Rebecca Jacoby: The Tech Accelerator

By: Katrina Brown Hunt

Jacoby, one of the highest-ranking women at Cisco, is charged with fostering an inclusive environment

Rebecca Jacoby didn’t enter the tech world out of a long-time love for STEM. According to the Cisco executive, her early interests were far from technology. “My absolute favorite activity as a child was reading,” says the San Francisco Bay Area native. “I wanted to become an author so I could produce the magic that books created for me.” College at the University of the Pacific offered its own twists: “I declared I would become a dentist—but I never really had the passion for it and changed course to economics,” she admits. “Then, I graduated during a deep recession and, frankly, tech was one of the few industries hiring.”

Today, the senior vice president of operations at Cisco has clearly embraced tech, and has fostered an environment that welcomes women and workers from diverse backgrounds, no matter the economy. In her current position, she oversees Supply Chain, IT, Customer & Partner Services, Operations Architecture, Procurement, Customer Success Transformation, Employee Services and the Security and Trust organizations. Her previous positions at the tech giant included plenty of rubber-meets-the-road roles in operations, manufacturing, and IT. In her most recent position, as Cisco’s chief information officer, she earned the title of “Superstar” CIO from Forbes in 2012 and a spot in the CIO Hall of Fame by CIO magazine. Outside the office, Jacoby serves on the board of the Silicon Valley–based Second Harvest Food Bank. One of the largest food banks in the nation, it serves more than a quarter of a million people each month.

Diversity Woman spoke with Jacoby about her unexpected career, her management style—and how that childhood-born love of communication can keep a room full of tech types on the same page.

Diversity Woman:
Were you a leader as a youth? What experiences helped you learn to lead?
Rebecca Jacoby: My mother successfully raised nine children. Everything I’ve learned about leadership started at home. She taught us to be curious, use our imagination and gifts, be adaptable, and enjoy life—traits that naturally put all of us in leadership roles in most of our activities.

DW: What was your first job as a young person, and what was your main takeaway from that experience?
RJ: I have had many odd jobs, the first of which was engraving jewelry at the flea market. I learned that whatever you do, you should endeavor to do it well and you will gain self-respect.

DW: How did your previous role, as Cisco’s CIO, prepare you for your current role? Was there one program or initiative you were most proud of during that part of your Cisco career?
RJ: CIO is one of the few roles that touches every aspect of a business. It is a learning experience that feels like drinking from a fire hose. Cisco IT is well respected and recognized internally and externally as a team with high value-add. During my tenure, we transformed into an “architecture-led, services-everything” organization. 
I am most proud of the team itself: smart, driven to excellence, community oriented, and super fun. They will sustain and surpass anything we have achieved so far.

DW: You are one of the highest-ranking women at Cisco. The numbers are rising slowly, but why do you think there are still so few women at the highest levels of leadership in the tech industry?
RJ: Changing cultural norms is, by nature, a slow process. My experience is that teams with less than 30 percent gender diversity are hindered by unintended communication norms: “unwritten protocols” are confusing to the “outside” participants and may result in responses that are not productively received by the “inside” participants. Change requires overt, conscious efforts across the board, a big dose of patience, and, most certainly, a sense of humor. It is hard work.

DW: What is the solution to bring more gender equity to tech? What is Cisco doing on this front?
RJ: It takes conscious action to create gender equity and an environment of inclusion and collaboration. Cisco recognizes that having a diverse workforce facilitates both creativity and innovation, and we are committed to action. By investing in inclusion training for our recruiters, we’ve seen a 14 percent increase globally in the number of women candidates interviewed this year. We’re also accelerating the adoption of diverse interviewer panels—of mixed gender and/or ethnicity—which we know significantly increases the odds of hiring women.

At Cisco, we believe that accelerating the development of female leaders starts at the top. Over a third of our Executive Leadership Team today are women. And we’re building a pipeline of female talent through a variety of programs. We also have a number of global employee affinity 
communities like Connected Women, Women in Science and Technology, and Women in CyberSecurity that provide powerful networking and career development opportunities.

Perhaps most importantly, an active focus on pay parity helps us build the trusting environment that drives the best teams, allows us to retain the best talent, and positions us as a top employer for both genders.

DW: When you mentor up-and-coming women, how do you advise them to work within this male-dominated field? RJ: All cultures and subcultures have unwritten protocols of communication that present themselves in group settings. Different functions, nationalities, and genders have them. When you are the outsider in a nondiverse team, you tend to process events through your own cultural filter. I have a few funny stories about my own frustrating experiences.

The takeaway is this: Spend your energy learning and sharing different perspectives. Have fun with this and fight the urge to get hung up on it.

DW: What basic business skills should complement the STEM background and tech savvy that many tech workers have?
RJ: Fundamental knowledge of finance and accounting is important. Communicating in a diverse environment is also a necessary skill.

DW: What leadership lesson did you learn the hard way?
RJ: Early in my career I subscribed to the idea that you treat people the way you would like to be treated. I learned that people are motivated differently: listen, and treat people the way they would like to be treated.

DW: What do you look for when you hire?
RJ: Beyond specific expertise and measurable results, I look to fill team gaps—for instance, do we need more global experience?—and to understand the leadership thought process of candidates: how they meet challenges and how they create followership.

DW: What business-world expression, or corporate lingo, kind of gets on your nerves?
RJ: Accountability is as critical as ever—especially in an age where information is broadly available—but one expression that bothers me is “one throat to choke.” The authoritarian hierarchy is a leadership construct that is under extreme pressure: to solve challenges at the speed of business today takes a collaborative effort among leaders with diverse skills and backgrounds. DW

Katrina Brown Hunt is a regular contributor to Diversity Woman.

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