Welcome to our blog series on the people behind Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) at Cisco. Each blog in this series will highlight a different Cisco employee who works closely with CSR initiatives across the company.
As technology continues to advance, it opens new opportunities for communication and innovation. But at the same time, there is an increased risk of technology being used in ways that harm human rights. Cisco is committed to identifying and managing its human rights impacts. We do this by focusing on mitigating risks and fostering collaborative and transparent engagement with our stakeholders and investors. A centralized Business and Human Rights (BHR) team, formed in fiscal 2019, leads this work.
Meet Katie Shay, who started the BHR program at Cisco and is responsible for growing this team. In honor of International Human Rights Day, we talked to her and learned why she pursued human rights law, what brought her to Cisco, and what critical initiatives the BHR team is leading.
Can you tell me a bit about your life before joining Cisco?
Katie: Ever since I was an adolescent, I’ve been interested in social justice issues. After completing my bachelor’s degree, I worked at a company that provided telecommunications services for people who are deaf or hard of hearing. I then served a year with AmeriCorps VISTA in public schools in Milwaukee, Wisconsin in a role focused on reducing the drop-out rate by increasing student engagement with the community. That allowed me to get proximate to a part of my community that I didn’t interact with much in my day-to-day life, and I got close with my students. When I stepped back and looked at all the different things that made it hard for my students to complete high school, I realized that I wanted to pursue a career in law and policy. My law school experience brought me to human rights law. Specifically, I was really interested in exploring the idea of responsible business decision-making from a human rights perspective.
What brought you to Cisco, and what are your job responsibilities now?
Katie: As a lawyer, I’ve developed an expertise in business and human rights. First at a civil society organization and then in-house at Yahoo. I moved to North Carolina to be closer to family and continued working remotely for Yahoo doing a job that I loved. But I got a call from a recruiter at Cisco who was looking for someone with a human rights background to join the privacy team. Around that time, Cisco was forward leaning, saying privacy is a human right. It was a dream opportunity to join Cisco in this effort, bring my expertise to a company that is committed to these issues, and build something new. It also happened to be in my beautiful North Carolina backyard, and Cisco seemed like a great place to work!
I’ve been so happy with the experience. It has been everything I thought it would be and more. I get to work on the most interesting issues that are impacting people all around the world who use our products. The decisions we make about how we design our products, how we build them, and how we put them out in the market have real impacts on people’s lives. Examples include making Webex more accessible or enhancing our security products to protect privacy online. My colleagues have embraced Cisco’s purpose to power an inclusive future for all. As a company, we are committed to conducting ourselves as a responsible business and using our position to influence our partners and suppliers to be doing more of the same thing.
Can you tell me more about the Business and Human Rights (BHR) team?
Katie: A lot of companies don’t have a BHR team. Because of Cisco’s commitment to social justice and our Global Human Rights Policy, adopted in 2012, we’ve been able to expand the team and dial in on a strategy for Cisco that advances human rights. One prong of that is that we are embedding human rights into governance at Cisco. We’re developing policies and processes so that our business partners can get faster analysis and answers on how human rights issues may impact their business decisions and how their business decisions may impact human rights. We’ve also created a Human Rights Advisory Committee that’s part of that overall governance framework. The other two prongs of our strategy have to do with our products and our business relationships.
What actions are we taking?
Katie: I was so impressed with the effort that Cisco made around our Social Justice Beliefs and Actions and the effort that we continue to drive around those actions. The word “action” is the critical piece, meaning that we went beyond saying we’re horrified by the murder of George Floyd. We’re horrified by the way that our African American and Black neighbors are treated in our communities. We decided we were going to do something about it. And when you look across our social justice actions, what you’ll see is that we’ve looked at nearly every part of the business. And every opportunity that we have to make a difference, whether that’s by investing in suppliers that are Black-owned or supporting HBCUs. I’m especially proud of action 12, which has to do with looking at our product portfolio and the impacts of that technology on vulnerable populations, which would include the African American and Black community that we had in mind when we published these actions.
AI/ML systems can result in legal or human rights implications for individuals. What is the BHR team doing to make sure human rights principles are kept in mind as we design our products?
Katie: We’ve worked with a cross-functional team from privacy, security, human rights, engineering, government affairs, and others to develop responsible Artificial Intelligence (AI) controls that require all our AI products to be built according to privacy, security, and fairness principles. We’re concerned about potential bias that could be ingrained in our products, so we’re working with relevant teams to assess and address the impact of those technologies on human rights. For example, when teams are building facial recognition for Webex, they must adhere to our privacy and security requirements, and they also have to document how they have worked to address the potential for bias in their system.
What might people be surprised to learn about human rights?
Katie: I think many people would be surprised to learn that considering human rights in business decisions is good for business as it helps foster trust, greater transparency and stakeholder engagement. My team is here to be a partner to the business and to help Cisco respect human rights across our global operations. We approach our work by seeking to understand the business objectives, the customer needs, the end-user needs, and the operating environment. Our team thinks about how we can bring those perspectives together to help the business put together a strategy that will set us up for success and help us fulfill our objective of respecting human rights in the areas where we operate.