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.
At Cisco, we envision a world where our planet’s limited resources are used sustainably so both people and ecosystems can thrive. Environmental issues like climate change, pollution, and waste can disproportionately affect disadvantaged socio-economic groups and future generations, so we must address them if we hope to create a more inclusive world. Interested in learning more about someone who works on climate solutions at Cisco? Meet Peter Tavernise, Cisco’s lead for Climate Impact and Regeneration, including the new $100M Climate Impact initiative of the Cisco Foundation.
Peter is also Director of the Cisco Sustainability Team and the Public Benefit Investment team. His subject matter expertise and industry knowledge assist Cisco in fulfilling its sustainability and regeneration goals, net zero commitment, and other related efforts. From 2012 to 2021, Peter was the Executive Director for the Cisco Foundation, a separate legal entity from the company, with its own endowment and an independent board made up of senior leaders at Cisco.
I sat down with Peter to learn more about his professional journey and the personal catalyst that inspired him to take action to align with Cisco’s commitment to protect the planet.
Can you tell me a bit about your life before joining Cisco?
Peter: As an undergraduate, I was an English major and when I graduated, thought I wanted to be an English professor. During my master’s program in the early 1990’s, all of my Ph.D. candidate friends said, “Run, do not walk, away. There are no academic jobs in this market.” So, I became a fundraiser for higher education and – wonder of wonders – I was able to work at a university without having to “publish or perish,” got to go home at 5 pm every day, and was already making more than an associate professor. What’s not to like? I thought that would be my career. It was a life of service. And it was always interesting helping to raise funds for new projects like a Free Electron Laser or the new School of the Environment.
What brought you to Cisco, and what are your job responsibilities now?
Peter: I became very interested in the intersection of IT and the nonprofit sector and began volunteering as what was called a “circuit rider” back in the late 1990s. A group of friends and I were traveling across the Eastern United States, from Miami to Chicago, proselytizing large audiences of nonprofit executive directors about the power of IT to assist them in their operations and program delivery. As I was doing that work, I was recruited to work at a statewide family foundation, which wanted to learn how to make more effective technology grants. They had noticed they would donate computers to a nonprofit, and six months later, the computers would still be in the box, acting as a literal doorstop. But after two years, it still felt like I was dragging a family foundation in a direction it wasn’t quite ready for.
Some friends told me about a job at Cisco, where the mandate was to “use all our assets, resources, products, services, and our employees’ skills to transform the nonprofit sector through the use of the internet.” The rest is, as they say, history.
Cisco has a unique social investment strategy. Can you share more about our “venture philanthropy” approach to funding nonprofits?
Peter: We invest in earliest-stage ideas or pilots, and we build their capacity in ways a venture capital firm would – helping them with a business model, sustainability, and total addressable market (which in nonprofit vocabulary is their client population).
We look for organizations with scalable, replicable, and sustainable solutions that use the internet and network technology to benefit underserved individuals and communities globally. Our social investments focus on crisis response, access to education, and economic empowerment. We also look for opportunities in all three issue areas that address environmental sustainability, climate disruption, and community resilience building.
We assist nonprofits with the Theory of Change. (What is the problem you are trying to solve, and your A+B+C=output and outcomes? How do you measure and report those, so you can know you are successful and so you can raise more money?) We know our grantees have “graduated” from our program when, after 5-7 years, they are getting $10M grants from other sources, breaking even through earned income, or reaching further stability and scale.
You’ve been involved with the new climate initiatives that are part of the Cisco Foundation, like the $100 million commitment. What inspired you to take action?
Peter: My eldest daughter came into my office three years ago and said, “Dad, you know I’ve always wanted to be an electrical engineer. I grew up across the street from the co-founder of SunPower solar panels, so I’ve seen what one person can accomplish. But I just did the math…and it strikes me that we will have either saved the world by the time I graduate, or it will be too late. So, kinda…what’s the point?” As a parent, this was like getting a spear to the chest. It took me a moment to gather my wits, but I said “Sweetheart, I work every day with people who are seeking to hold the line so there’s a world for you to save when you graduate.” I gave her a copy of Paul Hawken’s Drawdown and Rebecca Solnit’s Hope in the Dark. As far as I know, she never lost sleep over it again because she could see where and how she could make a difference. Meanwhile, for the next eight months, I was sitting at my desk thinking, “But what is Dad doing about this? My day job has nothing to do with the climate…What can I do about this?”
That led to asking the Cisco Foundation to invest in climate solutions. The pitch to the Foundation Trustees was that we could uniquely assist with this multi-modal crisis by applying our own Theory of Change: Our table stakes CSR contributions and net zero commitment, plus uniquely claiming this area of working with communities and employees to educate and activate them around climate, plus our successful venture philanthropy model, which for the first time will include actual climate impact investing. These aspects together will help us foster the inclusive and regenerative future we all want.
How important is engaging community when you want to take action towards widespread change?
Peter: I was training as an executive and leadership coach, and I learned about climate coaching. Climate coaching is a methodology for assisting individuals and communities, like my daughter, who are dealing with climate rage, despair, grief, paralysis, a sense of “fight or flight” – and feelings like, “What can I do? I’m only one person.” We help them move towards what is called “tend and befriend,” which is the ability to look together at the climate future we all want. Or, as veterinarian, sustainable economist, and author Manda Scott would say, “What would it look like if we got everything right?” We don’t have any pictures of that. We see starving polar bears and an endless conveyor belt of natural disasters, which keeps people shut down and passive. If we look to what we all want for the future, we can help move toward effective, collaborative action.
You’re more likely to hear the term environmental sustainability in conjunction with climate solutions. Can you tell us more about regeneration and why it is so important?
Peter: A few months ago, I used the term sustainability in my own living room, and my younger daughter said sternly, “Dad, it’s not enough to be sustainable. You have to be regenerative.” So, I am being schooled by both my daughters, you can see!
As Vandana Shiva, physicist known as the Gandhi of Agriculture, says, the recent IPCC report was titled “Code Red for the Planet,” noting the earth is literally on fire, and it is by definition unsustainable. Regeneration is the title of Paul Hawken’s new book. He defines it as, “Regeneration is not only about bringing the world back to life; it is about bringing each of us back to life.”
The way I would define our current situation is as an extractive system. We take from the environment, and we provide waste that is not used by any other system or life form. In a regenerative system, every part of the process is restored to its fullest vibrance and thrives. So, for instance, in agriculture, we have 60 harvest years left if we continue industrial agriculture, which was an outgrowth of various chemical and mechanical innovations after WWII. If we have a regenerative agricultural approach, we have infinite harvest years because we are working with natural systems and Indigenous Science (10,000+ years of knowledge of how to live in harmony with the planet). As Paul Hawken says, this is not about going back to some mythic past but instead developing a global economy that “creates, builds, and heals.”
An inclusive and regenerative future is based on economic and social justice, providing deeply democratized access to clean power generation, information, education, and opportunity.
Do you have any recommended reading to learn more about these issues?
Peter: I put together a reading list to inform those wanting to learn more about climate change and the Foundation’s approach. These are in order of what I feel might provide a good overview.
Anywhere I have an audible link, I recommend you listen instead of read. In some cases, to honor the Indigenous Oral Culture from which the authors are reading out loud, and in all cases to hear the story in the author’s own words and pacing, which I find essential in gathering in all the valance and meaning they are conveying:
- Paul Hawken, Regeneration (website) and his previous Drawdown (book and website)
- Robin Wall Kimmerer Braiding Sweetgrass – audible link
- Kate Raworth, Doughnut Economics – audible link
- Christiana Figueres + Tom Rivett-Carnac, The Future We Choose
- John Elkington, Green Swans: The Coming Boom in Regenerative Capitalism