Cisco Systems CEO Chuck Robbins, addressing 3,000 Cisco Partner Summit 2019 attendees Tuesday morning in Las Vegas, challenged employees and partners worldwide to focus on social issues and local community challenges. Robbins also drove home the obligation that businesses have in a world that needs social change for the better.
No doubt, Robbins touched on the major technology opportunities ahead -- 5G networks, Internet of Things (IoT), WiFi 6 and more. But ultimately, the key theme was business's role in solving social issues -- everything from lack of opportunity to income inequality, homelessness and more.
Although Cisco generated a record $52 billion in revenues last year, Robbins pointed to macroeconomic and social issues worldwide -- warning signals that can't be ignored. From the U.S. presidential impeachment investigation, to the trade war, to Brexit, to social unrest in South America, the world is facing some big challenges, Robbins noted.
Step One: Build the Right Business Culture
But again, the keynote kept returning to a familiar theme -- the need for businesses to more effectively assist communities and the societal challenges within. "We as businesses have an obligation to get engaged with helping communities," he asserted.
The keynote clearly wasn't built overnight. Instead, it sounds like Robbins has been on a personal journey of sorts. When Cisco was seeking a successor to former CEO John Chambers around 2015, Robbins wrote a strategic thesis to the board of directors. Basically, his application for the job. It included a section on corporate culture.
The letter described how Robbins would take steps to ensure Cisco was the best place in the world to work (mission accomplished, Chuck). From there, Robbins wanted to unleash the power of Cisco employees to do great things in their communities. Multiple case studies during the keynote drove home that point.
Step Two: What Is a Business?
Fast forward to present day. Robbins' expanded message now involves "rethinking the purpose of a corporation."
Yes, the company must serve its shareholders. "But we also serve our other stakeholders -- including communities, customers, employees and partners."
"In the world we live in today, with all the societal issues that exist, with people feeling like they don’t have opportunity -- I do think we have to take a more active role than we ever have before."
Step Three: Cisco Global Problem Solver Initiative
To drive home that point, Cisco is launching an effort called Cisco Global Problem Solver, Partner Edition. The idea is to fund and reward individuals who leverage technology that solves social issues. Some additional preliminary details are here.
The overall keynote, in some ways, felt vaguely similar to some recent keynotes from Salesforce Co-CEO Mark Benioff. After building the world's largest SaaS company, Benioff has spent recent months discussing social issues and the need for Silicon Valley to drive change for the better. On a somewhat related note, Apple -- led by CEO Tim Cook -- has pledged $2.5 billion to help combat the housing crisis in California.
Ironically, the efforts emerge at a time when some extremely successful IT companies are vilified for that success. The reason: In some cases, big business success has triggered or contributed to major social challenges -- such as the housing crisis in Silicon Valley.
Now, some of the industry's highest-profile leaders -- Robbins, Benioff, Cook and more -- are taking steps to assist communities worldwide. We'll strive to track their progress.