Driving Cisco Investments, with a focus on diversity

Cisco’s Aspire Fund supports startups and venture funds to power an Inclusive Future.
Driving Cisco Investments, with a focus on diversity

Cisco has a solid record of advancing diversity within its own organization and across communities. But in 2020, the company upped the ante.  

That year, Cisco leaned in further and presented its Social Justice Beliefs, a sweeping and comprehensive set of intentions to create positive change inside Cisco and across communities, along with our 12 Social Justice Actions. As part of the 12 Social Justice Actions, Cisco accelerated our investing efforts in diverse-led startups and venture funds to power an inclusive future, which led to the creation of the $50 million Aspire Fund.  

Derek Idemoto, Cisco’s senior vice president for corporate development and Cisco Investments, is a driving force behind the Aspire Fund.  

“One of the things that we’ve needed to do in the venture capital industry is to better support underrepresented communities,” Idemoto said. “At Cisco, we have been investing in underrepresented communities for years. But in 2020, we decided to shout from the rooftops and take it to the next level.” 

Taking it to the next level demanded concrete action. So, the company committed over $300 million to its 12 Social Justice actions. These included better representing women and underserved groups throughout the company, while sowing diversity across supply chains and among Cisco’s ecosystem of partners. And, of course, the company’s corporate venture capital investment strategy.  

Today, that commitment to diversity in investments is delivering results. A few success stories highlighted by Idemoto include Plexo Capital, led by Lo Toney; Work-Bench, a venture fund co-founded by Jessica Lin; Corellium, a cybersecurity platform co-founded by Amanda Gorton; and L’ATTITUDE Ventures, co-founded by Sol Trujillo.  

The goal is not just to write checks, but to partner with these growing organizations, sharing Cisco’s expertise and access to its vast global network of partners and customers. 

“We have a great portfolio development team,” Idemoto explained, “and their whole purpose in life is to help these startups become successful through Cisco’s ecosystem.” 

Conscious investing is aligned with Cisco’s core purpose, powering an inclusive future for everyone. That purpose defines the company’s decision-making and actions, including its strategy, investments, and approach to innovation.  

But inclusivity also represents a smart business strategy. A diverse team offers perspective and understanding and takes a product, solution, or innovation to a higher level.  

“It’s not conceptual or theoretical anymore,” Idemoto said. “Diversity begets diversity. It is not only the right thing to do, but it is a smart thing to do. You are going to make better business decisions with diverse perspectives.” 

One better business decision is to invest in and promote promising diverse-led startups and venture capital funds, not just the ones that have already generated media buzz and industry interest.  

“There’s a dearth of venture capital going to early-stage founders these days,” Idemoto said, “where what you invest in is more subjective. Sometimes, you must make that leap of faith. It is very easy to invest in a later-stage startup where you have some data and simply add more fuel to the fire. But at the preliminary stages, it is vital.” 

Often, it’s the more diverse startups and funds that have the biggest challenges grabbing attention in those early stages. And for Idemoto, the drive to change that imbalance is rooted in his own heritage.  

“It comes from the place of having immigrant grandparents and being a third-generation Japanese American,” he recounted. “We faced a lot of challenges, especially in decades past. So, there is something inside of me that says; we need to help everybody and especially underrepresented communities.” 

For now, he is optimistic that positive change is gaining momentum, despite the many daunting challenges that remain.  

“Diversity and inclusion weren’t talked about regularly five or six years ago,” he said. “But it is imperative these days. It’s about how great companies are being measured today. And we’re happy to continue to demonstrate our commitment in great new ways.” 


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