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How Supporting Channel Diversity Has Grown Into ‘A Cisco Movement’

Cisco partners are praising the tech giant’s African American Cisco Partner Community, which is giving Black-owned partners access to resources that is translating into financial growth and business success.

It began as a community for Cisco partners of color, but the African American Cisco Partner Community (AACPC) initiative is successfully shining a light on Black-owned partners that are building specialized technology and managed services practices and supporting their communities.

“This isn’t something that was just an HR issue, or about people in certain communities, it’s become a Cisco movement,” Jason Gallo, global vice president of Partner Sales Business Development at Cisco, told CRN about the AACPC.

Gallo, in addition to his “day job” arming partners with sales and enablement resources to score enterprise and cloud networking, compute, IoT, observability and security deals, is an executive sponsor of his local chapter of Cisco’s Connected Black Professionals Employee Resource Group and is passionate about helping diverse partners increase their profitability and grow their organizations in the ways that matter most to them.

Cisco in 2020 revealed a series of pledges and action items aimed at promoting equal rights, diversity within the company’s employee base, and pay parity. The company in 2021 began requiring its preferred suppliers to annually provide their workforce diversity statistics.

The tech giant also committed $100 million in financial support and technology to assist Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) in recovering from the impact of COVID-19 and help them identify long-term opportunities for innovation and investments in Black-owned startup businesses.

Cisco also created a framework of 12 Social Justice Beliefs and Actions. Gallo is directly involved with Action No. 10: Diversify the Partner Ecosystem. To that end, Cisco committed $50 million over five years to increase the diversity in its partner ecosystem, which led to the creation of the AACPC in 2020, which is being led by Gallo.

“In a little over a year and a half, it has become much more than just a volunteer exercise,” he said. “We’re taking this as a true opportunity to start to stratify the channel in a new and exciting way.”

[Related: Cisco Diversity Plans Revealed as Tech Giant Pledges $100M To Further Social Justice Causes ]

The mission of the AACPC is to increase the number of African-American and Black-owned technology companies in the Cisco partner ecosystem, increase opportunities to accelerate the financial growth for these partners, and increase the hiring of African-American and Black employees with technology and management roles across the entire partner community, Gallo said. The AACPC currently has 14 member partners.

The risk with many social justice initiatives is that they aren’t fully realized without a support structure in place. Cisco’s own efforts are being seen through new head count and case studies of customer wins from AACPC partners thanks to access to training and enablement resources, Gallo said.

But the success of the initiative isn’t simply being measured in the number of diverse partners or their sales. It’s about helping them hit their personal goals and what it means to them to be successful, Gallo said. Overall financial growth is a goal for some partners. For others, it may be working to solve a specific problem. One current AACPC partner is focused on starting an IoT practice. Cisco introduced the partner to the business unit that is working on bridging the digital divide through service provider and infrastructure products, as well as Cisco’s head of sales for IoT. The partner has since landed a sizable deal in Texas.

“That’s a success that isn’t just about a simple number,” Gallo said. “I think some people, unfortunately with this topic, try and look at a lowest common denominator number and forget that it’s about affecting and changing communities. This was the CEO of a company, who previously didn’t have the access to the sales leaders to change the bids and things that they’re going after in their community.”

For Procellis Technology, a small business and Cisco partner, the AACPC is giving the security and IoT-focused MSP a community to talk about technology and paths to business growth with fellow Black-owned channel partners. It’s also given the company an audience and support from Cisco, said Damian Young, CEO of Minneapolis-based Procellis.

“With the AACPC program, we’ve been able to get direct access from Cisco, cultivate and define what it is we bring to the table and then really build on it and say, ‘OK, how do we make this all relevant and pull together a really compelling story [for customers] to work with us?” Young said.

Procellis in collaboration with the AACPC is working on an IT monetization project for a number of HBCUs, Young said. “We’re doing a cloud-managed security service and we’ve got support from the AACPC team to ramp up and refine our skills as a Cisco partner so we can best serve HBCUs. We’re looking forward to supporting these schools, gaining experience and really building on that,” he said.

As a member of the AACPC, Procellis is working hard to prove to companies outside Cisco that this model—investing in diverse partners and talent—is a worthwhile endeavor that other vendors should emulate.

“That’s the sense of urgency that I feel from the program. It goes beyond our doors,” Young said. “My hope is that not only us, but the other partners that started in the program with me succeed because it opens up the door. If it’s working for Cisco, then Dell, Amazon and Google are going to be willing to do it.”

Bringing together like-minded partners, whether it’s a collection of managed service providers or groupings formed through a cultural or ethnic lens, such as Black-owned businesses, is an extension of Gallo’s own charter as a channel executive, he said. “For me, my day job was so closely related to this particular action around diversifying the partner ecosystem, so I volunteered to build the AACPC because I saw it wasn’t a one-time thing—it’s literally what we do in channels, stratify groups that can share best practices and play off each other.”

The structure is creating mutual business opportunities for Cisco and its diverse partners, Gallo said. Cisco, as such, is going after market trends that complement a social justice framework, including hybrid work, bridging the digital divide, supplier diversity and filling the talent shortage.

Technology Group solutions (TGS), a Black and woman-owned IT consulting firm led by CEO Lenora Payne, has been elevated to a higher level of Cisco’s partner ecosystem—now a Gold-level partner—through its participation in the AACPC. The company has also entered into a new agreement with Cisco and an NFL team to create a scholarship, internship and mentorship program for local high-school students. The program will expose Black students to careers in IT, said Richard Long, vice president of sales and business development at TGS.

“Cisco Academy and AACPC are helping us align the learning paths at the high-school level, starting with sophomores. We’re illuminating a full career path for these children,” Long said. Alongside the students, local businesses will also be the beneficiaries of these programs because they’ll have access to local IT talent, he added.

The AACPC has taken off with a slew of successful partner use cases since its launch in 2020, Gallo said. “I’m really proud and excited that I was able to leverage what I learned in the past 15-plus years building out ecosystems and channels and apply it through a cultural lens.”

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