“Our aim is to nurture young people who have entirely different backgrounds and a different way of thinking.”

Welcome to #UCVoices, a series that shines a light on our vibrant network of peers, clients and collaborators and the amazing things they are doing in our industry.

This week we are joined by the brilliant Carlene Coward. Carlene is a Programme Manager in the UK & Ireland Corporate Social Responsibility team at Cisco, where she also co-leads the UK & Ireland Connected Black Professionals Employee Resource Organisation. We spoke about introducing young people to careers in technology and the importance of building a community.

Carlene Coward, Cisco
Carlene Coward, Cisco

Carlene, you have a very varied role at Cisco! Tell us a little about the work that you do.

I sit in the CSR team, so that’s my day-to-day role. As you can imagine, my remit is wide, but my focus is really on corporate volunteering and creating digital skills programmes for young people. We try to encourage them to consider a career in technology from an early age and run various programmes with schools. In addition to that, our team looks after employee engagement for Cisco UK and Ireland, so we help to make Cisco a Great Place to Work, whether that’s through events or by creating shared experiences.

We’re a global company, so people’s teams and their leaders are often in different places and sometimes, different countries. Our focus is really on trying to create unity and building a strong sense of community within the UK and Ireland team.

I also wear a diversity and inclusion hat.

What does your work in the D&I space involve?

I am the co-lead of the UK & Ireland Connected Black Professionals Employee Resource Organisation (ERO). And am part of the UK and Ireland Diversity and Inclusion Leadership Team which champions an inclusive workplace for all and connects EROs (Employee Resource Organisations) across the business.

What do you love most about your role?

The variety! Although, everything is connected. The community building that’s at the core of our engagement efforts is very much linked to our EROs, and we work very closely with them and have an ongoing relationship. So, it felt very natural for me to step into a more formal role with the UK & Ireland Connected Black Professionals ERO.  

Cisco is also genuinely focused on giving back. It’s been the same since the company was founded 36 years ago. The people that work here have a huge passion for giving back to the local community, so being able to help them fulfil what it is they want to do, outside the day job, is incredibly satisfying.

It’s brilliant to see such a large company be so focused on creating a strong community. Why is it such a priority for you?

There are around 3,500 employees in the UK and Ireland, and we are already a very remote business. Many people are on the road or work across global teams and as such the community building is really important for us. A big part of the business is in Sales, so they are always out in the field working with partners and customers. We also have very different business units that report into entirely different worlds, and they often don’t have very much cross-over.  

Being physically present and finding commonalities and ways to connect, whether that’s through an ERO or a volunteering project, that make you feel grounded and part of our family in the UK & Ireland is a big focus for us. Those initiatives are incredibly important and help us to build a sense of community.

Do you think that the strength of your community helped you navigate the impact COVID-19 had on the business?

Absolutely. The nature of the business made the switch to remote working straightforward for us – we sell the technology that helps businesses operate remotely. We naturally work digitally and collaboratively using technology. And as a result of lockdown our community has, in some ways,become even tighter. We’ve always had remote workers at Cisco, but whilst we’re all working from home, we are able to engage even more people and involve everyone as a whole community, without the need to be physically present in an office location.  

What challenges have you faced with hybrid and remote working?

We are all really missing the water-cooler chat. Being able to bump into people who you don’t necessary work with but have an affiliation toor can brainstorm with is critical in our line of work. When you work remotely, you only interact with people that are in your work stream and those other ad-hoc conversations are missing. You have to work really hard to try to tap into your network to make those connections.

How else has remote working impacted the work that you do?

It’s actually enabled us to expand our work experience programmes virtually, and we’ve had phenomenal success as a result. Students from Birmingham to Ireland have been able to join us for example, and we’ve been able to give more young people the opportunity to attend. Going forward, we will always have a virtual work experience offer now, that will sit alongside the in-person experience. I think that hybrid approach will be the way we do things moving forward. There is so much value in making our programmes as accessible as possible, ensuring that everyone is included and is given the same access to opportunities.

Tell me a little more about your schools programme. How did it come about?   

Our Pathways schools programme was born because we are committed to finding diverse talent, and diversity of thought. We run workshops in schools from as early as year seven because we want to capture their imagination and interest in technology before they make subject choices for GCSEs. The aim is to nurture young people who have entirely different backgrounds and a different way of thinking. We are also looking for neuro-diversity. We also want to raise awareness of Cisco and ensure that as many people as possible are able to access the programmes that we run. We are very aware that not everyone has a laptop at home, or the internet connection to join us virtually, so it’s one of the reasons that the in-person experience, whether in a school workshop or at one of our offices, is important.

We can’t think traditionally in our industry, we have to think differently if we want to innovate and continue to have breakthroughs. We have to get diverse talent into the business who have different perspectives.

One final question, what most excites you about this year and the work you’re doing?

I’m excited about the opportunity ahead and what is possible. We have been so challenged over the last year and we’ve really seen what we’re made of. Whatever limitations we may have had, we've proven that we can move past them now.

We didn’t think that remote working would be feasible for all, and whilst it certainly has some challenges, we’ve shown that it can be done. I’m excited to see what else we can achieve this year. What else can we entirely reinvent?

If you want to find out more about Cisco’s brilliant Digital Skills Programmes, click here.