Maria Martinez: Latina STEM Pioneer

Science, empathy, and family values are woven together in this Latina; a package critical to successful leadership of both internal employees and external customers of Cisco

Maria Martinez, EVP & Chief Customer Experience Officer, Cisco SystemsPhoto courtesy of Cisco Systems, Inc.

Women face an uphill battle in the worlds of science and technology, from STEM programs in early education all the way to the boardroom. The disparity is even greater for women of color. According to the National Center for Women and Information Technology, Latinas held only 1 percent of computing-profession positions in 2015.

Despite those long odds, Maria Martinez’s résumé brims with the highest-profile names in the world of technology: AT&T, Bell Labs, Motorola, Microsoft, Salesforce, and Cisco Systems, for which she currently serves as executive vice president and chief customer experience officer. In addition to helping the multinational firm excel, Martinez hopes to encourage more Latinas to find career success in the technology field.

Growing up in Puerto Rico, Martinez was inspired by her hardworking mother. Her father passed away when she was still young, so, to support the family, her mother worked as a CPA and later at a bank. “I learned at an early age the importance of working hard, doing your best, and always trying to do more than what you’re asked for,” she says. But the technology switch flipped in Martinez’s life when a high school math teacher pulled her out of standard classes and encouraged her to study engineering. Although she hadn’t grown up hoping to be an engineer, Martinez was excited by the new adventure unfolding before her.

“I work really hard getting the word out there because there is so much that these kids aren’t exposed to.”

“Looking back, I was lucky enough to attend private schools because my mother worked so hard, and I was lucky that my teacher led me to engineering school,” she says. Today, Martinez seeks to provide some of that same guidance to young girls who might not even consider technology or engineering as a path.

“I work really hard getting the word out there because there is so much that these kids aren’t exposed to,” Martinez says. “I take every opportunity that I can to support organizations that promote STEM and early career development, and to speak with girls in underserved neighborhoods and schools to make them aware of these opportunities.”

After graduating from Universidad de Puerto Rico, Martinez left Puerto Rico to take on her first engineering job. She began working at AT&T in 1980, while simultaneously earning her master’s degree from Ohio State University. After eleven years with AT&T and Bell Labs, Martinez took on her first executive-level position at Motorola—and from there continued to grow and express more leadership strength.

Martinez assumed her first CEO and presidential role with Embrace Networks, a developer of ISP and network solutions. From there, she moved to a corporate vice president position in Microsoft’s communications sector. She then joined Salesforce in 2010 as chief growth officer and executive vice president of customers for life. Customer success was a burgeoning field in the technology world at the time, and was only then being established within Salesforce, so Martinez could truly put her stamp on the model used by one of the country’s largest and fastest-growing technology companies. “I’m very proud of that model, which is now being implemented by many companies,” she says.

Customer success was a burgeoning field in technology at the time, so Martinez was able to truly put her stamp on the model used by Salesforce. “I’m very proud of that model, which is now being implemented by many companies,” she says.

All the while, her focus on supporting and guiding others remained steadfast—if not expanded now that she’s in a leadership position.

“I’m a big believer in spending time in coaching and sponsoring,” she says. “It’s so important to actively follow them, monitor how they’re doing, and intervene when there are moments to ensure that they are getting the right opportunities.”

Martinez learned firsthand the struggles that members of the Latinx community might face in the quest for those opportunities. The presence of women and minorities on boards has changed in the years since Martinez first entered the boardroom—thanks in part to the many nonprofit organizations dedicated to improving diversity at the highest levels of corporate America. However, she stresses, there’s still a long way to go. “You need diversity to change the dialogue, to bring new viewpoints to the table,” she says.

In fact, diversity is one of the main factors that drew Martinez to Cisco in early 2018. The organization has made great strides to improve its diversity in every level, including its boardroom. As the chief customer experience officer, Martinez experiences very clearly the diversity of Cisco’s customer base, and having an equally diverse leadership team can ensure that all customers’ needs and points of view are understood.

“I have a very diverse team, and then I also spend time with a wide span of customers and influencers,” she says. “By working with so many different people, we can create a culture where customers go from choosing Cisco, to using Cisco, to loving Cisco. We all unite together when we think about our customers.”

Though customers remain the prime focus, the unique lives of her team members are never far from Martinez’s mind. Since her childhood, she understood clearly that balancing work and family is essential. That understanding was reinforced when she started her own family. “I focus on producing quality time with my family,” she says. “Thanks to that passion, I have a fantastic relationship with my daughter. She’s in her twenties now and on her own journey, but I’m her best friend and I’m so proud of that.”

Although she expects every Cisco teammate to be committed to their customers, she knows that flexibility is important. An employee may need to leave a little early from time to time to take their daughter to soccer practice, but then check their email after getting home. “We need to create that culture where employees feel that there is choice and the flexibility to take care of their families,” Martinez says.

That focus is something that Martinez finds lacking in many careers. Rather than merely being dissatisfied with their position or looking for greener pastures elsewhere, she encourages individuals to learn a lot, follow passion, and refuse to be discouraged. That’s especially important advice for other Latinas, who often don’t receive that kind of encouragement. “Sometimes you just have to take a risk and try,” she says. “It’s all a journey.”