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People Behind CSR at Cisco: How Cisco Drives an Inclusive, Sustainable Future Through the Circular Economy

by Sabah Kadir

Published 09-16-21

Submitted by Cisco Systems, Inc.

Katie Schindall, Director of Circular Economy at Cisco
Katie Schindall, Director of Circular Economy at Cisco

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.

Enabling an inclusive future for all requires that we care for the planet we all share and do our part to address global challenges. A key tenet of this is enabling a circular economy, moving from a linear economy where products are developed with the expectation of a single use, to a circular model of resource conservation, use, and reuse. Katie Schindall is at the forefront of this work as the Director of Circular Economy at Cisco, leading her team and partnering with company-wide stakeholders to enable a circular economy across Cisco. She has a Master of Environmental Management and an MBA coupled with diverse experience across corporate sustainability.  

Katie and I sat down to discuss her path to her current position, current Cisco circular initiatives, and advice for those wanting to go into the field. 

Can you tell me a bit about your path to working at Cisco?

I went to grad school knowing I wanted to transition to a career in corporate sustainability. As I was finishing up and looking for a job, I had a classic sustainability career story where a series of relationships and chance encounters led me to the right place at the right time: meeting the person who became my first boss in a full-time sustainability role at a conference. Through her, I started a job leading supply chain social & environmental responsibility at a tech company, added e-waste, and then transitioned to a new job (in a very different industry: footwear and apparel) leading product sustainability. When that same boss took a role at Cisco leading supply chain sustainability, John Kern (SVP of Supply Chain Operations and Executive Sponsor for Circular Economy) asked her what she planned to do to develop a circular economy program. She called me and said: “I have the position for you!” It was too good of an opportunity for me to pass up. 

In your own words: What is circular economy and how does it create value for a company and the world as a whole? 

Over time, society has evolved a self-reinforcing cycle where products are designed for a single use, purchased, and then disposed of, and customers expect that in how they consume products and services. As a result, the physical items available to us and which run our lives are easily disposable, and the way companies go to market frequently focuses on consuming more instead of optimizing those assets for the outcomes or service they provide. 

The circular economy is an economic model that turns this “use and dispose” thinking on its head, seeking to reduce waste and pollution from the beginning, use renewable resources, and maximize reuse. This drives significant opportunity for new business models and innovation, and also manages for risk as resources become scarcer and climate change becomes an increasing crisis. This approach is no longer a “nice to have;” circular economy must be a core tenet of the business operations of the future. 

At Cisco, we focus on “connecting the unconnected,” and this rings true in our circular economy efforts. As a company, we can eliminate the concept of waste and drive business models powered by digital technology – therefore transforming not only how we conduct our own business, but also supporting other businesses looking to scale toward their own circular economy and other sustainability visions. 

Tell me about your passion for circular economy – when did it begin, and how has it evolved over time? 

 My interest in environmental conservation goes back to growing up in southern California, spending a lot of time outside, growing a large amount of what we ate, and watching the county’s reservoirs dry up over years of drought. As I got more experience and lived and worked in other countries – Ireland, Ghana, Australia – I understood more about the challenges and opportunities at play, the power of business to drive change, and the connections between social, environmental, and economic issues. That reinforced my interest in driving systems-level change. Circular economy is a great example of that. 

I first learned about the circular economy when I heard Ellen MacArthur speak at a BSR conference in 2014. In her keynote, she shared her vision for the creation of the Ellen Macarthur Foundation and defined the circular economy as a concept. While I wasn’t necessarily thinking about a job focused on the circular economy at the time, and this is my first job with that in the title, I have worked in various sustainability roles focused on pieces of what I am doing now (including product, supply chain, remanufacturing and recycling) and it’s exciting to be able to connect all those pieces in my current role. I think the fact that our circular strategy at Cisco is holistic and that we have the support to build it into our core business is a huge strength and makes it rewarding for me. It helps us see across the business and make connections we might not otherwise make, yielding more impactful outcomes. 

How is circular economy being deployed at Cisco? 

Our vision is to catalyze long-term growth and resiliency for Cisco by embedding the circular model in the DNA of how we design and manage our equipment, offers, and solutions. 

To achieve that, we need to embed the circular model in the way we function as a business. My direct team works with a variety of partners and stakeholders across the business to develop and implement strategies to embed circular economy into our business, from product and packaging design, to supply chain, service, and remanufacturing operations, to customer engagement and offer development (like as-a-Service), to how we engage and collaborate with NGOs and governments. In some cases, we develop and implement the strategy fairly directly; in other cases, we’re bringing together teams to collectively decide on strategic priorities, making connections, or acting as subject-matter experts to support people already leading their own efforts. We also track and report on our progress toward public goals and commitments and strategic milestones. This requires managing a diverse set of initiatives and stakeholders across different organizations in the company and keeping everything connected and moving in the same direction. 

To help bring these groups together, share knowledge and best practices, generate ideas, and maintain alignment and executive buy-in, we run several governance bodies and employee networks. This helps facilitate good progress while also increasing our community of advocates and champions. We are very fortunate to have strong support from leadership and a great community of people working on circular economy across the company. This engagement, and the ideas and leadership all of those people bring, is fundamental to our progress and everything we’ve achieved so far. 

Imagine it’s 10 years from now – in your ideal world, how has the circular economy been deployed across industries and communities? 

I think we’ll need more than 10 years for my ideal world! I would love to see webs of infrastructure in place such that resources are always conserved and all pieces of consumption flow in a constant cycle of reuse and renewal. The technology required to manufacture and manage circular goods across multiple lifecycles – including the information and technologies to recover and reuse products, components, and raw materials – will exist at scale, as normal practice, across all value chains. The ubiquity of these processes will also permeate the way that we design, the way companies go to market and sell, the way people consume – and the infrastructure we all rely on, like for our global energy needs. The buy-in and socialization of this economic model will be universal.  

As circular economy grows, more and more people want to engage in work in this field. Do you have any advice for people seeking to break into this space? 

Ask yourself which aspect of circular economy or corporate sustainability truly excites you. When I was earlier in my career, I knew I wanted to work in “corporate sustainability,” but didn’t know exactly where, and it’s an incredibly broad field! Your interest might be in a particular industry or geography, starting a new business or organization to go after a specific challenge, or in a specific type or role like data analysis or working with suppliers.  

This brings me to my main piece of advice: put yourself out there and start learning the nuances of working in this space. Circular economy and sustainability more broadly are not easy fields, but the people doing this work are driven by true passion. Have informational interviews with those you find interesting, attend virtual webinars, find local workshops, and see what is most meaningful to you! Then do what you can to get some applied experience (however large or small) to explore those areas of interest. For those with more experience, these types of explorations could still be helpful as a way to connect an emerging area to one that you already know well, or to see how years of work in a non-sustainability role can bring tremendous value to a new career! 

If you’re interested in learning more about Cisco’s circular economy initiatives, please visit our Circular Economy webpage.

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