Cisco Steps Up

Peter Burrows

For years, Cisco Systems chief executive John Chambers has been vocal about pointing out trends he believes will threaten the United State's future competitiveness. There's the paucity of broadband infrastructure relative to many other developed nations, options expensing requirements that he feels will make it harder to motivate the best workers, and the sad state of America's education system, particularly when it comes to churning out engineers. But earlier this year, I asked Chambers if it was enough to just point out the problems. Wasn't it time for Americas business leaders to start coming up with some real solutions--say, by hiring US workers in lower-cost areas of the country rather than by outsourcing jobs to India and elsewhere? No, he shot back: some things were beyond Cisco's control. "You have to recognize major market transitions. And if countries don't adjust, they get left behind. We've been very clear about the need to create an environment that keeps job growth in the US. But so far, the country hasn't stepped up."

Now, it seems Chambers has decided to take a turn in the batters box himself. This morning, he announced that Cisco would give $40 million over three years to help the Katrina-lashed state of Mississippi not only rebuild its schools, but rebuild them so as to make them a cutting-edge example for the rest of the nation.

Cisco will contribute $20 million to the first phase of this so-called 21S initiative , in which select schools will be rebuilt and equipped with state-of-the-art wireless networks, on-line curricula and other educational technology tools. Then, the goal is to apply the lessons learned to help rejuvenate the educational system in other parts of the state--and ultimately, in the rest of the country.

In many ways, it all sounds like just another self-serving attempt by a tech company to spin grand visions highlighting future uses for its products. But I say let's put the cynicism on hold for now. For starters, Cisco is a company that does indeed know how to help customers make use of technology in practical ways. Chambers has long argued that technology by itself almost never raises productivity or improves a company's bottom line. The real payoff comes from developing new processes, and doing the hard work to change people's behavior. What's more, Chambers is putting some of his money where his mouth is. Of the $40 million, $2 million will come from Chambers himself, with another $10 million coming from Cisco Chairman John Morgridge.

And to this reporter's ear, the presentations made by Chambers and former Netscape CEO Jim Barksdale--a native Mississippian--seemed infused with a passion atypical of most corporate philanthropic photo opps. Chambers said the genesis of the initiative came as he was preparing to take the stage to address 5,000 Cisco salespeople some weeks ago. Back stage, the West Virginia-born Chambers got to talking with a Mississippian who worked at the convention center. After telling Chambers how her family had lost everything to Katrina, she tearfully noted that Cisco had the power to help the ravaged region. "You and your company could really make a difference. Think about helping us.”

Chambers said he managed to dry his own eyes before taking the stage--and soon thereafter challenged his public policy team to come up with a program that could really make a difference. "What she said realy hit me. Were we going to do what we'd done before, or would we lead by example?"

To be sure, odds are that this initiative may fail to fail to rise above all the other corporate efforts to revolutionize education in America. But Chambers and Cisco deserve credit for stepping up with what sounds like a bold plan--and deserve all the encouragement possible to beat those odds, and have long-term impact on students in Mississippi, and maybe even in the rest of the country.

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