This blog was written by Malcolm Smith. Malcolm is a Network Engineer at Presidio, but the journey to his dream job was a challenging one that threw many obstacles in his way. I am proud that the Cisco Networking Academy played a role in helping him get where he is today. I hope you are as inspired by his story as I am.

When I was child, I was obsessed with disassembling and reassembling all the electronics in my home. I had a special affinity for vacuum cleaners. This started around age 4, and by the time I was 8 years old, I had composed and refined my first business plan to start a carpet cleaning business called MVP (Malcolm’s Vacuum Power). I begged my mother to buy me a Bissell Carpet Cleaner for Christmas. In retrospect I know it was not a practical ask. But my mother obliged because she wanted me to understand the power of knowing you can accomplish anything you believe in, and it was clear to her that I believed in my vision. MVP would go on to see relative success. I was in third grade, professionally cleaning carpets for family friends and entrepreneurs.

A young boy opening up a vacuum cleaner
Opening up my first vacuum cleaner

As I grew to be an adolescent, I had no idea of the odds stacked against my being successful in life as a Black male from a single-parent home. I graduated high school with a 3.2 GPA and attended community college. After a year, I took what I believed would be a semester off. However, a cannabis-related run-in with the community police would irrevocably change my life.

A man wearing an orange jumpsuit
Prison, 2010

Not only would I be designated a felon at the age of 20, but I would also be introduced to the industrial prison system. That journey would turn out to be an all-out psychological assault, a true attempt to steal my personness. I believe prison devolves all parties involved and no person should be subjected to that level of trauma for cannabis or any other relatively minor crimes.

After surviving my sentence with my sanity intact and being released from prison, it was next to impossible to find employment that would provide a dignified quality of life for my daughter and me. It was as if suddenly the world decided I deserved to live in poverty due to mistakes that I had paid more than a fair price for. So, I resurfaced my entrepreneurial instincts – I started a commercial cleaning business and attained enough success to be a stable parent with a healthy environment for us.

Looking for a new career path

Following years of stable but plateaued success, I grew bored with my profession and decided to return to school, learn something new, and pivot. I’ve always been a tech geek, so I knew I wanted to be in IT. When I found the Cisco Networking Academy program at Tulsa Tech, I knew I had found my tribe.

Fast-forward a couple years to 2018, when I learned that I was selected out of thousands of Networking Academy students to be a member of the Cisco Talent Bridge Dream Team at the Cisco Live customer event in Orlando, Florida. The Dream Team helps to build the networking infrastructure at events like Cisco Live under the guidance of industry professionals.

Malcolm at Cisco Live as a Networking Academy student
At Cisco Live 2018

This blew my mind and made me feel special. Once again, my life was going to be irrevocably impacted, but this time it was pure love.

The opportunity to gain hands-on experience at Cisco Live and to be in the presence of so much and such diverse intelligence was awesome. I still keep in touch with my teammates and we have all found success in our desired tracks since then.

I met Cisco CEO Chuck Robbins, then-CIO Guillermo Diaz Jr., and geniuses like Susie Wee (former SVP of Cisco) and Hank Preston (Cisco NetDevOps Engineer).

You could feel the brains in that place, and the encounters were more than “meet and greet,” they were meaningful. One of the most impactful moments was meeting Cisco SVP of Corporate Affairs Tae Yoo. It was while listening to her that I understood for the first time how passionate Cisco is about social responsibility. This opened my eyes to a dream that at the time seemed too big. For the first time I saw Cisco Networking Academy as a potential tool that could help me transform many more lives than my own.

Paying it forward

A man and a woman pose together for a photo
Tae Yoo and me at Cisco Live 2018

I envisioned a project that would help people from backgrounds similar to mine, be it coming from a single-parent home, coming from an under-represented population, or living in poverty. But most important, I wanted to help felons who deserve to be treated like human beings and to have an opportunity to provide a dignified quality of life for themselves and their families.

I am very familiar with the feeling of nailing an interview and signing an offer letter, only to have the offers rescinded due to a cannabis-related felony on my record. The interview process is challenging enough without the huge weight of uncertainty that comes with having a colorful background.

My project will be a collaboration with state correctional facilities, non-profit educational programs, and willing employers. Not only will it provide Networking Academy and industry-relevant training for felons in the Dallas Ft. Worth/North Texas area, it will also help them get careers in IT. I call it “The Psyche Project” because psyche in Greek means butterfly. And I believe in the power of transformation.

I understand that sometimes empathy is not enough. Sometimes sympathy is essential to really help someone make the transformation that beating the odds calls for. I’ve been to those low places and now I’m a network engineer and entrepreneur. I am living my dream and I want to help as many people as possible to learn the power of believing in yourself.


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Rebecca Chisolm

Regional Manager, North America

Cisco Networking Academy