How Believing ‘Girls Can Do Anything’ Has Fuelled Erin Gertner’s Career
Erin Gertner is not afraid of a challenge. A successful IT sales professional, she is driven by achieving lofty end goals, and proving that despite working in a field of predominantly male colleagues, her gender does not hold her back. To what does she owe her unstoppable attitude? Environments — from her high school to her employer, Cisco — that unabashedly celebrate the power of women.
By Shelley White
For Erin Gertner, every career challenge has a silver lining.
She remembers a time earlier this year at Cisco when she juggled two jobs at once. While transitioning into her current role as Leader, Commercial Acceleration for Canada, Erin was still performing the duties of her previous role – Regional Manager for Territory in Central Canada. She started to feel overwhelmed, but then made a conscious decision to toss out any negativity and reframe the situation as a valuable learning experience.
“I just kept saying to myself, ‘I’m going to develop so much by the end of it,’ and I really do feel that way now,” says Erin. “It was such a great lesson for me to realize that there is a silver lining in everything that happens.”
It’s that kind of positive attitude that has helped Erin become a rising star at Cisco and a passionate champion of women in technology.
Born and raised in Toronto, business is in Erin’s blood. Her grandfather and father were both entrepreneurs, and her mother was a pioneer in the business world, leading an organization that sold chocolate products within the George Weston Group.
“[My mother] got an MBA in the 70s, and she was very progressive and worked my whole life,” says Erin. “So I wanted to follow in [my parents’] footsteps. I just wasn’t entirely sure what that would look like.”
After getting a Bachelor of Commerce at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Erin got a job at Cisco, becoming one of very few women in sales at the time.
“I just fell in love with sales,” she says. “I loved the fact that I was in control of my own destiny. And I worked on some really cool deals over the years, putting wireless in malls and helping them enter the digital age.”
Though she started her career in a predominantly male environment (and went on to become the first female sales leader in Canada at Cisco), Erin says she never felt as if her gender was an impediment to her success.
“I went to an all girls high school [Bishop Strachan School], so I was very comfortable going after what I wanted,” she says. “Their slogan was ‘Girls can do anything,’ and I think I was bred to really believe that.”
Erin says she felt encouraged to develop and grow her career from the very start at Cisco. In an environment where people were invested in her success, she benefited from mentors over the years – both male and female – who helped inspire and guide her career.
“I was very lucky to have sponsors,” she says. “I probably wouldn’t have applied for the role of [Regional Manager for Territory in Central Canada] had my boss not come to me and suggest I was somebody he thought could lead. He recognized something in me that I didn’t necessarily see in myself.”
After over 10 years in direct sales (eight as account manager and two as regional manager), Erin has moved to the strategy side of the business. As Leader of Commercial Acceleration at Cisco, she develops and leads Cisco’s strategy for growing their overall commercial business, focusing specifically on small- and medium-sized businesses (SMBs) – a big priority for the company.
“He recognized something in me that I didn’t necessarily see in myself.”
Erin points out that according to Statistics Canada, of the 1.17 million employer businesses in Canada, 98 per cent are small businesses (1 to 99 employees) and 1.8 per cent are medium-sized businesses (100 to 499 employees). “So it’s about, ‘How do we capture that opportunity?’” says Erin.
She’s excited to help SMBs get to where they want to go.
“I think SMBs, like all companies, are looking at how to digitize their business and give their customers the best experience,” she says. “But unlike larger companies, SMBs don’t always have the resources to invest in technology. So we offer a suite of purpose-built, affordable solutions that are simple to use, secure, reliable and scalable. I think it’s a great niche in the market and an area we can do so much more in.”
Erin’s also dedicated to supporting female enterprise in Canada. She’s involved with Cisco’s Women Entrepreneurs’ Circle (WEC) – an initiative that aims to help female-led businesses scale and grow.
“Many female founders struggle with access to capital, technology, networks and the knowledge they need to successfully grow their business,” she says. “The aim of WEC is to help bridge the gap by providing female entrepreneurs with increased access to technology, knowledge and resources.”
WEC operates three programs for female entrepreneurs. The Circle of Learning provides free online training courses on topics like Linux, the Internet of Things (IoT) and cybersecurity. The Circle of Innovation pairs University of Waterloo engineering students with female entrepreneurs of high-growth SMBs. And the Circle of Productivity gives female business owners access to Cisco technology.
Erin points out that Cisco supports women in its own organization, too, through initiatives like Connected Women, an employee resource group (ERG) that helps female employees develop their skills. There’s also Girls Power Tech, a mentoring initiative giving girls 13-18 the chance to learn first-hand about career opportunities in information and communication technology (ICT).
In order for more women to end up in executive roles at technology companies, we need to encourage girls to pursue STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) in the first place, says Erin. Managers also need to “think outside the box” when it comes to recruiting. Erin notes that Cisco Canada president Rola Dagher often talks about hiring for EQ (Emotional Quotient) rather than IQ (Intelligence Quotient).
“How do we find people who we know can be successful, but maybe don’t have a technology background?” says Erin. “We can certainly teach them technology, as long as they want to work here and have the right set of skills.”
Having benefited from mentors and supporters throughout her career, Erin says she tries to “pay that forward” by championing talented young women she sees coming up in the organization.
“I think it’s important to push people into uncomfortable places and let them know they have potential,” says Erin. “They need to know there is opportunity for them to become a leader.”
The Cisco Women Entrepreneurs Circle — a program led by Cisco in partnership with the Business Development Bank of Canada (BDC) — addresses some of the obstacles women-led businesses face in building their tech capabilities. Are you a business owner? Fill in a short survey to register for free virtual training from the Cisco Networking Academy and fill in your knowledge gaps, or try the BDC digital maturity assessment tool to find out in less than 5 minutes where your business stands compared to your peers, and how you can improve.