Career Stories

This COO Has Often Been the Only Woman of Color in the Room—Here’s How She's Using Her Experience to Spark Change

Woman with short hair smiling
Denise Thomas, VP of Operations and COO at Cisco Meraki.
| Courtesy of Cisco Meraki

Throughout her career, Denise Thomas has faced many challenges as a woman of color—from having to prove she’s earned her place at the table to bearing the weight of being the only person like herself in the room. “It takes a toll to have to push past the biases, pattern recognition defaults, and both subtle and overt racism on a regular basis,” she says.

Her own past experience fuels her to make a difference by challenging biases and fostering equity and inclusion, especially as she’s reached leadership roles—most recently as the VP of Operations and COO at Cisco Meraki

“In the rooms I am in, I can create space for others whose voices and experiences have traditionally been excluded,” she says. “I can also continue to put work into motion at a scale that makes our team a place where everyone can bring more of themselves to it and be rewarded for their best work.”

Another way she is supporting underrepresented employees at Cisco Meraki is by serving as the chapter executive sponsor for the Black employee resource group. “In this role, I help to create a community that supports, develops, and sponsors amazing talent,” she says.

Here, Thomas shares the hardest part about being a woman in a leadership role, how Cisco Meraki helps employees advance in their careers, and why having a strong network can help you succeed.

You worked in a variety of industries and roles before joining Cisco Meraki. Tell us about your path, and how you successfully navigated various career pivots.

I often say that I have a resume that leaves most recruiters scratching their heads. I have worked across many industries—tech, nonprofit, education, retail, food, and beverage—and in several functions, including operations, people, and merchandising. On the surface, it looks a bit random. Still, I can sum up my career journey into a few guiding principles: I love learning, connecting the dots, building things, and matching the gifts and talents folks have to the business or community opportunities we have to unlock.

What about Cisco Meraki made it a great fit for you?

I love being a part of teams that are working on hard, important problems. When I decided to return to paid work after staying home with my son, I was looking for a company tackling a business problem that could radically change what was possible for others. I had previously worked at a school system and saw firsthand the technological challenges of working in a highly distributed environment with a pretty limited IT staff. I knew that having secure and reliable access to technology at each of the schools in our network was critical to helping our students achieve. I was all in when I saw how Meraki was using the cloud to help simplify the deployment of powerful IT solutions. I also wanted to work with folks who would make me a better leader. Merakians are a committed, thoughtful, and questioning bunch. Our culture of care, bravery, inclusion, and the desire to always improve has helped me grow and deliver better business outcomes.

What are some of the ways in which Cisco Meraki helps employees advance within the company?

The first thing we do to help employees advance their careers is build a strong, customer-first business that inherently creates expanded opportunities and room for growth. We ask our leaders to have quarterly career conversations to explore where folks want to take their careers and identify ways to support that growth. We provide learning budgets to help people build the skills and capabilities needed for new opportunities inside and outside the team. We also carve out space for learning to happen. For example, we have initiatives like low-meeting Fridays, where folks can use their focused time to lean into learning. And finally, Merakians make time to help each other grow. I have countless examples of people who have taken on a new, challenging role and their colleagues were right there to help them be successful.

What are you responsible for as the COO?

Our operations team is responsible for logistics and distribution, IT, facilities, business systems, technical and cross-functional program management, change management, organizational effectiveness, onboarding, and inclusion. I work closely with our finance team to ensure we are profitably growing the business and partner with the sales team to deliver on our customer needs. And as a member of Meraki’s senior leadership team, I am involved in making decisions about our business direction, priorities, resource allocation, investment, talent strategy, and culture.

Why does the work you’re doing at Cisco Meraki excite and inspire you?

I love the behind-the-scenes work on all the things that enable our employees, customers, and partners to have the best experience. That gets me out of bed in the morning—it is the ultimate connect-the-dots role. In operations, we are running critical day-to-day execution motions for the business; at the same time, we’re thinking about making exceptional outcomes routine by building the systems and capabilities that sit at the core of how the business needs to run in the future. In addition to supporting our employees’ needs today, we are also experimenting with different tools, processes, and experiences needed to help our business and customers build for the future of hybrid work.

What is the hardest part about being a woman in a leadership role and what has helped you succeed?

At times, what has been hard is looking around and not seeing other women. That lack of representation allows biases to go unchallenged. When you are not expected to be in the room, you have to work harder to be heard. We have grown our representation of women leaders at all levels, and now there are more women whom I can tap for support and advice. When we are in the room together, we can turn that representation into better outcomes by supporting each other’s ideas and making sure that our contributions are weighted fairly, valued, and moved forward.

I am also a parent, which adds another dimension where gender can create additional challenges. Unfortunately, there are disproportionate demands that society continues to place on women around childcare or household work. Too often, we are the first call from a school or healthcare provider. We saw the extreme demonstration of this “tax” during the pandemic as women left the workforce.

I am fortunate to work at a place with a leadership team committed to inclusion. I have the flexibility to make all the balls I juggle feel more manageable, and I have benefits like emergency time off and childcare, which are crucial to help level the playing field for working parents. Also, I am very fortunate to have a family and spouse supporting my ambitions at work. My partner is the ultimate teammate and my home team believes in me so deeply. On those days when doubt can start to creep in, there is no replacement for that personal cheer squad.

What’s the greatest challenge you’ve experienced in your career, especially as a woman of color, and how did you overcome it?

It is hard for others to believe or accept you can be the thing they don’t often see. In business and tech, folks who look like me are still underrepresented, especially in more senior positions. This lack of representation—and the biases that are often at the root of it—sometimes result in you having to spend time and effort convincing folks of your competence before you can hope to get their partnership and support to do what you are there to do: drive outcomes.

Whether it was having to advocate for being included in rigorous academic programs, having colleagues who celebrate my results still openly suggesting that I had not earned an opportunity, or having to insist on the validity of medical concerns, it is exhausting. This has not just been my experience. It has been the documented experience of so many women of color to unnecessarily deleterious health, personal, and career outcomes.

I can’t say that I have overcome this, but I have had to figure out how to navigate it while staying true to who I am. I put my focus on creating opportunities for others. I take the positional privilege that I have to make more equitable and inclusive teams. I have taken the access that comes with receiving an Ivy League education and cofounded a nonprofit centered on the belief that young people of color can be powerful agents of change in their communities. And those young people have gone on to become powerhouses in business, government, and education.

What advice do you have for other women who are striving to achieve leadership roles?

First, know why you want to be a leader. Leadership is a commitment, not a title, and you have to wake up every day willing to accept the highs and lows that come along with that commitment. A good “why” helps, and the best “whys” are centered around others versus yourself.

The second thing I would suggest is building a network of diverse leaders you admire who are willing to give you advice. Leadership is a muscle, and it is helpful to have different examples to pull from as you continue to develop your leadership capabilities. You have to actively build those relationships so reach out often, not just when you need something, and make sure that you are bringing some value to those relationships.

What’s the best career advice you’ve ever received?

Never go at it alone. It is pretty simple advice that I keep coming back to all the time. For example, when I am tackling a big problem at work, this advice pushes me to make sure I have the right people at the table. And when I am feeling unsure, I can fall back on the mentors, sponsors, and friends that have been on this journey with me to challenge and support my decisions and ideas. Holding on to this advice is also a good reminder that I don’t have to have all the answers; I have to create an environment that allows for those answers to surface from the wisdom of others.

Updated 11/4/2021