Robots plucking trash out of oceans and low-cost bionic limbs; these are just two winning concepts from the Cisco Global Problem Solver Challenge, which announced its latest winners in June. The competition illustrates that as digital technology advances, so does the spectrum of creative ideas that leverage it in amazing ways to address pervasive worldwide social and environmental problems. Winners receive cash prizes to help take their solutions to the next level; this year, 20 early-stage social entrepreneur teams received a combined total of $1 million USD.
No one knows the competition better than Shawna Darling, a CSR programs development manager in Cisco Corporate Affairs who has run the program since it began in 2016. Under her enthusiastic and dedicated leadership, the annual Cisco Global Problem Solver Challenge has matured and to date has awarded $2.25 million USD to 63 technology startups from 20 different countries. She also manages and helped develop Global Problem Solvers: The Series, an animated program aimed at inspiring middle-school students to pursue STEM and entrepreneurship, and works with Global Citizen to award the Global Citizen Prize: Cisco Youth Leadership Award.
Although she once dreamed of becoming an archeologist, Shawna received a bachelor’s degree in educational technology before joining Cisco in 1999 and the Corporate Affairs team in 2007. During a recent Q&A interview, I spoke with her about her job and how the Cisco Global Problem Solver Challenge is a critical social impact program within Cisco’s Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) efforts.
You’ve worn other hats prior to working on CSR programs; can you tell us more about that and what led to a career in championing social entrepreneurs?
Shawna: When I first joined Cisco, I was still living in Canada, which is where I am from. I was developing training materials for our sales force and flew down to San Jose once a week. I eventually moved to San Jose and for several years worked in various education and leadership development roles, but with my background in education and technical training, I always thought I should work within Cisco’s CSR space.
The opportunity to move over to CSR came after Hurricane Katrina struck the U.S. Gulf Coast in August 2005. Cisco made a $40 million USD investment in school systems in Louisiana and Mississippi for rebuilding infrastructure with technology and training teachers on how to use it, which was a great fit for my technology-enabled education background. I jumped at the chance to move my family to New Orleans as part of this 21st Century Schools Initiative and lived there for a year. We made necessary systemic changes in school districts that had a lot of challenges, even before the hurricane. Once that program ended, I returned to California and transitioned onto the CSR team to work on other initiatives.
The Cisco Global Problem Solver Challenge just celebrated its fifth anniversary and is now one of Cisco’s signature CSR programs. How has it evolved since its inception?
Shawna: We’ve expanded. Over the last five years the number of start-ups applying has doubled every year except for 2021, which saw more than triple the number. That was a happy surprise!
We also wanted to attract a broader, more diverse range of competitors. In 2020 we removed the stipulation that entrepreneurs be university students or recent graduates, for a couple of reasons: We saw value in including older, early-stage social entrepreneurs, who bring great ideas and experience to the table. We also recognized some innovators take an alternative route and bypass university altogether, especially in the global community.
Another significant development has been the types of problems addressed. With worldwide proliferation of climate and environmental crises over the last couple of years, more start-ups are taking on these problems. This is very significant for Cisco, given our recent commitment to reach net zero by 2040.
What hasn’t changed is our focus on enabling tech entrepreneurs, who can really use funding in the early stages.
How has the Cisco Global Problem Solver Challenge helped level the playing field for women social entrepreneurs?
Shawna: Women start-up founders often receive a fraction of the funding male entrepreneurs get. Innovation challenges, such as ours, are one means of ensuring women’s start-ups get a fair shot. We fully support women social entrepreneurs, especially since research shows that female entrepreneurs are often more successful in the long run, delivering more than twice the return on investment.
Every year we do outreach to organizations that support women entrepreneurs to guarantee a large share of applicants have at least one female co-founder. Since our launch, about 25 percent of participants have been female, and in 2021 nine out of the 20 winning social entrepreneur teams included at least one woman founder. But obviously, we’d like to see even more.
Can you share a success story from one of the contestants where winning made a difference?
Shawna: I could talk about several participants, but OmniVis comes to mind. A 2017 second runner-up, they developed a smartphone-based tool to test for cholera in water. Since winning the prize money, they’ve been able to expand their product line to test for the COVID-19 pathogen in human saliva and scale up their staff to six full-time employees. In addition, the Cisco name associated with the prize led to increased visibility and additional awards, as Katherine Clayton, OmniVis CEO and co-founder, confirmed when she said, “It helped us get more recognition and propel us further into our markets.”
Can you tell us more about the role that the Cisco Global Problem Solver Challenge plays in Cisco’s mission to
Shawna: By investing in early-stage entrepreneurships without taking any stake in the companies, we help them progress. Notably, these start-ups are future job creators who will provide livelihoods for others while solving social and environmental issues.
What type of social issues do you envision future Cisco Global Problem Solver Challenge winners taking on over the next five years or so.
Shawna: We’ll see more innovators tackling the roots of climate issues. I also see tremendous opportunity in smart agriculture. Globally, farming hasn’t been very technology-enabled, yet there is so much potential to help smallholder farmers see better-quality harvests and bigger profits. But what excites me most are the social entrepreneurs with innovations for issues we haven’t even thought about, yet. The competition will help them gain more visibility.
Can you share something personal about yourself you’d like others to know?
Shawna: Well, I got a cute pandemic puppy. My son named him Fenrir — Fen for short — after a Norse wolf god. Fen is a Pomsky — half Pomeranian and half husky — who is five-months old now. It’s a little bit like taking care of a newborn!