billions of people worldwide. For example, Cisco has worked with the microlender Kiva since 2015. The company’s routers, switches and VOIP technology help Kiva dispense seed funding worldwide. Now, in the U.S., the nonprofit is providing larger loan amounts, more flexible repayment plans and widened eligibility rules for financing. Another one of Cisco’s nonprofit partners, Opportunity International, has witnessed a similar surge in demand.
Cisco’s technology is also one key to the ongoing support of Global Citizen, the advocacy group that deploys online activism in its quest to end extreme poverty by 2030. The company has signed onto a three-year commitment to provide online technology platforms and support for Global Citizen’s broadcast events, the most recent of which tallied up 270 million viewers.
According to Cisco’s CEO, Chuck Robbins, the company’s commitment of cash and resources will total at least $225 million — and on top of that, the company says it has encouraged its 77,000 employees to do what they can to assist its various community partners. “Many of us are adjusting to working from home and social distancing while all of us are working to understand this new normal,” Robbins wrote last month on Cisco’s blog. “Through all this, one thing has become clear – Cisco must, and will, do even more to help others respond to this global pandemic.”
Image credit: Cisco Systems/Facebook
Leon Kaye has written for 3p since 2010 and become executive editor in 2018. His previous work includes writing for the Guardian as well as other online and print publications. In addition, he's worked in sales executive roles within technology and financial research companies, as well as for a public relations firm, for which he consulted with one of the globe’s leading sustainability initiatives. Currently living in Central California, he’s traveled to 70-plus countries and has lived and worked in South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Uruguay.
Leon’s an alum of Fresno State, the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the University of Southern California's Marshall Business School. He enjoys traveling abroad as well as exploring California’s Central Coast and the Sierra Nevadas.