The value of hard work has always been a staple of mine, long instilled in my siblings and I from our parents. In fact, anytime I found myself being lackadaisical or not paying attention to detail, my mom would always paraphrase a quote from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. saying, “Even if you’re a street sweeper, you be the best street sweeper you can be.”

At the time, I’d stand there puzzled (after all, I wanted to become a teacher) and absently understand that she was preparing me for what would later develop into my work ethic. She never addressed it, but I now understand that everything she provided us was because she wanted more for her children – opportunities that she didn’t have growing up in the 1920s.

My mom was what she called a “domestic engineer” who cleaned houses. She had a fourth-grade education yet ensured each of her children went to college. My dad was a high school custodian and WWII veteran. He had a high school education and always corrected my grammar like, “Ain’t is not a word.” and “I don’t have any.”

I didn’t appreciate it then, but I do now.

Although my parents could not teach the rules of a corporate environment, such as politics, soft skills, mentorship, or how to earn a seat at the table, they nailed the fundamentals of hard work, and I took those lessons with me wherever I went.

When I was a young professional, I once heard a speaker ask, “When you leave this world, what will the “dash” between when you lived and died represent? What legacy will you have left behind?” When I initially heard those profound words, I didn’t know what to do with them. I thought I was too young to consider a legacy, and certainly wasn’t thinking about the part “after” the dash. The only thing on my mind was working hard enough as a single parent to put food on the table.

Still, I often thought of what my answer might be.

In 2006, I started working at Cisco as a vendor. I was broke and broken, on a constant roller-coaster of having more bills than money. My circumstance wasn’t effort. I was doing as my parents had taught me; I was working hard, but I wasn’t really going anywhere in my career. I was a degreed woman, who was not actualizing the power of my potential, and was stuck on a plateau without an understanding of how to get to the next level. I’d never been taught how to negotiate or to be intentional, so I took what I received and continued to work hard.

Milissa smiles with two of her peers

2006 was the year that I learned new lessons about the relationship between hard work and high-level compensation. Two words changed my life: sales and commission.  Wowser! Hard work rebounded my financial situation, and that same determination helped me to overcome cancer two years later. However, I continued to miss the lesson that hard work is but one leaf on the success tree.

Other leaves on the success tree that I’ve found crucial were mentorship and sponsorship, and they’ve helped my career flourish at Cisco.

Mentorship has afforded me the opportunity to grow professionally and to view challenges through a different lens. Sponsorship has been equally important. Sponsors have seen potential in me when I have not always recognized it myself. Even better, these relationships have made it possible for me to “pay it forward” and mentor others.

I am so grateful that Cisco has a culture that supports these relationships, and that even when I may have missed the mark – my mentors and sponsors have recognized that and prevented me from failing.

So, what does that “dash” mean for me today?

It means altruism, the unselfish concern for the welfare of others. It means being a bridge-builder, an elevator, or even a parachute. Over the course of my career, I’ve gone on to create several events and programs at Cisco that will forever become part of my legacy. However, my passion has become preparing the younger generation for the professional workforce.

I want my legacy to be one where I’ve helped young, talented, and ambitious students recognize all the leaves on the success tree. Moreover, I want my legacy to be that I gave more of myself to those who may have grown up in single or no-parent households, homeless, impoverished or who might be first-generation college students. I want to show them what my parents could not. I want them to understand the interworking of a corporate environment and how to overcome barriers to their success.

In keeping with this passion for assisting young people, I created The ASCEND Program with employees from Cisco, Merck, and North Carolina Central University. ASCEND assists African American and Hispanic collegiate talent with the unforeseen challenges they may encounter when first entering a corporate environment. Aligned with a mentor, these students participate in an 8-week education program that addresses areas such as effective communication, professionalism, diversity, executive presence, business skills and acumen, and the 5 points of self (Spiritual, Emotional, Mental, Physical and Relational).Melissa smiles with two of her peers in front of two tv's with the Connected Asian Affinity Network logo displayed.

Each of these educational modules is important, but “5 Points of Self” is specifically important to the program because mental health impacts everything we do every day. This session teaches students that we do in fact bring the past into our present, but it also teaches them that we have a choice to not allow old baggage to derail our future. A therapist assists students with moving through the “5 Points of Self” and understand that past pains should not define them as people.

After nearly two years of planning, our first cohort of 15 students finished in November 2019. Three Seniors were placed into roles at Cisco, Merck, and a small business, one student gained an internship at Cisco and another student will potentially join Cisco in December upon graduation. Our students continue to receive coaching after they’ve landed roles to assist them with areas such as financial planning, etiquette, and corporate attire. Our next cohort will begin with fall classes at NCCU in September 2020.

What a gift it has been to find – and define – my “dash” at Cisco.

Through my experience, I’ve found that it’s never too early or too late to define your “dash” and I know my parents would be proud that hard work – mixed with mentorship, sponsorship, and a company that empowers its employees to grow – paid off.

Ready to join our team? We’re hiring. Apply now. 


Melissa Holder

Customer Success Executive

CX Customer Success SP Americas