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Member Spotlight:
Cisco’s Unni Nair on how the digital industrial revolution can transform the corporate sustainability field and create more meaningful connections

We sat down recently with Unni Nair (@unni_k_nair), Manager, Supply Chain Sustainability at Cisco Systems, to discuss how his personal experience has shaped his work in sustainability.

Read on to learn more about how his unique background and passion for social causes, technology and business has led him to his current role at Cisco.

What project are you most excited about right now?

UN: I've always been very passionate about the ability for technology to address societal challenges of the modern era. Developing effective solutions in the Supplier Responsibility (SR) space and quantifying impact has been particularly challenging, but as digitization within businesses and supply chains matures, I see that starting to change.

For example, we recently formalized a collaboration with the Electronic Industry Citizenship Coalition (EICC). As part of this engagement, we’ve outfitted the EICC with Cisco collaboration equipment and technology – everything from IP phones and Telepresence units that we’re well known for – to some of our latest and greatest hardware and software products such as SPARK (a virtual collaboration tool). The initial goal of this partnership is to help the global operations of EICC function more effectively. Longer term, we’ll be co-developing SPARK solutions that enable brands to collaborate across the EICC and within their supply chains to create positive SR-related outcomes. We’ll be unveiling more exciting things about our partnership in the coming months, as this engagement is just the beginning of what’s possible.

As a B2B corporation with an outsourced global supply chain, we believe that our biggest impacts can come through partnerships and taking an industry approach. To enhance our social footprint, we’ve even been able to enlist a diverse-owned channel partner, Zones, to donate their services to EICC to get them up and running. That’s in addition to the other internal teams — like Corporate Affairs and IT — which make this engagement possible, not to mention all the functional groups within our Supply Chain organization. It’s always inspiring to witness the convening power of Sustainability across Cisco’s vast ecosystem.

I also feel that there’s no better way for technology companies like Cisco to make a positive societal impact than through the use of our own products and services. At the corporate level, we have a goal to positively impact 1 billion people by 2025 in a variety of ways, and I see the EICC partnership as part of Supply Chain’s contribution to improving the welfare of our extended workforce, and hopefully, factories across the industry.

What inspires and drives you to work on sustainability?

UN: I’ve been fortunate to have great role models in my family who encouraged me to always consider the bigger picture. Growing up, I was always inspired by the work my father does as a professor. He takes a multidisciplinary approach to social science and sustainability. His work in researching the social and cultural factors, which enable longevity (specifically, centenarians – people who live over 100 years old) has been particularly fascinating. There are so many correlations to living that long at an individual level that can be gleaned within larger systems, such as corporations and supply chains.

Also inspiring was the story of my great-grandfather, a botanist who brought tapioca from Brazil to India for cultivation for the first time in order to mitigate the effects of a famine induced by the failing rice crop. He was a sustainability practitioner of his day – finding a disruptive solution to a problem in his community that he was able to help solve through his experiences, education and openness to considering the bigger picture.

To me, the convergence of the sustainability field with the digital-industrial revolution is our generation’s opportunity to transform society by stepping back and taking into account the broader context. We’re seeing it all around us in the form of technology and new business models, and Cisco’s corporate evolution positions us well in both areas.

Tell me about your career in sustainability.

UN: Early in my career, I had stints as a management consultant, at startups and as an entrepreneur. After years of volunteering on sustainability projects on the side, working on a non-profit documentary on the 2004 Southeast Asia tsunami rebuilding efforts changed the trajectory of my career for good. That experience inspired me to try to find ways to marry my strengths and my passions toward something more impactful, eventually leading me back to graduate school. I then discovered Sustainability as a discipline, which led to the career I have today.

Can you share something about yourself that would surprise us? Any hidden talents?

UN: I’ve had the opportunity to co-write a college textbook and work on mini-documentaries with my father. I'm especially struck by the power of film as a means of connection to others from different backgrounds.

Working on documentaries has been a great way to learn more about other ways of life, and what it means to live a sustainable lifestyle across cultures. The most recent documentary I helped with was on centenarians in blue zones – areas across the world such as Nicoya, Costa Rica and Okinawa, Japan, that have a high concentration of people who live over 100 years old. We were seeking to understand the social customs and traditions that inform how to live a long life. What’s really interesting is that authentic connections within one’s community – both socially and environmentally – seem to be a greater indicator to longevity than education, technology, or financial well-being.

It’s amazing to me how reaching the 100-year milestone is something far more elemental. That level of longevity is achieved with sustained happiness, which can only happen through meaningful connections to people and nature in your immediate surroundings – perhaps something we lose touch with all too often in the modern age.

Being in the technology industry can seem at odds with these insights, but we’re still in the infancy of the internet and just starting to scratch the surface of its potential for creating meaningful positive societal connectivity.

If you had unlimited time and resources, what type of work would you want to collaborate with fellow SB Members on?

UN: Cisco’s Executive Chairman John Chambers said, “every company’s future is going to depend on whether they get the market transitions right, and digitization and the Internet of Things (IoT) is at the front of that.” We’ve embraced that insight within our supply chain and sustainability team through a hackathon culture where we pull together our brightest process, technical, and subject matter experts to develop better ways of executing on our objectives.

I also think that insight holds true for the sustainability field as well and through the convening power of the SB Member Network – there’s a lot of opportunity to have a much more intentional focus on digitization, particularly with corporations.

Is there a specific initiative or project that Cisco is already a part of that you wish other SB members would join?

UN: We're huge proponents for the Internet of Things (IoT). IoT can capture, analyze, and distribute data and insights across supply chains, industries, countries and even cultures, like never before possible. I think this has huge potential, especially when coupled with our collaboration tools and emerging technologies, such as blockchain, to enable continuous improvement in the SR space. We are certainly very interested in getting involved in work related to this.

Why is your participation in the SB Member Network important?

UN: Once you reach a certain point in your sustainability career, the best form of continuing education is to learn from your peers. No one evolves in a vacuum, so it’s crucial to stay connected to networks of kindred spirits. Sustainable Brands puts on some of the best forums in the field, hands down.

What do you work on in your free time?

UN: I’m an aspiring gardener, though I can't say that I'm very good at it or do it enough!

Anything else you'd like to share with fellow SB Members?

UN: Cisco is ushering in a new era of “intent-based technologies” that constantly learn, adapt, and protect internet networks to help businesses make more informed, context based decisions. We are perceptive of the business value of how accurate data and insights leads to healthier enterprises, and is really at the core of our evolving business model. It’s been coined “The Network. Intuitive.

Now more than ever, I think it’s important to be pursuing that end at an individual level. We can always rely on technology to aid us in making more informed decisions but it will never replace our personal responsibility to seek being in context of how to be a better citizen, employee and most importantly – a fellow human being.


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