‘When You Lead With Empathy and Authenticity, the Rest Will Follow:’ My Journey to Success in Tech

Sponsored by Cisco

Uljana Sejko presenting at GHC 2022. Photo courtesy of Uljana Sejko.

Uljana Sejko presenting at GHC 2022. Photo courtesy of Uljana Sejko.

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Fairygodboss
May 18, 2024 at 4:7AM UTC

Uljana Sejko’s story begins in Albania, her country of origin, before she immigrated to the U.S. at the age of 15. This was an experience “that shaped me into the individual I am today,” shares Sejko. 

For instance, “like most immigrants, I interpreted for my family at a young age, not fully comprehending the importance or implications of legal, financial, or medical documents and conversations,” she tells us. “Because I interacted with so many different personalities in a new country, I learned to be creative when communicating the needs of different parties to get to a common ground or goal.”

Throughout these experiences, Sejko developed a unique skill set and perspective, which showed that “when you lead with empathy and authenticity, the rest will follow,” says Sejko. “I also learned to make the most out of all the resources available to me because I grew up in a system where a lot was expected from me but little to no support was given. Keeping in mind that there are many barriers and lack of privilege for individuals from underrepresented groups, there are a lot of people out there like me who want to advocate, help break those barriers, and create opportunities.”

And with her great skills and desire to make a difference, it’s no wonder that Sejko found her way to a career in tech. “It did not sit well with me that tech was the path less taken, at least in my upbringing,” she shares. “I gravitated toward a tech career because the topic intrigued and energized me.”

Today, Sejko is a multilingual Solutions Engineer in Cisco’s U.S. Commercial Sales organization. She paved her own path to this position and now has a wealth of experiences and advice — which she uses to help elevate other women. Sejko encourages women in tech to dream big and explore what’s out there, even if it may seem out of reach at first. Here, we caught up with her to learn more about her inspirational work, her best advice for other women in tech, and more!

Uljana Sejko’s team. Photo courtesy of Uljana Sejko.

Let’s start at the beginning of your journey to Cisco. We heard that attending a Grace Hopper Conference in 2017 was part of your  inspiration to continue pursuing a tech career. Could you tell us more about how this inspired you? 

I attended Grace Hopper in 2016 and 2017. In 2016, I won the GHC student scholarship, and in 2017, I was selected amongst the Computing Research Association — Women scholars. This conference is what convinced me to continue my pursuit of a career in tech. It was very impactful because this was the first time I met successful women from different walks of life who had made an impact in tech. I also met many students who were navigating similar challenges, such as the lack or minimal participation of other women in computer science classes, not being taken seriously, not being selected in group projects, experiencing microaggressions, or even dealing with classmates questioning the need for conferences like GHC.

Representation matters, so having avenues like these conferences is crucial to retain women in tech... After my attendance, my Computer Science department created the “Grace Murray Hopper Service and Leadership Award” to honor leadership within the tech community, so we started a ripple effect.  

And, in 2022, I had a full-circle moment when I returned to GHC 2022 representing Cisco as a speaker. When I attended in 2016 as a student scholar, I knew I had to somehow give back to this community that had given me so much. I understood the power behind telling my story and inspiring or motivating someone through it. 

You started at Cisco via their Cisco Sales Associate Program (CSAP). What is this program? And how did it support you personally as you joined Cisco?  

The Cisco Sales Associate Program is a global, year-long graduate program that I like to call a mini master’s degree in Cisco. This program trains and develops the next generation of technical leaders in two paths: Associate Sales Engineer (ASE) or Associate Sales Representative (ASR)...

The CSAP brand within Cisco is well-respected, and there is executive leadership support behind it. It has allowed me to speed up my career journey and earn two promotions. And, most importantly, it has allowed me to develop a network of CSAP alumni whom I can reach out to for anything. 

You mention that mentorship has also been key in growing your career at Cisco. Can you tell us more about this?

Mentorship has been a crucial element in my growth as an engineer because it has helped me normalize and overcome imposter syndrome as well as improve my skills. We are all works in progress, and having mentors alongside my career journey has created a safe space for me to share my challenges and validate my experiences. I would like to take a moment to thank my formal mentors Kharem Espinoza and Troy Perkins. Both taught me so much about navigating life at Cisco and setting up a plan to become successful. The same goes for my CSAP managers and current manager Kamal Verma who believe in me so much. I learn a lot from the people I mentor as well; they keep me honest, up to date, and offer fresh perspectives because sometimes we are caught in our own bubbles and need a reality check.

What are your top pieces of advice for women looking to start or grow a career in tech like you did?  

Whether you want to pivot into tech or grow your career, I cannot stress enough the importance of networking. A lot of people end up in roles and careers because they are willing to put themselves out there by expanding their network. For some, this can be intimidating, but my advice is to always bring your authentic self. Networking is a skill that gets better with practice and being authentic will make this a more organic process

Uljana Sejko at Cisco Impact. Photo courtesy of Uljana Sejko.

If you are nervous about not being “technical enough” (like I used to be), remember that many skills are transferable. It is more important to have an open mind and be coachable. Many people end up learning the actual work while on the job. It is crucial to promote your brand and focus on what you can control. Sometimes that means interpersonal skills; sometimes that means expertise in one subdomain. The best advice a mentor gave me is to dream big. While that may sound cheesy, it’s what has kept me going so far. You can grow your career if you have a growth mindset, surround yourself with a support system, and are demanding yet patient with yourself. 

Don’t shy away from asking for help because you will learn so much more in the process. Always be open to feedback but take it with a grain of salt. Constructive criticism with good intent is a gift. Pay attention to what energizes you and what gives you the opposite effect. 

What about in your field of technical sales specifically? What are the most challenging and rewarding aspects of being in this field?

The technical sales industry comes with its own challenges. For example, a lot of enterprises are used to doing things the way they know because it’s what they are comfortable with. I would like to quote Grace Hopper here: “the most dangerous phrase in the English language is 'we have always done it this way."

While it is challenging to handle different customer objections, when we look at the root cause and welcome them with empathy, we often find that a lot of it stems from a fear of the unknown. When you work alongside customers and support them throughout their business transformation journey, seeing their reaction and relief after you have shown them a better or new way is so rewarding — you make an impact and have a ripple effect. It starts with making the life of an employee easier or helping siloed departments within an organization communicate better to things like helping that organization drive customer satisfaction and retention, sustainability, or revenue goals. Another aspect I enjoy is that every day can be different, and you can learn so much quickly. A job like this will become monotonous only if you let it, and tech is a space where you have an opportunity to reinvent yourself every day.  

Do you have any recent projects or accomplishments at Cisco that you are particularly proud of? 

I am very proud of the success my team (Chicago Select) has achieved, specifically placing #1 in the U.S. Commercial segment for fiscal year 2022. This team has consistently ranked in the top three of all US Commercial segments for the past four years, and it is an honor to work alongside leaders in the industry. 

I am also very proud to represent our team as a MultiplyIT ambassador, an initiative where I also serve on the events committee. Our mission is to multiply full-spectrum diversity within the U.S. Commercial segment of Cisco by focusing on attracting, retaining, and advancing top-tier talent. As ambassadors, we amplify this message, awareness, and updates to our teams. 

Simultaneously, we bring forward news, ideas, and stories from our teams to U.S. Commercial MultiplyIT. We do this by recruiting storytellers, participating in Inclusive Communities (Cisco’s term for Employee Resource Groups), volunteering for committees, and documenting our journey on social media. 

What do you love about working at Cisco?

One thing I have noticed at Cisco is that people can move internally in different roles and organizations. If you work with your leader and let them know about your goals or interests, they will work with you to explore those interests and come up with a plan to get you to the next step. I am also proud to be a Cisconian because we show up through volunteering, donating, and supporting one another in important matters, from social justice to human rights and health causes. I am glad that Cisco gives a quarterly “Day for Me” (paid day off) along with our winter shutdown, where the whole company truly gets a break from everything

The network of Cisco is huge, and it’s a great place to start learning about technology because we have a footprint across technologies and architectures, allowing for a breadth of knowledge and depth if you choose so. It’s a great balance of everything, especially for someone starting out their career. You have the opportunity to be an agent of change and find fulfillment in more than your day-to-day job.  

Is there anything else we haven’t asked about that you’d like to mention? 

Please voice your needs and goals and encourage your leaders and peers to support and sponsor organizations mentioned in this article so we can keep growing a diverse ecosystem of opportunities for the current and next generation of talent. Feel free to connect with me on LinkedIn if you would like to chat! 



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