Basic Info

John Chambers
Contributor Status:
Initial Contribution Date:
Primary Location:
Palo Alto, CA, USA

Career Info

Primary Industry:
Financial Services, Technology
Personal Career Headline:
Founder/CEO, JC2 Ventures & Former Chairman/CEO, Cisco
Business Description (One-Liner):

We’re mentors of digital innovation, who coach each company on their journey, using our experiences to help them see around corners, accelerate markets, and create entirely new ones. JC2 Ventures is fully committed to developing startup companies, startup nations and a startup world. Bettering society by driving innovation, jobs, economic prosperity, gender diversity, inclusion, and success

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Career Snapshot:

John Chambers is the founder and CEO of JC2 Ventures. In his role, Chambers focuses on helping disruptive startups from around the world build and scale, while also promoting the broader development of startup nations and a startup world. He invests in companies across categories and geographies that are leading market transitions, such as Aspire Food Group, Balbix, Bloom Energy, Dedrone, IoTum, Lucideus, OpenGov, Pindrop, Privoro, Rubrik, SparkCognition, Sprinklr, and Uniphore. He also serves on the Board of Directors for Bloom Energy, OpenGov, Pindrop, and Sprinklr.

In addition to investing in and mentoring startups, Chambers is focused on promoting entrepreneurship, gender equality, and accelerating overall new business creation around the world, as he believes that startups will be the core driver of economic growth and job creation in the Digital Age. He was appointed Global Ambassador of the French Tech by President Emmanuel Macron of France. Chambers is also the Chairman of the US-India Strategic Partnership Forum (USISPF). He will work closely with business and government leaders in France, India and the U.S. to create meaningful opportunities that have the power to change the lives of citizens.

Prior to founding JC2 Ventures, Chambers served as CEO, Chairman and Executive Chairman at Cisco Systems. During his 25+ years at Cisco, he helped grow the company from $70 million when he joined in 1991, to $1.2 billion when he became CEO in 1995, to $47 billion when he stepped down as CEO in 2015. As Executive Chairman, a position Chambers held until December 2017, he led the Board of Directors and provided counsel to the CEO and leadership team on strategy, digital transformation and strategic partnerships. John also spearheaded the creation and development of Cisco’s country digitization program, where he partnered with government leaders across the world to harness the power of technology to create economic opportunities.

With countless lessons learned during his tenure at Cisco, as well as from his experiences working with startups, Chambers wrote Connecting the Dots: Lessons for Leadership in a Startup World in 2018, sharing the management, leadership and business principles that brought him and his teams unmatched success for decades. Connecting the Dots unleashes new rules for disruption and lasting success in the Digital Age that gives readers a playbook on how to act before the market shifts, tap customers for strategy, partner for growth, build teams, and disrupt themselves.

Chambers has received numerous awards for his leadership, including being named the number two “Best-Performing CEOs in the World” in 2015 from Harvard Business Review and receiving the Edison Achievement Award for Innovation. Chambers was also awarded the Outstanding Civil Service Medal by the U.S. Army, as well as France’s National Defense Gold Medal, the only foreign business leader to ever receive the award in its 35-year history. Most recently, Chambers was awarded the Padma Bhushan, one of the highest civilian awards recognized by the Government of India, for his contributions to trade and the tech industry in India.

Chambers was also named one of Barron’s’ “World’s Best CEOs,” “CEO of the Year” by Chief Executive Magazine, Time Magazine’s “100 Most Influential People,” the “Best Boss in America” by 20/20, one of BusinessWeek’s “Top 25 Executives Worldwide,” the Business Council’s “Award for Corporate Leadership,” “Best Investor Relations by a CEO” from Investor Relations Magazine three times, and the 2012 Bower Award for Business Leadership from the Franklin Institute.

Chambers has worked closely with government leaders around the world, including nine U.S. Secretaries of State. Chambers also served two American presidents during his career. He was Vice Chairman of President George W. Bush’s National Infrastructure Advisory Council (NIAC), where he provided industry experience and leadership to help protect critical U.S. infrastructure. He also served on President George W. Bush’s Transition Team and Education Committee, and on President Bill Clinton’s Trade Policy Committee.

He has been widely recognized for his philanthropic leadership, including receiving the U.S. State Department’s top corporate social responsibility award (ACE) twice, from both former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in 2010 and former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in 2005. He also received the first-ever Clinton Global Citizen Award from former U.S. President Bill Clinton and has been awarded the Woodrow Wilson Award for Corporate Citizenship and the prestigious Excellence in Corporate Philanthropy Award, an award given by CEOs to their CEO peers.

Chambers takes an active role in corporate social responsibility initiatives worldwide. His partnerships have included working with the Palestinian ICT sector, growing ICT from 0.8 percent to more than 5 percent of GDP in three years, and Connecting Sichuan, an effort to help rebuild healthcare and education models affected by the May 2008 earthquake. Chambers also co-sponsored the Jordan Education Initiative by partnering with the Jordanian government and co-led a delegation of U.S. business leaders, with the U.S. State Department, to form the Partnership for Lebanon.

Prior to 1991, Chambers spent eight years at Wang Laboratories (1982–1990) and six years with IBM (1976–1982). He holds a bachelor of science/bachelor of arts degree in business and a law degree from West Virginia University, as well as a master of business administration degree in finance and management from Indiana University.

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How did you get into the industry?:

When I first entered the technology industry, I truthfully wasn’t all that interested in technology itself – but I was intrigued with what it could do. When I joined IBM in 1976, the computer revolution had hit Corporate America and no brand was more powerful than “Big Blue.” IBM had created the mainframe computer – but the issue was that it was difficult to use compared to the minicomputers companies were starting to adopt. My bosses didn’t want to hear this negative feedback, though – they were not willing to change with the market shifts taking place around them. So, when I got a call from Wang Laboratories in 1983, I took the job.

Wang was not only leading the next wave of innovation with the minicomputer, but they were also in Boston – the high-tech center of the world in the early 1980’s. On top of that, Wang founder and CEO Dr. An Wang was a brilliant and charismatic leader, and I had the opportunity to see firsthand what a deep thinking and decent man he could be, which really shaped the leader I would become. Yet, Wang eventually succumbed to the same weakness IBM did – they underestimated the impact of technology transitions and the new generation of innovation leaders those new technologies had created.

When I joined Cisco in 1991, I was determined to never again sit back and watch as the world moved in another direction. I promised myself and my team around me that we would also disrupt ourselves before others could. That’s how we were able to grow from 400 people with $70 million in revenue in 1991 to over 70,000 employees with $47 billion in revenue by the time I stepped down as CEO in 2015.

Emerging industry trends?:

I’m the most excited about the Internet of Things. Other emerging technologies like data analytics, machine learning, artificial intelligence, and robotics are going to be game-changers in the Digital Age where all of the devices around us are connected. Creating a world where everything is connected has the power to transform economies and generate new and inclusive opportunities for citizens all around the world. Many of the startups I’m investing in are contributing to this market transition, which is exciting because digitization has the potential to turn into a $19 trillion industry in terms of economic value.

Other areas I’m excited about and investing in include:

Government transparency, with a handful of my startups focused on creating new standards for how governments plan, operate and communicate. I strongly believe that digitizing government performance will power more open, effective and accountable governments in the future.

Communications, including social media, customer experience, and new platforms to communicate in general, such as voice. An estimated $62 billion is lost by U.S. businesses alone each year due to bad customer experiences. Companies can no longer assume that the way they have always communicated with their end customers is going to satisfy them. They have to look at the channels they are on and meet them there.

Cybersecurity because, while I will always believe in the power of technology and be amazed at what it can do to transform businesses and people’s lives, there is no denying that new technologies also create new security risks. We have seen this with the influx of data breaches and privacy issues over the past several years. Security must be inherent component of all digitization strategies.

All of my startups in those spaces also have digital implications because technology is no longer an IT issue – it is mission critical to survive. Leaders who can dream impossible dreams and make them come true by bringing together a technology change with a business model change will succeed, and those who don’t will get left behind.

Inspiration for the business idea, and your vision for the Business?:

At Cisco, we acquired 180 smaller companies – many of them startups – and the speed in which they could innovate never ceased to amaze me. When I stepped down from Cisco, I knew retirement was not in the cards for me. It was time to start a new chapter and disrupt myself again. I started JC2 Ventures in January 2018 and I’m now investing in, helping, mentoring and coaching 18 disruptive startups from around the world build and scale, while also promoting the broader development of Startup Nations and a Startup World.

JC2 was founded on the believe that startups are going to be core driver of economic growth, job creation, inclusion and innovation in the future. Some may not agree with me, but I actually believe that the majority of big companies – the Fortune 500 corporations – will not exist in 10 years, and those that survive will stop adding headcount. Top talent will go to startups, the speed of innovation will increase even further, and new ideas will continue to transform the way we do business. It’s an exciting time and I’ve never enjoyed myself more than I am right now, mentoring 18 startup CEOs on digital innovation.

To that point, I’m really trying to create a new model for what a venture capitalist is today and in the future. I believe that VCs – and even Board members in general – need to do more than invest just their money. We need to be ready to also invest our time, resources, and industry knowledge, similar to being a consultant for these small companies that are trying to flourish in one of the most competitive business environments we have ever seen. There is a true opportunity on the table, for VCs to help shape the next generation of entrepreneurs and leaders. I’m trying to speak a new language for a VC and I believe others need to adopt that too.

Your most difficult moment at the Business? (and what did you learn?):

While I am proud of the successes I have experienced throughout my career, I also had my fair share of setbacks and failures. The hardest lesson I learned and one of the biggest mistakes I’ve seen companies of all shapes and sizes make was to equate an external crisis with an internal problem. We learned this the hard way at Cisco in 2001. That time was truly a near-death experience for us – something Jack Welch once told me all companies have to go through in order to become “great.” It sure didn’t feel great, though. Within 45 days, we went from 70% sales growth to a 30% drop. The dot-com bubble had burst, and we were not immune to it despite the success we had seen up until that point.

The way we got through 2001 was to keep our core strategy but pivot in other ways, such as putting a disciplined process behind our management structure. I also took time to reflect on how we had been talking to and working with our customers. I was sitting behind a desk, reviewing data all day long, when I should have been out there in front of my customers more. We made shifts the necessary shifts to make this happen and truly become a customer-first company, which allowed us to turn things around and come back out on top.

Career advice to those in your industry?:

It’s as simple as disrupt or get disrupted. If you aren’t willing to change and evolve with the larger shifts taking place, you will get left in the dust. The key, no matter the industry, is the CEO, who has to own the transformation. They have to ask themselves how they are going to innovate differently to lead fast rather than follow slowly. They have to be willing to disrupt themselves, their leadership and their company.

Two other key leadership lessons that I live by are: you’re more a product of our setbacks and how you handle them rather than your successes, and you have to stay calm in times of crisis. These two things were the key to us coming out on top after 2001.

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