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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

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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.”


To delve deeper into how Chambers plans to reinvent West Virginia, look for part two of this story in the Chambers College Magazine later this year and on magazine.wvu.edu.