Former Cisco CTO Monique Morrow on Using Tech to Do Good

Ep. 14: Former Cisco CTO Monique Morrow on Using Tech To Do Good (Part I)

Monique Morrow Knows Tech

Monique Morrow is a former CTO at Cisco and the current President at two tech start-up firms based in blockchain. She is the President and Co-Founder of The Humanized Internet, a non-profit organization focused on providing a digital identity for those individuals most underserved. She is also the President of The VETRI Foundation, whose mission is to empower individuals by providing them with trusted and compliant digital identity solutions they can fully own and control (ie, no other big business owns your data anymore – YOU own it!). 

Monique has been recognized for her work with about a gazillion awards, including:

  • Forbes top 50 Women globally in Tech 2018
  • Top 10 CIO
  • 2017 laureate of the Committee for the Henley & Partners Global Citizen Award
  • Top 100 Digital Shapers 2018 in Switzerland.
  • Top 10 Influential IT Women in Europe

Monique is a former CTO at Cisco who has worked tirelessly to align technologies to society’s needs.

My conversation with Monique was so great, we couldn’t squeeze it all into one episode, so today’s episode is just Part I. Monique shares with how she came to tech with a unique background and why this unique perspective shaped the work she does with tech.

In This Episode

In this episode of Level Up Your Leadership, Monique and I talk about:

  • The types of big global problems that technology can help solve.
  • How to think “BIG” and go beyond day-to-day small thinking.
  • How to have a non-linear career (and take big career risks).
  • The types of big global problems that technology can help solve.
  • Why you should own the rights to your data — and how you can monetize those rights.
  • Women in the field of tech and how to overcome the glass cliff.
  • How continuous learning will fuel your career unimaginably far.
  • The fears and worries that keep Monique awake at night.
  • Why you should have a “Plan B” for your career beyond a safe corporate job.

To learn more about Monique, check out her website or connect with her on LinkedIn and Twitter.

If you’re interested in how we can shape the future of tech to serve us, you’re going to want to tune in to this episode of Level Up Your Leadership wherever you love to listen to podcasts.  

OR you can read the full transcript below. Enjoy!


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Ep. 14: Former Cisco CTO Monique Morrow on Using Tech To Do Good (Part I)

0:00 – 05:06

You have to get your narrative out there you have to get your brand out there, you have to look at how you solve for a problem out there, you have to be able to collaborate very strongly, partner because this is an ecosystem waiting for people to solve for very, very hairy problems.

That’s Monique Morrow speaking. Monique is a former Chief Technology Officer at Cisco and is the current president and co-founder of The Humanized Internet, a non-profit organization focused on providing a digital identity for those individuals most underserved. I’m your host, Lisa Christen, welcoming you back to another episode of Level Up Your Leadership, the podcast exploring how 21st century leaders acquire the skills they need to thrive in the ever-changing changing digital workplace. Monique Morrow really knows tech. As I mentioned, she was the former CTO at Cisco, one of the world’s largest tech companies, and is currently president of not just the one Humanizing Internet but another technology organization utilizing blockchain. She’s also president of The VETRI Foundation, helping you by providing tools so that we each have control over our digital selves. Now Monique has been recognized for her work with about a gazillion awards. She was a Forbes Top 50 Women Globally in Tech. She was a top ten CIO, top hundred digital shapers in Switzerland, top hundred IT women in Europe. This is all in the last couple of years, she has plenty more in the background there. So I think you get the idea.  

And what makes Monique really so unique is that she’s out there influencing global digital policies. She’s tackling difficult, mind-warping topics, like how the handle ethics in AI. She is one of the digital influencers who is shaping and changing how not only we will interact with technology today but how our children and our grandchildren in the future will. And thankfully, we’re very lucky because Monique is on a mission to help us figure out how to use tech for good. Now, I had such an interesting conversation with Monique that this is just Part I and I’ll also release a Part II because she had so many nuggets of information to share that we couldn’t fit it all in one episode. So if you wanna learn more Monique, how she progressed in her really amazing stellar career and how she’s shaping the future of work, I hope you enjoy listening to this Part I episode of Level Up Your Leadership with President of The Humanized Internet and the VETRI Foundation, Monique Morrow.

Monique, I’m thrilled to have you on the show today.

It’s a thrill to be here, by the way, Lisa

We got to know each other recently in a Future of Work panel discussion about the human factor in blockchain, and it was sponsored by Deloitte, so it was a really great event. I was the moderator and you were one of the panelists and I have to tell you, I left that evening thinking, oh my gosh, this is a person who is truly, truly changing the world. And I was inspired, I couldn’t sleep that night, and I thought I have to get in touch with Monique, I have to get her on the show and I need to pick your brain. I wanna know how all of us can do more and do more good in the world.

So first of all, I want to say, first of all, it’s a pleasure to be here and also you did a fantastic job. It’s not always said but a fantastic job in moderating and preparing us for that wonderful panel and that wonderful discussion. So kudos to you and what you do. Yes, I’m looking forward to this particular discussion around technology and technology for good and how to up your game in the leadership space.

Fantastic. I have the very first question that popped into my head, because you have the stellar career and we’re going to go through bits of it, CTO at Cisco. I mean, you’re the president of not one but two companies right now, but you actually have like, that golden thread that goes through everything in your career. You’ve built it around aligning technologies to society’s needs. What does that mean?

So, yes, and one thing I will say is that your career is never going to be linear, I think we discussed that at the panel. I believe that we have to embed some notion of social good in what we do in technology. As we know or, perhaps so to state, maybe we don’t know, technology has no agency. It’s all about looking at how we define what is the purpose of the technology itself? How is it intentionally – or should be intentionally – used? What kinds of problems should we as an industry be solving for society? And this is not about corporate social responsibility or CSR, as we know it, it’s about all of us in the space being responsible, holding a level of accountability for technology. There’s just a quite a bit of spaces and let’s say opportunities that we need to solve for, especially in the humanitarian area.

05:14 – 10:03

And I’m glad you mentioned that because I’m so impressed by at least one, but both of your companies, but this one about The Humanized Internet. It really embodies all of what you’re saying, which is we take technology, we look at society’s challenges, and we use the technology to create good. And maybe you can tell us a little bit more about this ambitious project that you’re working on with The Humanized Internet.

So The Humanized Internet is a Swiss-based nonprofit, and it really is focused around some buckets that we all care about. One of them is your identity. This is around whether or not you’re in control of your identity. Sovereign identity. The other is around the use of artificial intelligence and ethics. And the third component is around, I would say, cybersecurity. So you could see some of its weaving if you will. The notion around The Humanized Internet is to weave in a humanitarian purpose. One of the members on the board happens to be a refugee. So when you talk about refugees in the space, you have to talk with people in mind. These are individuals. Some things can happen to you; one day you wake up – whether or not it’s war or destruction. We know we can all say to some extent we may be refugees, we’re just mind-reading constantly. And so people don’t like particularly this kind of label, but it’s looking at some of the problems that he experienced. For example, in the 21st century, it didn’t matter that he had copies of his documentation, whether it was his passport, whether it was his university degrees on Google Drive. When he got to Berlin, they simply were not accepted. Because people thought you could falsify it. And, yes, that’s a problem with regards to documentation.

But we need to think about how can you use technology like blockchain to credential. Whether or not you have something that happens to you in an earthquake or a hurricane. Think about Puerto Rico, think about terrible earthquakes that happened in Italy. One day your documents and the institutions no longer exist. So Humanized Internet is around looking at how we solve for these big problems around the humanitarian space, but also in looking at how to solve in terms of distributed storage of your documents. Instead of having them being held in a bank or a tresor or somewhere, that you can think about some level of a digital storage box a lockbox of some sort, and you can share the digital keys with members of your family. It’s a really hard problem to solve for but I think we can get there.

Yeah, and exactly that. It’s such a critical problem to solve for because what we’re looking at right now is, there are large organizations who basically own our data, that’s their business model. So if you said, banks, immediately what comes to mind is Facebook. And so that’s their business model. What happens if we take back the ownership? What happens if we own our data? And that’s what I love about the other organization that you’re the president of, the VETRI Foundation. Because one of the goals of what you’re working on is how can people own their data and then, again, choose who they share it with and get rewarded.

Get rewarded. So I should demonstrate that to you after the interview. What we’re looking at with the VETRI Foundation is the frictionless exchange of data between data consumers, being for example companies, and you being the data owner. And by the way, we are talking about fair data trade. That’s what we mean by frictionless. And you should be able to control in the next level where you want that data to go. Not just your attention, you can call it an attention token to some extent, is interrupted and it’s gamified, and you’re getting VETRI coins or whatever. But it’s also looking at how we can take this platform, and rather than you trying to respond to all kinds of questions about from all kinds of organizations, it’s one central place. I don’t want to say central because it’s distributed, we never hold the data. But what it is, is that there will be consumers or companies that will be very interested in having an exchange with you, and that’s up to you whether or not you wanna have that exchange. But here’s the thing, when we look at to read the book by Shoshana Zuboff, this is the whole notion of Surveillance Capitalism. It’s more egregious than we care to think. These companies, whether or not Facebook or Google, we are just meta-data, meta-data, meta-data. And we’re living in this bubbled world and our data is being exploited. We have to take sort of control, some level of control of our data. I mean, it’s leaks, and we hear about these egregious leaks all the time. So if we can now look at how we have a frictionless, let’s say, level of exchange.

10:03 – 15:06

It’s gamified. And we choose to participate in that exchange on the condition that we can control the flow of data. We see that happening in Estonia. You can say, I want to go to this doctor but not that doctor, then that takes us to a level up. The fear I have, or the concern I have in our societies, is that people are so immune to being hacked. And they don’t care until something egregious happens – until their Bank account is emptied, until their identity is truly stolen. And then they have to really climb to get their identity back, to get their level of what I’ll call assets back because you are a human asset, back as an entity.

So we’re very proud of what we’re doing at The VETRI Foundation with VETRI as a whole. We believe that we’re very much ahead of the game in what we’re doing. We believe also that we won’t be the only entities in our society to be gravitating into this space, which is a good thing because it’s not about VETRI in so far as it’s about an industry standard. People getting into something called fair trade and fair trade is really important. Do I trust these big companies to do fair data trade? Probably not. I think this is more about companies really self-policing. We’ve already seen how they self-police. They just don’t! It’s not, and I have friends in all of these companies, but they just don’t. We have to be able to say, we are responsible entities. And let me take it a step further. I was, if I may say.

Please, please I’m fascinated.

I was in a discussion yesterday with a lady who was actually involved with a particular organization, she also wants to look at VETRI. And this is around children’s rights, children’s digital rights. Children, they’re the most under-served. They are actually getting quite we would say, poached on by pedophiles, especially online. So how do we now look at creating some kind of institution or node here in Switzerland where you would look at people caring about children’s rights, watching what’s going on. A network and advising parents and young adults and children, on responsible use of technology. So, could we see an intersection here with regard to data privacy, because it’s also important and this frictionless exchange of data, which again is gamified. I think we’re going to see that more and more.

I have to take a step back and just ask: how do you think so broadly about technology? This is not like, how do we use it today? You’re saying, we’re the first company, or one of the first companies, doing this because we’re thinking about the future. How do you think so broadly and so big?

Right, so, let’s break it down a little bit. First of all, it’s not like you sit in a room and sort of ruminate. I think it’s more about, I’m personally an observer of how people use technology. I also believe that just, on the personal side, learning is lifelong. I also when I look at somebody who is of a certain age, we don’t care, understanding how they use technology. I think it’s very important to look at geographies, travel. And also, you know, it’s important for people to read. I think it’s read and continuously have the exchange and live this kind of situation, where we see or – can see for me – looking at how we can solve for very interesting problems. I just constantly- I am very curious, posing, posing questions of why? Why not? Are the institutions that we know today valid institutions?

I was just recently in an event last Thursday, where we were asking the question, we’re migrating people. And I go back to the migration situation because it has been predicted because of climate change, people will be migrating constantly in 2050 and beyond. So we’re going to see the situation of migration and, unfortunately, it plays out to a very negative political narrative. But what we were looking at is a situation, for example, between Venezuela and Columbia. How do you create corridors for people to just have the right to work? When our forefathers traveled to the United States of America, which they did. They just came with a dream to do something. Could we not keep that spirit? Because it’s about the spirit, not so much about the technology. And say hey, these people have the right to work. Because what’s happening now in the situation in Venezuela, which is a horrific situation, you have people, women, particularly women are and children are vulnerable. Women, particularly who have studied law and are lawyers, are crossing the Venezuelan-Colombian border to prostitute themselves. Because they can’t feed their family anymore.

15:06 – 20:17

So could we not have a will to create corridors that you have the right to work? Most of the people I met, whether or not they were in refugee camps in Jordan or happen to be in these certain situations, want to contribute to society. And we certainly have technology as enablers to do that. So for me, it’s about looking at these institutions we have to be able to challenge those institutions.

I’m curious to know, did you get this love of thinking globally, being curious, thinking about people in other countries – did you get that from your parents? Because I know your mom is from Lebanon, your dad is American, you’ve now been living in Europe since the nineties? Are you a global person?

Yes, I would say I am a global person, growing up speaking a couple of languages and representing, I think, what the melting pot is particularly in the United States. And, of course, traveling quite, that all has opened my eyes up. I mean, I’ve been traveling since I was born, but I spent a year in Paris as a student abroad. Which, I think, if everybody can afford gap to do a gap year, they should because it really just broadens your scope in terms of how you see the world. And sort of, you know, learn a little bit. So, yeah, I think the global view has been very important and through my stint at Cisco, which were sixteen wonderful years, I spent five years in Hong Kong. And so I had responsibility for half of the world. I was in India, southeast Asia, China, Australia, New Zealand, Japan. If anything, it’s tested my colleagues’ knowledge of geography, which, you know, I think this intersectionality between social, sciences computer science, political science, philosophy is coming back together again. We should be thinking in those terms in education.

Which exactly brings me to something that really piqued my curiosity when I was learning more about you, is: you don’t actually have a technology background. You studied French!

That’s right. I like to say I am an accidental engineer.  I mean, my aspiration during the time was to actually go into the diplomatic role. Now, the diplomatic world actually helps me when I’m actually looking at how we deal with technology at a UN level. But here you are with this undergraduate degree in Silicon Valley. And what do you do? So, it was a bit of luck. It was a bit of a challenge. And a bit of luck, I would say, where I got into a semiconductor company, which was hugely conservative, and discovered this immense world of networking, which was quite nascent to the time. Cisco was a private company at that particular time. And I fell in love with it. Networking was the way to go. I went on to get another master’s degree. And this is what I mean. Go on to your certifications and credentials – make yourself credible in the industry and learned so much about what this internet was all about. And that undergraduate degree coupled with a couple of master’s degree. I’m just getting a new one – masters of science in digital currency at the University of Nicosia, we’ll be participating in graduation ceremonies on June 27.  So there you go! I like to think about, what I don’t know, I don’t know.

So, yes, an accidental engineer. At the time, you know, if we looked at ourselves in the mid-’80s, there were just no forebearers, especially for women. In a hugely conservative company like a semiconductor firm. But, I was working with extraordinary colleagues, and I have to say, this is extremely important for me to say, my best coaches and mentors – yeah, I would say best coaches and mentors have been men. And they basically have pushed me to go beyond my comfort zone – and I hate to use that term comfort zone – but really pushed me to say, look, you can do this, and really fed in my curiosity of how wonderful this technology can work. And I’m giving back in terms of mentorship and coaching. And by the way, because you are coach, I do believe in coaching. I believe coaches are lifelong. I have a coach. Cisco actually institutionalized coaching, which I think, is extremely important because it’s all about you facing your own, you know, it’s a reflection, facing your challenges, what are the triggers that you have to care about that may be negative. These are things we have to work on for our life long.

Thank you for adding that in because I really – I know I’m biased – but I really believe that if you’re human, you have blind spots, you have fears, you have doubts, you have insecurities. Sorry! If your brain is functioning normally, that’s what you have. And coaches and mentors and great colleagues can help you break past that. And it sounds like maybe even in the face of being in a male-dominated field, in an industry that is tricky without initially having the educational background, that you found support networks and you just found ways to keep moving forward by following your curiosity.

20:18 – 25:05

Yes, I mean so kudos to coaching, let’s just say that for the moment for all those people listening. Get a coach, I’m speaking to a wonderful one now. I think that you just brought up something that’s very, very important. It is a male-dominated industry and the statistics are going in a negative way, unfortunately. And I think it’s not because we want to portray women as victims here, it’s because women are trying to come into an organization that just wasn’t meant for them. Especially if they’re parents or they have partners, so on and so forth. You have to look at how the foundation is, and when we’re talking about, for example, a glass ceiling, here we’re talking about a glass cliff. Because when they leave the institution or technology groups, because it can be brutal. They leave for good.

And there has to be a study of correlation and loss of talent here. I mean, there have been some studies, especially Stanford University, they’re looking to find out how do you define that, masculinity. Those types of interesting social science problems that we have to look at. How can we make it a very welcoming organization, and without the sort of brutal way that sometimes I hadn’t encountered in the beginning, how people talk with one another. And so it’s…  there is a jargon that you have to learn etc. But I think what we have to do is change the game a bit. And I believe that men extraordinarily have to be part of this great conversation, particularly because it’s all about the end here and they can break down to authenticity, etc. The way I count or frame up this level of discussion, is basically to say, is the organization that you are building reflective of the society around you? And if not, that’s already a red flag. So we have to constantly question ourselves. Especially for founders, especially for dealing with teams, and developers. You know, we have to constantly believe that this is the power of anti is extraordinarily important. And I go back to women and children because they’re the most vulnerable in these situations. And then you can actually couch it with ageism, who gets thrown out first, and how and why and so forth.

What we have to look at, what is really fundamental in this entire discussion, is dignity. The dignity of work, the dignity of organizations, the dignity of how we communicate with one another.

And I notice that each time you speak. So we’re talking about how was your career? How did you get up? And instantly, you almost zoom out, and you see the bigger picture. What’s the culture like there? What’s the culture of the whole society? What is this really about? This is about dignity. How do you go or how can other people who are listening, go from whatever’s happening in their everyday life and start to get that bigger picture and to use that bigger picture to help them persevere in the face of whatever they’re facing in the moment?

I think the situation that we’re faced with at a macroeconomic viewpoint is that people who were in organizations or in traditional companies. There are some people who are there because of very strong economic reasons. And they have fear. They see the stuff around them, maybe they don’t like it. And we know that you were good insofar the relationship you have with your manager, so on and so forth. I mean,  I make a distinction between leaders and managers. Leaders are really inspiring. I mean, they’re inspiring all the way through each of us, whether or not the developers have the potential for leadership. Let’s start with that, number one. Two: if the culture is that toxic, and you go home and you have ulcers, and you can’t focus, then you have to think about maybe just leaving.

And of course, easier said than done. I had a chance to actually step away from a very traditional enterprise company, which had been very good to me, to go and do sort of a start-up/NGO kind of world and to learn what that is like because you really want to follow what it is you can do to better develop and grow. And I would have to say, in that path, I did it. I mean, I really went to, you know, this Red Pill and Blue Pill, well some called it the Violet Pill. I think it’s very important to say that I really stepped up but I have grown as a result of it. And don’t think for one minute that I didn’t have to dig deep, I mean really deep, for courage. It isn’t that easy to do that because people can just be very comfortable with this, I’m here for the moment, and I’m taking the check because I have to take the check.  

25:14 – 29:09

But what happens when the rug is pulled underneath you? You have to think about, you know, what is Plan B? What is Plan C? And Plan D? So question culture around you, if it’s toxic, look at alternatives to exit out. Have an exit strategy also. And be able to eventually learn from that, grow from that, and also monetize what it is you do at the end of the day because we want to do that. We don’t live here for free. We have to be able to think about what monetization looks like.

I’m so glad that you mentioned that it took a lot of courage because so often, what we all look at externally, we go wow, Monique, huge success. Incredible. She must never be scared. She must know what she’s doing. She must have it all together. And of course, like I said, as long as you’re human and your brain is functioning normally, you have fears and doubts as well. So I think it would help everyone to feel better. But specifically me. What was the biggest fear or challenge or moment when you were like panicked? This is not going to work.

It’s always fear of failure. We actually put a lot of pressure on ourselves. We want to be perceived as, you know, you are constantly… how do we define success? That was one. The other one is fear of the unknown because you are now stepping into a business that is completely different. And you have to really think about, when you’re in a start-up kind of world, there’s no Saturday or Sunday. Because it’s constant, you’re looking at the next thing and the next thing. But at the same token, you have to be able to create some kind of healthy lifestyle around you. Because if you don’t you can be consumed, subsumed by all that. The thing of it is that you don’t have this… you have a variable… your income can be extraordinarily variable, so you have to look at how you handle that reality, and then, of course, within, you have to think, how can I grow? What are the areas where I can grow? Could I be writing a book or co-writing a book, which we are. Could I be doing X, Y, Z, in a space or tapping into a particular problem, which we can, which a group of us did solve with MIT in frontlines for healthcare, how we used the narrative of a shortage of caregivers in the world and could we not credential, for example, with refugees. So, with it in mind, if you’re operating a foundation or a nonprofit, it’s a business. That’s an important thing to state. It has a different model but it’s a business. And you come with a different type of skills that you learn from it, and I would say you’re not limited by what a corporate requires of you or from you. So I think that’s been enriching, but really, really, really the fear factor had kicked in. I had sleepless nights, really sleepless nights. But I think when you go through it and continuously go through it, you grow as a result. I have to state that categorically. You do. You have to get your narrative out there, you have to get your brand out there, you have to look at how you solve for problems out there. You have to be able to collaborate very strongly, partner because this is an ecosystem for people to solve for very hairy problems.

Thanks for listening to another episode of Level Up Your Leadership. If you’re interested in learning more about today’s guests and the topics we’ve discussed check out the show notes on If you enjoyed the podcast, please go to iTunes to subscribe, while you’re there, it’d be great if you could rate and review the show. And if you really like the show, I would appreciate if you shared the word on social media as always. Thanks again for listening!

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