‘We Belong Here’ — 3 Women Share How They’ve Found Community and Belonging at Work

Sponsored by Cisco

Aisha Chavis, Sabrina Gonzalez and Mariya Popova.

Photos courtesy of Cisco.

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May 18, 2024 at 7:37PM UTC

Over 30,000 of Cisco’s employees participate in Inclusive Communities (ICs), 27 employee-led networks that help people connect with their communities and allies. Each IC drives its unique strategies to support full-spectrum diversity and works together across Cisco’s global enterprise to drive engagement and create a more Conscious Culture.

Here, we take a closer look at three of these communities — from three women who are active members of them: 

  1. Aisha Chavis, a Leader of Business Operations, talks about the Connected Black Professionals inclusive community, with the mission of enabling Cisco to become the employer of choice for the best Black talent. 

  2. Sabrina Gonzalez, a Marketing Specialist, discusses the Conexión inclusive community, with the mission to create an inclusive and empowering environment for Latinx employees and allies by providing members with opportunities for professional development and personal growth.

  3. Mariya Popova, a Collaboration Partner Sales Specialist, shares details about the PRIDE inclusive community, with its mission to ensure Cisco is recognized internally and externally as an inclusive LGBTQ+ friendly company where LGBTQ+ employees can bring their whole selves to work and be part of an engaging, passionate, and socially responsible community.

Read on to learn more! 

1. Exploring the Connected Black Professionals Inclusive Community

What are the goals of the Connected Black Professionals Inclusive Community? How does it create a more Conscious Culture at Cisco?

Chavis: More than any other IC that I have ever been a part of, our leadership tackles difficult issues head on — because we need to. We hold mental wellness checks at specific times to check in as a community. We also hold emergency check-ins after tragedy hits our community. I’m not sure I would have been able to maintain a positive working environment during the George Floyd murder aftermath if it wasn’t for CBP and its focus on our mental health. 

How did you become involved in this IC? What advice would you give to others who are considering joining a similar group?

Chavis: Years ago, as a contractor, a woman saw me walking down the hallway and told me that I must join. It didn’t take much convincing, but it’s one of the best decisions I’ve made at Cisco. It’s also encouraged me to join many other ICs. Some I identify with, and others I don’t. I truly appreciate the different perspectives I’m able to learn simply by engaging with different groups. 

What are your favorite parts about being a member of Connected Black Professionals?

Chavis: Sometimes, I have to edit myself in certain situations, but I don’t have to during a CBP event. I’m surrounded by “family” who understands me simply due to our shared experiences.

What are some of the events, initiatives, and/or projects led by CPB?

Chavis: In the next couple weeks, we will be hosting a garden beautification project in Durham, N.C., with a local non-profit. And besides our give-back events, CBP encourages mentorship and sponsorship by hosting events that allow Cisconians at all levels to connect with executives. Programs like this have allowed me to gain sponsors in the company that I would likely never have been able to without their programs and nudges. 

What accomplishments are you most proud of that your group has achieved?

Chavis: During a Talent Expo, one VP+ was paired with 3-5 Cisconians for a group networking session. I’ve participated in many networking programs at Cisco, but this was curated so beautifully that it stays with me. We were given resume advice, presentation coaching and ultimately, an opportunity to show our genuine selves with the goal of building a relationship. This expo allowed me to build a relationship with a VP who has changed my life in and out of Cisco. I will forever be grateful. 

I also had the opportunity to help develop CBP merchandise in collaboration with the Cisco Store and Employee Relations Organization. I have so much pride knowing that our designs crashed the site a few times due to interest and that the proceeds raised go toward fighting racism and discrimination. You can view the collection here

What goals does your group have for the future?

Chavis: To continue giving back to Black employees and providing a meaningful avenue for communication. We belong here, and by finding colleagues with similarities, we can continue to make this a safe and inviting space. 

How has your involvement in Connected Black Professionals impacted your career?

Chavis: It has created relationship opportunities that I would never have had otherwise. I have found sponsors I have been connected with for years. It’s also forced me to improve in areas where I was lacking in confidence earlier in my career. Presenting myself to a VP or SVP is nothing in comparison to many of my daily deliverables. My confidence has grown. My executive presence has improved. And I am better able to navigate the inner networks of Cisco due to the experiences I’ve had. 

Chavis. Photo courtesy of Cisco.

2. Exploring the Conexión Inclusive Community

How does Conexión create a more Conscious Culture at Cisco?

Gonzalez: Cisco’s priority is to make sure you #LoveWhereYouWork, and it all starts with making you feel like you belong. As a young Latina, I’m all too familiar with the stereotypes that are associated with being a Latinx individual working for a corporate company. At Cisco, all those feelings are out the door, and let me tell you — my first month here was memorable and unforgettable. It was the beginning of Hispanic Heritage Month (HHM), and one moment changed it all for me.

I tuned into the 2020 HHM ceremony to watch Maria Hinojosa, an award-winning news and investigative journalist. Maria Hinojosa! I say that again because I was so excited that Cisco had her to speak to us. I loved that she was speaking Spanglish — it made me feel at home. She had her famous necklace on, and she said, “We need you rocking your Latinx self.” That statement struck me.

It was at this moment that I realized I am at a company that values my heritage, spends money and time to celebrate Hispanic Heritage Month, and that I can be part of this planning team as well and be my authentic self. 

How did you become involved in this Inclusive Community? What advice would you give to others who are considering joining a similar group?

Gonzalez: After having the HHM experience, I decided to get involved and pinged the president of Cisco’s Global Conexión Inclusive Community to ask her what I needed to do. That’s when it all started. I instantly became an active member of Conexión (our Latino Inclusive Community), and that same month, I was given the opportunity to be part of Dishes & Traditions, a virtual celebration for HHM to share different recipes. In November, I joined the Conexión board and had the chance to lead the Miami chapter. I was also given the opportunity to collaborate with the Cisco Store to create merchandise for HHM 2021 — which is now live.

If employees want to get involved in Conexion, I recommend they reach out to anyone on the board to be included in the next event planning session.

What are your favorite parts about being in Conexión?

Gonzalez: My favorite part about being in Conexión is the power of community. As I look back on my first year at Cisco, I have enjoyed the friendships, the opportunities, and the mentorship I’ve found through Conexión. Together, the team has helped each other prepare for virtual events, interviews, and even career changes. I personally feel that in every conversation, I learn about a new resource, person, or acronym (and we do have MANY acronyms at Cisco).

I have been pulled into exciting and different projects that allow me to have fun and showcase my project management skills. My favorite aspect of being part of Conexión (in which sometimes I cannot contain my excitement) is connecting with Cisco’s inspiring Executive Leadership members, like Alex Sapiz. The opportunity to connect is powerful, and the chance to learn from those that want to give back is extremely admirable. All of these moments have allowed me to bring my true self to work — a Latina who is proud of her accent, heritage, and values — as Cisco is committed to powering inclusivity.

What are some of the events, initiatives, and/or projects led by Conexión?

Gonzalez: ConexTalk, a leading media program for diversity and inclusion, is sponsored by Conexión and dedicated to giving Cisco employees of all backgrounds a platform to discuss topics they believe are important and difficult to have at work and with family or friends. 

ConexNow is a quarterly networking event for our Conexión members to meet in a small informal roundtable with a Cisco leader. This is about sharing experiences, being authentic, and connecting as you get to know each other.

What accomplishments are you most proud of that your group has achieved?

Gonzalez: Our Conexión team has been promoting Hispanic Heritage for over 20 years at Cisco! Our Inclusive Community turned 20 last year. 

What goals does your group have for the future?

Gonzalez: Our goal as a team is to continue our events, bring and grow our community together, and inform those who want to learn about Hispanic and Latinx culture and experiences.

How has your involvement in Conexión impacted your career?

Gonzalez: Conexión has allowed me to network with others outside of the marketing department. I have learned about careers that I didn’t know existed.

Gonzalez and colleagues. Photo courtesy of Cisco.

3. Exploring the PRIDE Inclusive Community

What are the goals of the PRIDE Inclusive Community? How does it create a more Conscious Culture at Cisco? And what is your role in it as an ally?

Popova: PRIDE provides global networking and individual development opportunities for members with the goal of helping drive LGBTQ+ Inclusion & Collaboration initiatives throughout Cisco, our local communities, and the world. 

As an LGBTQ+ ally, I take part in and sometimes lead, activities to promote the Inclusive Community internally and externally. When you are an ally, you are welcomed into a bigger community that you choose to support, and I see it as just another part of me because I believe that showing support for the LGBTQ+ community is the normal and right thing to do. It is also a way of actively expressing who you are and what you stand for. By being an ally, I hope to be a safe space for those who may need support or understanding. 

How did you become involved in this IC? What advice would you give to others who are considering joining a similar group? 

Popova: One of the reasons I wanted to join the PRIDE Inclusive Community at Cisco is because of how my cousin was treated when she came out to her father. His misunderstanding of what her sexuality meant was hurtful to her. I decided I wanted to become more involved in supporting the LGBTQ+ community, so I reached out to the leader of PRIDE in Portugal and asked if I could join. My advice is to just reach out to a member or leader of the IC you are interested in. Everyone is always happy to hear why you want to participate and to help you become involved in the space. 

What are your favorite parts about being a member of PRIDE at Cisco? 

Popova: Everyone is really supportive, creative, and just lovely to work and speak with. You also get opportunities to work and communicate with people outside of your “traditional” business structure.

What are some of the events, initiatives, and/or projects led by the PRIDE Inclusive Community? 

Popova: While I was in Portugal, we organized plenty of webinars in partnership with non-profit LGBTQ+ organizations. As an individual contributor, one of my LinkedIn posts helped connect other businesses in Portugal for a PRIDE B2B activities network which I was very happy about.

We had conversations with organizations like ILGA (International Lesbian and Gay Association) to show employees where they or their friends and families could reach out for support and education. We talked about the challenges in society when it comes to the LGBTQ+ community, like perceptions, discrimination, and policies. It was good for me to learn and to listen to everyone’s stories. I think it is very valuable to be reminded that non-LGBTQ+ people are privileged to have the freedom to express their true selves, whereas many LGBTQ+ members still are not able to experience this level of freedom. 

We have also taken part in PRIDE parades and walks across EMEAR (Europe, Middle East, Africa, and Russia). I will never forget the first parade I took part in representing Cisco. It was so much fun, and there was such a strong sense of community. I was carrying the flag during the parade, and I saw so many people with grateful looks directed toward that flag. Some people even had tears in their eyes. I like to think that by taking part in these sorts of activities, I add a tiny contribution to a bigger and much-needed conversation. 

How are Cisco’s Inclusive Communities reflective of the overall culture? 

Popova: I think they are really important given how much of our daily lives are consumed by work — it’s always good to know that you can be part of a community that shares your values outside of the purely professional side of a company.

What goals does your group have for the future? 

Popova: To increase the mindshare both internally and externally for this active, dynamic, inclusive, and vibrant community. We would like to see more people take part in future activities and show that they are allies. I do believe that more people than we know care about the PRIDE conversation and want everyone to be treated with love and respect. That’s why joining an Inclusive Community and showing up for events is important. I hope to see the day when PRIDE is globally regarded only as a celebration and not a debate. 

How has your involvement in PRIDE at Cisco impacted your career? 

Popova: It has helped me expand my network and has helped me interact with other sides of Cisco’s business structures that I probably wouldn’t have interacted with otherwise.

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Popova celebrating Pride. Photo courtesy of Cisco.

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