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The Globe's Stefanie Marotta, right, has lunch with Cisco Systems HR director Nicky Sabapathy at "Miku" in Toronto, Ont. on Tuesday, November 5, 2019.

J.P. MOCZULSKI/The Globe and Mail

After outfitting herself in steel-toed boots and a hardhat for her first stint in human resources, Nicki Sabapathy started searching for ways to improve the professional lives of the people around her.

Now the head of HR at Cisco Systems Canada Co., Sabapathy got her start at Concord, Ont.-based Kohl & Frisch Ltd., a small manufacturing company 20 kilometres north of Toronto, in 2001. Surrounded predominantly by middle-aged white men, she yearned to find ways to bring people of different backgrounds to the job.

“I was this little brown girl, and I was working with all of these union stewards and trying to negotiate,” she says. “It was a great learning experience in trying to create a voice for myself.”

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At 16 years old, Sabapathy immigrated from Sri Lanka with her family in 1995 as they fled the civil war. After learning English during her final two years of high school, studying psychology at York University and completing an HR certificate at the University of Toronto, she found herself equipped with the skills to improve the lives of others, but sought a workplace culture that welcomed change.

After spending three years liaising with trade unions and working a weekly overnight shift at the warehouse, it was then, amid the whirring cranes and conveyor belts that a mentor told her to get out of manufacturing. He suggested that she gain exposure to other roles where she could expand her HR skills beyond union negotiation, such as talent recruitment and change management, and sectors where she could propose new ways of doing things and bring in people from different walks of life, like single mothers and new Canadians. He recommended that she transition into a fast-paced, quickly evolving technology company where innovative ideas are encouraged.

Sabapathy hits “reset” every morning

The moment that Sabapathy wakes up – typically at 5 a.m. – sets the tone for the rest of her day. Routine is key and her first item of business is coffee – preferably vanilla-flavoured and as strong as possible.

“Growing up in Sri Lanka, tea and coffee were a big part of our culture,” she says. “So I like my coffee strong.”

She sips her cup of java while chatting with Charlie, her family’s 8-month-old golden retriever. After a trip to the gym, which is a short drive from her home, she’s back in the kitchen whipping up a smoothie for her commute on the GO train.

“As I'm getting everything done in the morning, I’ll make a blueberry, mango and banana smoothie with chocolate protein powder, one sprig of kale – only one – and a little bit of almond milk,” she said. “It's easy, it’s fast and I feel like I'm getting something in.”

“If something’s not working, if I know that I can make an impact, I've got to figure out a way to do it,” Sabapathy says. "For me, diversity was a big thing. It’s about empowering others, recruiting the right people, training them and making sure that they have a voice."

Over the course of her career, she wound her way through the technology, automotive and manufacturing industries, eventually landing at Cisco Canada, where she has worked in HR for the past six years. As the country’s head of human resources, Sabapathy oversees programs that affect the work experience of nearly 1,800 employees – from recruitment and training to benefits and wellness.

But outside of her professional life, she is also a mother to 12-year-old twin daughters. With her husband working as an electrician, the pair are on different schedules — which makes splitting up parenting duties that much easier. In the mornings, her husband rallies the girls out of bed to take them to school; in the evenings, Sabapathy makes it home in time to prepare dinner and catch up with her daughters.

A self-professed morning person, she is at her strongest during the first half of the day. It’s the only time where she can focus on herself and gear up to be present for her coworkers and her family.

“My morning is truly my time,” she says. "I try my best to be consistent because I feel like I need that as a woman and as a mom with kids and a family. To be able to balance everything, I need this time for me.”

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After running through her routine at home, she catches the train to make the hour-long commute from Stouffville to Toronto. As the car fills in around her, she catches up on the news, prepares for meetings and makes a to-do list for the day.

"By the time I come into the office, I have a plan for the day, I’m organized and I feel like I’ve accomplished a few things in the morning,” she said. “I get to look at my day and figure out what needs to go and what needs to change.”

Sabapathy is a champion of workplace diversity. "It’s about empowering others, recruiting the right people, training them and making sure that they have a voice," she says.

J.P. MOCZULSKI/The Globe and Mail

Sabapathy notes that maintaining her busy schedule wouldn’t be possible without the flexibility Cisco Canada gives her – and the programs she oversees at the company aim to extend this flexibility to all staff. The company offers family benefits and employee education subsidies and provides paid time off for volunteering. Cisco also runs a career network for junior employees and connects young female interns with women entrepreneurs across the country. In recognition of its employee programs, Cisco was named one of Canada’s Top 100 Employers.

Even with a long roster of HR initiatives underway, Sabapathy says she never stops asking what employees need next. Last year, the HR leader and her team started talking about mental health and how they could open up conversation about the historically taboo topic at work.

“Bringing your whole self to work became very important to us,” Sabapathy says. “As an organization, we talk about diversity of thought. That means also that if you are not feeling well, we want to be able to talk about that and help people deal with it.”

Born out of those conversations was the idea to offer monthly webinars and workshops where employees can freely discuss their challenges with mental health, such as their relationship with food and their approaches to dealing with stress. The company also launched an online platform for employees to log weekly reflections, including what they enjoyed and what they struggled with during the previous workweek. The feedback informs a weekly conversation with a team leader that helps them identify their strengths, learning opportunities and external factors that could be affecting their personal wellbeing.

“We want to make sure that our employees know that embracing who they are in their full form is important to us,” Sabapathy says. “It’s not just about age and generation and race and ethnicity, it’s about everything else.”

Special to The Globe and Mail

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