This post is part of the series Partner Profiles, where US2020 RTP shares the story of how our nonprofit, corporate, school, and university partners are contributing to a STEM education community of practice. Cisco is a national corporate partner with US2020. Megan Zeishner is the Community Relations Program Manager and has been on US2020 RTP’s Guiding Coalition for the past year. I sat down with Megan at Cisco’s office to talk about Corporate Social Responsibility, diversity in the workplace, and getting employees excited about STEM mentoring.
How do you see Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) as part of Cisco’s model?
CSR is core to Cisco’s culture as a company. It’s in our DNA. It’s one of our founding principles. Being a responsible citizen in our local communities is critical to our company. Cisco feels very passionately that when you combine the power of human collaboration and network connections, we can transform lives and communities. When you think about the reach that we have and the talent from our people, there’s a lot that can be leveraged there to do good in the world.
US2020 wants to make STEM mentoring part of the “new normal” for STEM professionals, similar to the way that lawyers do pro bono work. How do you think we can create a culture of volunteering among STEM companies?
Getting our senior leadership to champion the work and make it a part of our culture is a big piece of accomplishing this goal. Cisco is very successful because our leaders are involved at every level. It’s really powerful when your employees know that their manager supports them in volunteering and making an impact.
I think bringing companies together, like US2020 is doing, is also a big part of it. For Cisco to stand with Fidelity, BASF, and all the other corporate partners and say we’re all doing this, we’re all signing on, we’re all making this investment, is incredibly impactful.
We often talk about how STEM mentoring is beneficial to the students being mentored. How do you think STEM mentoring also benefits the mentors and how do you advertise that when you’re recruiting mentors?
There’s huge benefits for the mentors. There’s a huge personal fulfillment that you get when you invest time in young people and see them work on a project or fulfill a goal that they had. You’re really impacting that person’s life. There’s a professional development side as well that I feel like a lot of people don’t realize. I joke all the time with our employees that when you go in and work with a group of middle school students for ten weeks you’re going to polish your presentation skills and leadership ability very quickly, because herding a group of 8th graders is very challenging. So it develops a whole new skill set that you can bring back into the workplace.
You’ve been recruiting your employees to get involved in US2020 and you’ve been very successful so far. What makes your employees excited about STEM mentoring?
Everybody gravitates towards a different aspect of STEM mentoring. Maybe it is that connection with a student, seeing them achieve something that they didn’t think they were capable of. Maybe it’s that the employee is very passionate about the work they do professionally and can’t wait to share that with a group of students. Maybe it’s that an employee came from a similar background, and they know what those students are going through, and they want to make a difference for them.
In addition, the actual projects themselves can be very exciting. When we talk about building robots with NC FIRST Robotics or leading a science of cooking class, that’s very exciting. The fact that the structure is already in place for them takes down the barriers for someone who’s never taught, they know they just have to take their passion and excitement and plug in.
US2020’s long-term goal is to get more girls, minorities, and low-income students into STEM careers. Why do you think diversity in the STEM workforce is so important?
Diversity in the STEM workforce is critical. Different backgrounds and different ways of thinking bring great ideas to the table. You have to have individuals who are coming from different walks of life come together, that’s how you move forward and create solutions that work for the greater good of all.
What advice would you give other companies about how to get their employees interested in mentoring?
One of our best assets is our employees. Finding the employees who are already passionate about that work and helping them be ambassadors can be very powerful. They help us communicate and recruit other people to mentor.
Going to executives and asking them to become champions is also very powerful. If an employee sees that their manager is sending them an opportunity, then that opens the doors for the employee to get involved.
Cisco is involved with multiple organizations trying to solve the STEM education problem. What do you think makes US2020 different and unique as far as getting students interested in STEM?
US2020 is different in that is coming to the table with a very clear ask of corporate partners to invest 20% of their workforce in STEM mentoring. I’m not aware of any other organization making that request of companies to drive change. That is a very clear goal where we can measure the impact. By bringing together the corporate partners, nonprofits, and schools, US2020 is wrapping their arms around all major entities and for the first time asking everyone to come together and work as one instead of in these separate silos. So far, in our community, we’ve been very successful in bringing those groups together. Those could be the keys to success for US2020 as an organization.