Managing a global innovation program comes with many ups and downs. There is the emotional attachment to those involved, the excitement of sharing the good news of their advancement, and the sadness of sharing their journey will not continue. But luckily, at Cisco, the Innovate Everywhere Challenge (IEC) gives employees the opportunity to take bold risks, thrive, and continue to pursue their ideas long after the competition has ended. And this year was especially unique.

I joined the team in 2016, just as we were kicking off the second IEC and have had the distinct honor of accepting two awards over the years. The Impact Award for “achieving extraordinary outcomes related to innovation programs.” And the “Best Achievement in Cultural Transformation & Sustainability to deliver a high performing Enterprise Excellence culture,” presented by The Business Transformation & Operational Excellence World Summit (BTOES).

My “aha moment” of the magnitude of the program and the opportunities it lends our employees was in March 2018 at the Executive Summit. When does one have the opportunity to share their progress and experience to a room full of senior leadership with Chuck Robbins, Chairman and CEO, Cisco, front and center? That’s exactly what happened to previous IEC winners and semifinalists. It was in that very moment, I realized this is it!!

2018 Executive Summit

IEC is now in its fifth year, and I have had the privilege of working closely with 90 semifinalist teams, made up of amazing employees from around the globe and from every function of the business, along with hundreds of mentors and judges. For me, it’s really a dream job to be part of their story.

IEC Cisco Design Thinking Workshop, San Jose, CA

Every year, the IEC invites all 70,000+ employees to share their innovative ideas. The Challenge creates a pipeline of ideas that go through startup like phases – ideate, validate, fund, build. The more teams progress, the more support, time, and funding they get to develop their ventures. To witness how far the teams have come at the end of their 8-month journey is truly exciting.

Cisco Beat 2019: Flora Freitas and Gonzalo Salgueiro

My career highlight came this year as I was kicking off IEC5 during Cisco Beat, our monthly company-wide meeting. I shared the stage with two of our innovators and winners of IEC, Girish Babu and Gonzalo Salgueiro. This was an exciting moment for the program and another opportunity for past participants to share their experience with the entire Cisco community. Little did we know that kicking off IEC5 would also be a new realization in the world we were about to face – a journey with a twist.

All seemed like business as usual. Like in past years, employees came together, submitted their ideas, nearly 400, and invested in their favorites, almost 90,000 tokens. In early January our 20 semifinalist teams, flew in from around the globe to attend a 3-day in person design thinking workshop. Following the workshop, our world as we knew it seemingly changed overnight.

We announced our 8 finalist teams in early April and despite the current situation caused by COVID-19, our teams quickly adapted to a new way of connecting, found creative ways to innovate, and remained focused on the end prize. By May, teams were ready to pitch. While the set up looked different for the Finals this year, all virtual, the team’s commitment to innovation and entrepreneurship remained the same.

IEC5 Virtual Finals hosted by Jerome J. Sanders

Employees tuned in all around the globe to cheer on their favorite teams. It was our most international finalist group ever, with teams from India, China, Norway, Canada and the US. One after another, teams took the virtual stage to pitch their venture, shark tank style, to a prestigious group of judges representing each function of the business.

The day after the Finals, teams waited in anticipation on Webex for who would win IEC5.  Music, dancing in chairs, and sentiments shared from the teams on their IEC journey made this the most intimate and personal awards ceremony for me to date. The announcement of the four winners were greeted with cheers, virtual clapping, and tears of joy. Next up, our teams will buckle down to do the hard work of converting their idea into real bottom-line value for Cisco.  Can’t wait to share their progress. Stay tuned.

Our culture of innovation, and the ability to engage employees across the globe is what inspires me to deliver a richer experience each year for every employee at Cisco. Michael Wall, winner of IEC3/4 shared, “IEC proves that what you “think” is impossible is all in your head. IEC makes the “impossible” POSSIBLE.”

I am excited to be a part of that “bridge to possible.”

What inspires you and how are you building a culture of innovation?


Flora Freitas

Innovate Everywhere Challenge Program Lead

Emerging Technologies & Incubation