We have created a new blog series that will focus 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 a Community Impact Manager at Cisco, Ajay Gopal is dedicated to giving back, supported by the belief that businesses can be a force for good. His continued leadership reflects his convictions within Cisco’s approach to CSR.
Ajay was part of the team that worked to catalyze efforts and champion giving back across the company globally. He helped Cisco reach an unprecedented milestone of 81 percent employee engagement in Community Impact in 2020. He is a founding member of Cisco India’s PRIDE ERO (employee resource organization) and was a core team member of the Mental Health Awareness Collective and the Connected Disabilities Awareness Network. He was a leader on the Community Impact team in India, helping Cisco India win the “Champion/Best Corporate Citizen – Employee Engagement in Giving Back” award instituted by the non-governmental organization (NGO) Youth for Seva for three years running (2017-19).
I sat down with Ajay in a candid and thoughtful conversation about how he came to be so passionate about corporate social responsibility.
What is your background around giving back? What motivates you to do all you do?
Ajay: I’ve always felt blessed with so much and feel that there is always an opportunity to give back.
Growing up, I didn’t have much, but I was happy. My mother was a nurse, and my father was an OT hospital technician. My sister and I were inculcated with a sense of service and gratitude for what we have.
The journey toward giving back started on a personal level for me at a young age. I was academically proficient, and received various scholarships which helped me pay for my education. I was grateful for the support. It also attuned me to the ecosystem where I grew up—my community. I knew that because I was gaining experience, resources, and knowledge from my peer community, I had an obligation to return the investment. This was my first awakening moment.
The second awakening came right before I went to university. At the time, I had five months off between pre-university and my industrial engineering and management graduate schooling. I decided to make good use of my time, so I volunteered with Youth for Seva, an organization that places volunteers throughout the social sector. In this role, I taught government school students English. I don’t recall if I was a good teacher, but it gave me joy.
This was my first attempt at making a difference.
How did you become the founder of so many different chapters in Cisco? What was your starting point?
Ajay: I have sailed many boats at different times.
But let me start with storytelling, as it is very close to my heart, and it’s how everything is connected. I write my own stories and perform them. Storytelling, to me, is a medium to create awareness and sensitization and to speak the unspoken. At Cisco, I have found multiple ways to bring this passion to life.
On a warm day during a lunch break, a core team of volunteers and myself prepared for some surprise street theatre. Dressed in costumes and make-up, we bound singing and dancing through the Bangalore office’s outdoor lunch area. Nobody could resist watching, drawn in by our theatrics. From our costumes, everyone knew that PRIDE had finally arrived at Cisco India! It was one of my most memorable moments as a storyteller. But it wasn’t always fun. We encountered legal hurdles in India towards supporting the LGBT community, which explains why we didn’t have a PRIDE ERO in India before 2018.
Another memorable event was called “silent whispers.” For this, we organized a dimly lit venue where all attendees were blindfolded for anonymity and were free to ask questions to learn more about LGBT rights, concerns, and misconceptions. We wanted to encourage conversation for the community members, friends, and family who wanted to know more but couldn’t ask questions otherwise because of stigmas around LGBTQ+. There was an atmosphere of genuine curiosity, a willingness to understand and accept another perspective. My experience that night has stayed with me.
Another community that I work with closely is often known as the invisible population – individuals with disabilities. As the India lead for giving back, I worked with the Connected Disability Awareness Network, helping them ideate events and engagements around the space of disability. As I got more involved with the core team members, we successfully produced a number of beautiful, meaningful projects. One of those projects was with the Biswa Gouri Charitable Trust, working with the project “Pragati Towards Livelihood” for young adults with Autism Spectrum Disorders. Volunteers and young adults were paired up for a year-long social interaction and learning program that was dedicated to building the students’ social skills. Volunteers acted as practice subjects for students as they practiced their learnings from the Pragati project.
My most memorable moment from the Pragati project took place on a bus ride back from an overnight camping experience, when my buddy and I sat together and sang Tamil songs we both loved.
How are you encouraging people at Cisco to go out and give back, and to take positive action?
Ajay: I started my career at Cisco as a consultant employee; to support employee volunteering and giving in India and to work with our volunteers and not-for-profit partners to help shape the giving back opportunities at the site. Over the years, thanks to leaders and the Cisco community, I have played multiple meaningful roles, from a fundraiser to a volunteer manager, from a campaign manager to a community manager and consultant for teams, sites, and business functions. More than any other strategy or effort, I have found that leading with the ‘why’ and sharing stories to find shared meaning in our efforts motivates people to give back.
Now we listen to employees, learn from insights into our pilot year, and evolve v2.0 of Community Impact – a framework for giving back that reflects the pulse of our employees and celebrates the positive actions that benefit people, planet, and society. We have started to democratize participation in giving back, champion causes that matter to our people and our communities, embrace data and digitization, and lead with our mission of powering an inclusive future for all. This is new, exciting, and in sync with the aspirations of our people and communities!
My conversation with Ajay leaves me feeling uplifted, hopeful for the future, and more inspired to give back. On this Giving Tuesday, we encourage you to go out and support nonprofits you care about or are close to you. Whether it is a donation of money, your time, or your skills, you can make a world of difference simply by trying. Cisco employees can more easily give back on our Bright Funds platform. Happy Giving Tuesday, everyone!