Skip to main content

John Chambers Changed the Internet — Now He Wants to Change West Virginia

John Chambers Eagle's Nest

Written by Jake Stump
Photographed by Alex Wilson

  • Share this article on Facebook
  • Share this article on Twitter
  • Share this article on Linkedin
  • Share this article on Google plus
  • Share this article via Email

In a two-part story, follow John Chambers through his days advising firms through WVU Magazine and then see what he and the Chambers College of Business and Economics are planning to grow the state in a story that appeared in the college’s magazine. Toggle between the tabs below to read both parts.

SAN MATEO, Calif. – John Chambers, former executive chairman and CEO of Cisco, is considered to be one of the top tech executives of our time. The 69-year-old entrepreneurial visionary is springy throughout his day, engaged in every moment of back-to-back video calls, meetings, and mentoring sessions with startups from all around the world. He takes in the views of Silicon Valley while taking a dip in his pool nearly every evening. This is the life of a man who repeats a certain phrase often if you spend enough time around him: “I want to change the world again.” Again?


He has the résumé to support any claim of already changing the world once before. Through the products churned out by Cisco from 1995 to 2015 during Chambers’ tenure as CEO, he helped change the way the world worked, lived, learned and played. When the Internet exploded in the 1990s, the multinational tech giant capitalized by unleashing products such as large-scale networking routers.


“If you think of the World Wide Web as the Wild West, then Cisco was the company building the railroad,” said Chambers, BSBA ’71, JD ’74.


He even navigated Cisco through the dot-com bubble burst, and still came out on top, making Cisco the most valuable company in the world at $500 billion.


Today, as he vows to change the world again, his vision carries a more targeted focus:


He wants to change the world through West Virginia University and the state of West Virginia by fostering entrepreneurship, startups and inclusive job creation.


In 2018, Chambers pledged a significant financial and intellectual gift to WVU to support a startup engine that spurs business development, innovation and investment in the Mountain State. His contribution will also establish a philanthropic venture capital fund and create a Center for Artificial Intelligence Management. As a result, the WVU business school was renamed the John Chambers College of Business and Economics.


And those are the just the first steps to Chambers changing the world again.


A CEO OF HABIT


When at his sprawling San Mateo property, nestled atop a windy road you’d think comes to a dead end, Chambers awakens at the hint of dawn and downs a breakfast containingtwo of his favorite things – Diet Coke and an Entenmann’s glazed donut.


He prepares for a long day of business calls and meetings, which typically take place in a rustic, cabin-like room he dubs the “Crow’s Nest.” At the start of each day, Chambers studies a binder prepared by his chief of staff that includes bios and headshots of each person he’s meeting with that day, along with project briefs and other notes. It’s sort of a coach’s playbook he has adopted over the years.


John Chambers meeting
Chambers mentors the team from New York City-based data visualization and market research company, Aptiviti.

After stepping down as executive chairman of Cisco in December 2017, Chambers founded JC2 Ventures, a purpose- driven venture capital firm that invests in game-changing startups. He currently invests in and/or coaches 18 companies through JC2 Ventures – and that’s in addition to the hundreds of startups he speaks with each month as a mentor.


His first video call on this particular day in June was at 8 a.m. with a French startup called TwicPics, an image-processing service. Chambers plops down on a brown sectional sofa in front of a giant TV screen. Video callers are displayed on the screen, much like a FaceTime or Facebook video chat conversation, but it’s likely the software being used has the Cisco stamp on it.


Chambers greets the TwicPics owner, Marc-Henri Spiess, in his customary manner: “How can I help you today?”


He soon asks Spiess if he’s read his recent book, “Connecting the Dots: Lessons for Leadership in a Startup World."


“I’m dyslexic,” he tells Spiess. “I wrote the book, and it’s my way of teaching.


“My real skills are in scaling. How do you evolve from four people to 400 to 1,500 to 5,000? That’s when the breaking point happens. My book is about connecting those dots.”


TwicPics has less than 10 employees and is open to expanding, so Chambers shares his expertise on strategy, culture and communication with Spiess throughout their conversation. However, not all talk is business. Chambers sprinkles in some West Virginia charm by asking about Spiess’ two sons. He even knows their ages thanks to his handy, daily “playbook.”


Chambers portrait 
"Disrupt or be disrupted" is one of the oft-used quotes from Chambers. 

To end the session, Chambers tells him, “Push the envelope on what you could be,” and “My French is terrible, so thank you for speaking English today.”


One down, seven more calls to go on this one day.


BACK TO THE FRONT


As he showed during his conversation with TwicPics, Chambers is at a stage of life where he’s focused on giving back. Yet, as he grew up in Charleston, W.Va. in the 1950s, it was uncertain whether he’d ever earn anything to give back. One teacher doubted he’d make it through high school.


Despite speaking of his upbringing with nostalgia and having a solid family foundation, Chambers was at a disadvantage. “Dyslexia was not well understood then,” he said.


Chambers knew from an early age that his brain was wired differently. He’d scan a page from right to left and struggle to read out loud. Instead of going from A to B to C, he’d go from A to B to Z.


His parents, both physicians who worked at the local hospital, recognized the dilemma and sought help. To this day, Chambers speaks appreciatively of Mrs. Anderson, a teacher who assisted students with reading disabilities.


“Mrs. Anderson taught me to turn my biggest weakness into a strength,” he said. “She had these special techniques and machines that allowed you to read a different way. One was a small machine that blocked off lines of text after you read them. That way you wouldn’t lose your spots and jump around."


Chambers was mocked by his peers when he read aloud in class. It’s a feeling he hasn’t forgotten, nor does he wish anyone else to experience. That empathy is why he accidentally spilled to the world his battle with dyslexia at a Cisco “Take Your Children to Work” day. A little girl raised her hand to ask Chambers a question, but she wrestled with getting her words out.


“I was immediately transported back to that classroom in West Virginia,” he said.


John Chambers walks with assistant

Chambers walks to a meeting with Shannon Pina, chief of staff of JC2 Ventures.

The girl stammered that she had a learning disability and started to cry. Chambers told her he had dyslexia and relayed the wisdom of Mrs. Anderson: Slow down, don’t worry about what others think, sound words out, and realize that everyone has their own strengths and weaknesses.


It wasn’t until he was done speaking with that little girl that he realized he wasn’t talking just to her. His mic was still live and a packed room of 500 employees and their children learned about his disability as well.


“Like all dyslexics, I had viewed it as a weakness,” Chambers said. “But I did not want to focus on it as a weakness. I knew I had to give that little girl confidence.”


He pauses for a moment, during a break in his day outside on a patio under the California sun. He then displays the palm of his hands. “Look,” he said. “Talking about it now still makes my palms sweat.”


Following the event, Chambers received several messages from Cisco employees, thanking him for telling his story, even though it was not his intention to tell it at that exact moment in time.


“A large number of people said, ‘John, you seem so much more human,’” he said. “That’s important. Sharing weaknesses and being candid. We all have weaknesses and that teaches you more about life.”


WEST VIRGINIA REIMAGINED


Back in the Crow’s Nest, Chambers keeps the thermostat set to around 60 degrees, cool enough to keep you alert.


John Chambers at California home
Chambers strolls through his vast California property between two buildings for various meetings. 

He welcomes a crew from Aptiviti, a data visualization and market research company, who flew in from New York City for a meeting with the Silicon Valley legend. Chambers offers the three men water or (you guessed it!) Diet Coke. The representatives from Aptiviti pop a presentation – chock-full of graphs and statistics outlining market research trends – onto the giant TV screen.


Chambers perks up and gravitates toward the screen. He points at a graph detailing the top IT security companies in the world. “I would like to see at least four companies based out of West Virginia on this graph,” he said.


On the topic of West Virginia, Chambers uses another favorite phrase pulled from his toolbox of quotes: “Disrupt or be disrupted.” West Virginia has been disrupted economically in recent decades, with the decline of traditional industries such as coal mining and chemical development.


“Charleston was once the chemical center of the world with companies like Carbide and Dupont,” Chambers said. “People earned good incomes. There was a time when there were more millionaires in West Virginia than the entire United Kingdom combined. But those industries changed, and we failed to change as a state. I blame leadership, in both government and business.”


Through his partnership with WVU, Chambers is angling for the state to transition from disrupted to disrupter. He plans to volunteer 5 percent of his time to provide expertise to WVU and its leadership – a similar arrangement to ones he has with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and French President Emmanuel Macron.


“I’ve helped play a role in giving back to France and India,” Chambers said. “Then I thought, ‘I ought to begin with my home state if I want to help my own country.’ You have a university leader in Gordon Gee who’s amazing and fearless. In [Chambers College Dean] Javier Reyes, you see somebody who’s remarkably talented and unselfish to a fault. Those leaders get the concept.


“To become successful as a state, we must not be industry- specific. Every company in the world must become a digital business. Entrepreneurship and technology will create an environment to keep jobs and people in the state. I would’ve stayed in the state, but there were no jobs.


“Right now, the risk of doing nothing is dangerous. To not try is unforgiveable.”

John Chambers, former executive chairman and CEO of Cisco, remembers his favorite camping spot activity as a little boy in West Virginia’s Kanawha Valley. He’d swing on a trapeze, tied to a tree, that would veer over the Elk River with the right momentum. Once positioned over the water, he’d let go, somersault and splash.


One time, after performing his acrobatic landing, the handlebar of the trapeze, which was made of metal, swung back and clocked him on the side of the head.


Blood gushed.


He walked a half-mile back to his family’s cabin.


“I expected my mom to be very concerned and panicked,” Chambers said. “Instead, she just looked at me and said, ‘Oh, it’s a puncture wound.’ She took her hand, put pressure on it, stopped the bleeding and slapped on a few Band-Aids. She told me to go back out and play.”


As a Silicon Valley leader and Internet game changer, Chambers, BSBA ’71, JD ’74, seems to have inherited his mother’s level of calmness, even amid tough situations.


And now, he’s looking to stop a different kind of bleeding – the bleeding of talent from his native state.

‘Disrupt, or be disrupted’

West Virginia ranks dead last in ____ category.


Politicians have promised to turn the state around, almost like a verbal tic, but it remains a challenge.


For years, West Virginia has consistently scraped near the bottom of quality of life rankings, whether in health or socioeconomics. And it’s been steadily losing population since 2012.


If anyone can help reverse the trend, perhaps it’s Chambers, the two-time West Virginia University alumnus and Charleston, W.Va., native who transformed the way the world works, lives, learns and plays through technology giant Cisco. There, Chambers served as CEO from 1995 to 2015 and oversaw Cisco’s emergence as the world’s most valuable company at $500 billion.


John Chambers speaking in Mountainlair.


Chambers stepped away from Cisco in 2017, but he’s still busy as ever, finding ways to innovate and leave his imprint on the world by working with game-changing startups and encouraging the growth of startups across all geographies – including West Virginia.


It’s been a year since he announced to invest his time, money and ideas in his alma mater in November 2018. Since then, the business school has been renamed the John Chambers College of Business and Economics, which provides the University with significant financial and intellectual resources that supports:

  • Vantage Ventures, the initiative that builds and scales companies to accelerate economic prosperity in West Virginia.

  • Artificial Intelligence Management to explore opportunities and challenges related to AI.

Additionally, Chambers is volunteering 5 percent of his time to provide expertise to WVU and the College, similar to arrangements he’s held with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and French President Emmanuel Macron.


Chambers believes that these initiatives will help push West Virginia and WVU to “disrupt” themselves. As evidenced by his “disrupt, or be disrupted” mantra, he emphasizes that no city or state can be in a leading position when they are doing the right thing for too long. For example, he points at the fall of Boston’s Route 128, home to a cluster of technology companies.


“Boston Route 128 used to be the technology capital of the world from the 1960s to 1980s,” Chambers said. “Then, Silicon Valley came along and disrupted them. The three top companies in Boston lost 200,000 jobs.”


Likewise, West Virginia has been disrupted economically in recent decades, with the decline of traditional industries such as coal mining and chemical development.


“It’s been disrupted from this failure to evolve,” Chambers said. “At one time, we were living the American dream in West Virginia. But industries started to change, and while we felt those changes as a state, we didn’t do enough to get ahead of the market transition.”


Thinking creatively and executing strategies differently will lead to disruption, Chambers believes. He mentions his favorite NBA team, the Golden State Warriors, which have won three championships in the last five years.


The Warriors have revolutionized basketball in the past decade with its up-tempo run-and-gun approach and propensity for firing away three-pointers. Head coach Steve Kerr boasts four principles that define his team: joy, mindfulness, compassion and competition.


“When you talk about disrupting, look at the Golden State Warriors,” Chambers said. “They disrupted the whole NBA with their style of play. Jerry West, a fellow West Virginia native and WVU grad, was an advisor to them and helped on their philosophy and unselfishness.”

Dynasty building

In a sense, Chambers is putting together his own version of the Warriors as he’s shifted his focus on West Virginia. And he’s already got the type of leaders on site to help lead the charge in WVU President Gordon Gee and Chambers College Dean Javier Reyes.


“What struck me when I first met Javier was that he’s a creative thinker, and Gordon is such a strong, established leader,” Chambers said. “I’ve seen how well they both work together and they seem to understand each other’s strengths. They want to do what’s right for the university, the state and the people.”


John Chambers speaking in a crowd.


Ever since Chambers’ partnership announcement in 2018, the Chambers College has continually evolved, as it works toward moving into a fresh, new building, equipped with fresh, new programs and resources. Here are just a few highlights:


  • Work is ongoing on the construction of Reynolds Hall, which will be nearly 180,000 square feet, thanks to alumnus and financier Bob Reynolds, who with his wife, Laura, donated $10 million toward the building. 
  • Alumni Penni Facemire and Rob Roll established the Roll Capital Markets Center, a finance education trading lab for students. 

  • Vantage Ventures, a concentrated effort to launch high impact, scalable businesses that tackle complex challenges, launched with Sarah Biller, a founding executive of FinTech Sandbox, as its executive director. 
  • The Encova Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation made the first corporate gift, $2 million, for Reynolds Hall. The Center was formerly named the Brickstreet Center. 
  • The Chambers College, along with the College of Law and WVU Extension Service, expanded its presence in West Virginia’s state capital, Charleston, as it occupies downtown office space at Equities House. Reyes says the expansion will allow the Encova Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation and Vantage Ventures to touch southern West Virginia. 
  • The Building Beyond Campaign was launched in September to bring Reynolds Hall to fruition. 
  • A newly revamped Academic engagement and Success Center offers tutoring for intensive classes, help in writing and speaking skills for students. 
  • Huntington Bank donated $2 million toward Vantage Ventures.

There’s plenty more to come.


Chambers notes that accomplishments like these are a result of collaboration across private and public sectors. As part of his volunteering his time to the College, Chambers is providing mentorship and making meaningful connections.


“What I learned in Silicon Valley is that the power of the network is tremendous,” he said. “It’s the ecosystem that makes things happen. You’ve got to break down the silos.”


Chambers added, “Turning West Virginia around won’t be easy, but the odds of success are good. Many of us, including my family and my wife’s family, once left the state. But now we are fully committed to revitalizing our home state. With my current endeavors, I hope to change the world one more time. As I am helping to make a difference in France and India in terms of startups and job creation, I thought, ‘Why not do this back home?’ I believe West Virginia’s success will create a replicable model for other states to follow, paving a way to build a leading Startup Nation.”

Fun, fast facts on one of this generation’s greatest tech leaders.

Favorite place: “West Virginia. If I’m in trouble and walk up to a random door and knock, chances are I’ll get help.”


Favorite campus spot: The football stadium.


Best advice: “Don’t be afraid to fail.”


Role models: Mom and dad, Jerry West, George Bush and Bill Clinton.


Favorite brand: Diet Coke


Fun Facts:

  • His first office at Cisco was in a telephone closet.
  • Cisco once owned the trademark Netscape, a popular web browser in the 1990s. Chambers gave the name to them for free. “We had no use for it, and I believe in being generous when I can.”
  • Cisco also owned the iPhone and iOS trademark names. Steve Jobs and Apple had a tougher time acquiring those.