The STEM Evangelist

The Hong Kong native and Cisco SVP never was told when growing up “girls don’t do math”

By Jackie Krentzman

KC Wu, Cisco’s senior vice president, Operations Architecture, is responsible for keeping the company’s operating platform—in effect, its complex machinery—finely tuned and operating at full potential. Operations Architecture utilizes data and Cisco’s talented team to maintain the company’s operating model.

Wu, who joined Cisco in 1994, has held multiple leadership positions at the company. She has led teams within supply chain management, business architecture, and process transformation. She has also held program management positions in external factory setup, acquisition integration, order fulfillment systems, and production process optimization.

Before joining Cisco, Wu spent seven years at Quantic Industries, an aerospace and defense company, where she held leadership positions in manufacturing engineering and production control.

Wu earned a bachelor of science in mathematics and chemistry from Indiana University in Bloomington, Indiana, and a master of science in industrial engineering from the University of California, Berkeley.

Diversity Woman:
Can you describe what you do at Cisco?
KC Wu: Cisco is undergoing exciting changes as we transition our business to a more recurring revenue model. These changes are complex and wide reaching, touching each function at the company as well as our partners. To get there, we need a solid foundation and a process map that helps guide us as we build the future. My organization, Operations Architecture, guides the process and approach that look at our business strategy to design and deliver an operation engine to transform and run the business of the future. All the while, we must design data and analytics into our processes so we can use intelligent information to be proactive and adaptive to business environment changes, make good decisions, and improve the customer experience.

DW: Cisco is heavily committed to STEM initiatives and bringing young girls and women into the fields of science and technology. Why are you personally passionate about this?
KW: I am passionate about ensuring that not just girls, but all of our youth, grow up feeling confident in their worth and abilities—ready to pursue their dreams and aspirations. I was lucky enough to enjoy the same support from my parents. The confidence that my parents had in me led to the knowledge that I could do anything I put my mind to. Gender stereotypes put boundaries around us and can limit our dreams. We cannot let our gender define what we can or cannot do.

I attended an all-girls school in Hong Kong where no one told me that math and science were “not cool” for girls. I explored everything. Today there are too many social constraints telling girls what’s cool and what’s not. It’s important to inspire girls to dream big because the world is changing, quickly!
I believe that math is a language describing how the universe works, that science describes how we progress as humans, and that technology is changing how we live. As human beings, regardless of gender, we need to be part of this evolution and innovation. At the core of human progress and innovation is an inclusive environment. We can’t move forward alone. We all benefit from diversity of thought.

DW: Did you ever have an experience while growing up where it was assumed you couldn’t handle math, science, or technology because you were a girl? Or do you feel you’ve experienced bias toward women in the tech industry?
KW: I’m fortunate that I never experienced anyone telling me I could not handle any of what are traditionally viewed as the “male” subjects, like science or math. My father was a doctor and my mother was a nurse, and so at a young age I was exposed to biology and medical information. Also, my father was a world-renowned amateur photographer and taught me how to mix chemicals to develop the photographs. I was excited to learn this, and so chemistry was just fun for me. As a result of these really positive experiences, I grew up with no fear about STEM subjects.

But in grad school, I was one of only two female students in industrial engineering. While it was awkward at times, I really didn’t experience major obstacles. The important lesson for me was that you should always follow your passion and not let social norms define you. Venture into anything you love and open up new paths on your journey.

DW: Tell us about your parents. Did they experience any challenges in the workplace? If so, how did those challenges inform your thinking and how you developed your career path?
KW: My parents were born in China and then moved to Hong Kong. They were very successful in their respective fields and immigrated to the United States after their retirement. They always pushed me to try new and diverse activities, but mostly guided me to experience things I was interested in. This molded my perspective as I got older. I would describe my career path as both an exploration and an adventure. Natural curiosity is my guide. I am constantly asking questions and researching topics of interest to me. I love to find the answers to things I don’t know. Having leaders who believe in me and push me out of my comfort zone has been key.

DW: You are a member of the Cisco Asian Affinity Network (CAAN). Can you tell us a bit about what CAAN does and what your role is?
KW: I’m really proud to be part of the executive support team that provides sponsorship and guidance to CAAN. CAAN’s vision is to make Cisco a place where Asians are at their best for Cisco and the world by attracting and developing the best talent, creating networking opportunities both inside and outside the company for our employees, and giving back to the community.

DW: A study last year by Ascend revealed that in the tech industry 
Asian Americans are well represented in lower-level positions, but not in the higher management and executive levels. In your opinion, why is that? What can be done to improve these numbers?
KW: Traditional Asian values, such as “respect authority,” “modesty is a virtue,” and “hard work always pays off” can influence our behavior and leadership approach. We tend to lead from behind, but to progress to the executive level and find success there, one must lead from the front. As an Asian American leader, I strive to lead by example and inspire the new generation to move to the front and be visible leaders.

DW: You’re also an executive sponsor of Men for Inclusion at Cisco. Why is it important to engage men around this issue?
KW: The group’s mission is to shape our diversity culture and drive inclusiveness for all underrepresented groups in Cisco to fuel innovation and growth. Our goal is to shine a light on unconscious bias by educating ourselves and our peers. The work we do together includes mentorship and sponsorship, as well as best practice sharing among male leaders to develop and foster an inclusive culture. When I think about the many resource groups at Cisco, despite the different focus areas, each one is working to demonstrate the value and importance of diversity. Diversity of background, thought, and ideas leads to amazing innovation!

DW: Tell us about how your mentors have influenced you. Have you mentored or sponsored someone, or are you doing so currently?
KW: Simply put, I would not be where 
I am without the many mentors and sponsors I’ve collaborated with over the years. These relationships have challenged me to do more, dream more, and become more. I believe mentorship is critical today for young women interested in STEM. Without it, it’s often hard for these women to see the art of the possible.

Because I’ve gained so much from these types of relationships at work, 
I take time to both mentor and sponsor many people at Cisco. Some are more formal engagements, where we work on a business problem or challenge they’re facing. However, I often find that more frequent ad hoc mentoring conversations can help people quickly get back on track and moving in the right direction. I’m always open to offer guidance and mentorship wherever I can. DW

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