Innovating for a brighter future with Tobi Young of Cognizant

February 6, 2024

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Tobi Young is the SVP of Regulatory, Sustainability and Corporate Affairs at Cognizant, a Fortune 250 company.  Tobi manages global regulatory risk for Cognizant, including privacy, ESG, immigration, and government affairs.  She also manages global impact and philanthropy for Cognizant.

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John Shegerian: Do you have a suggestion for a Rockstar Impact podcast guest? Go to impactpodcast.com and just click Be a Guest to recommend someone today. This edition of the Impact Podcast is brought to you by ERI. ERI has a mission to protect people, the planet and your privacy. And is the largest fully integrated IT and electronics asset disposition provider and cybersecurity focused hardware destruction company in the United States and maybe even the world. For more information on how ERI can help your business properly dispose of outdated electronic hardware devices, please visit eridirect.com. This episode of the Impact Podcast is brought to you by Closed Loop Partners. Closed Loop Partners is a leading circular economy investor in the United States with an extensive network of Fortune 500 corporate investors, family offices, institutional investors, industry experts and impact partners. Closed loops platform spans the arc of capital from venture capital to private equity bridging gaps and fostering synergies to scale the circular economy. To find Closed Loop Partners, please go to www.closelooppartners.com.

John: Welcome to another edition of the Impact Podcast. I’m John Shegerian, and I’m so excited to have with us today. Tobi Young, she’s a senior vice president of regulatory sustainability and corporate affairs at Cognizant. Welcome Toby to the Impact podcast.

Tobi Young: Thank you, John. I appreciate you letting me join you today. I’ve actually learned a lot myself from listening to your podcast, so I appreciate the work you do.

John: That’s kind of you. But Toby, I got to say, I’ve had a lot of people, over 2000 people on this podcast since 17 years, and you have one of the most fascinating and interesting and impressive biographies. Before we get… I want you to share with our listeners and viewers before we get talking about all the important and impactful things you and your colleagues are doing at Cognizant. Share a little bit about the Tobi Young story. Where did you grow up and how’d you get on this important and fascinating journey that you’re on right now?

Tobi: I grew up in a small town in Oklahoma and I like to say that my dad was the first football feminist out there. I was his only daughter and he just blocked and tackled for me and thought there was nothing in this world that I can’t do. And I took him to heart at that. I’m a lawyer and I didn’t know a single lawyer growing up when I entered law school. This was all new territory for me, but I had a family who believed in me and great teachers who encouraged me and just continued to feed my hunger and curiosity. So I think it’s a special thing about this country is wherever you grow up, you can find people who are ready to invest in you and believe in you. And so I went from Oklahoma to Dartmouth, which was a pretty drastic change in climate and culture and all other things. I had an interesting side path that led me to Capitol Hill and working for J. C. Watts, who was my representative in Congress from Oklahoma. And someone everyone in Oklahoma knew as the star quarterback of the Oklahoma Sooners in his day. And an interesting aside is he went on to play professional football in Canada, because at the time, NFL franchises didn’t want a black quarterback leading their association. So he went to Canada, followed Jack Kemp, and I think his story opened my eyes to a lot in the world and ended up going to law school, becoming a civil rights attorney at the Department of Justice. Got kind of lucky and got picked to work for President Bush in the White House. Went back to Texas with him to work with President Mrs. Bush, worked for Justice Neil Gorsuch, and found my way to Cognizant. So it has been a twisting and turning journey that has been a lot of fun and continued learning is the theme of every day.

John: Tobi you’re a very humble human being, but that’s just not luck that you get to work for George and Mrs. Bush and for Neil Gorsuch. These are some of the best and brightest that our country’s ever known and seen some real great Americans and that have done wonderful things for this great country. And the fact that you got to serve with them says a lot about you. And also with J. C. Watts as well. And I’m a huge J. C. Watts fan. So it’s so funny how in our lifetime something as bizarre sounding as that the NFL didn’t want a black quarterback. That sounds even to my own ears today so far. But I remember when we were living through it and we’ve come far, but boy, do we still have a long way to go in this country when it comes to diversity, inclusivity, and everything else that should make us a great nation.

Tobi: Yeah, we’ve come a long way. And one thing I repeat to people that, Dr. Condoleezza Rice says often is, we’re not a perfect country. There’s not one out there, but show me a place that’s working harder and trying harder to get it right, to do the right thing and make improvements. So that’s sort of the way I live and try to encourage other people to live. And I will definitely say in getting to work with these people, that’s the attitude that they’ve had. And I’ve never been the smartest person in a room, but I’m always willing to work the hardest. And I think you can make a difference if that’s your attitude.

John: Amen, you can. And also that’s… and Condoleezza Rice, another great American, and she’s really right. When you get to travel a little bit and you’re blessed to get out of this country and go see different parts of this world, there’s nothing like coming home to American soil. There’s nothing like it. We are still a great country. No, we even with all of our warts and our problems, there’s a lot, I grew up in New Jersey, so I got up, I grew up not far from Teaneck, New Jersey, knowing who Cognizant is, knowing many employees that worked there. Talk a little bit before we get talking about all the important work and impactful work that you get to do in regulatory sustainability and corporate affairs. Let’s talk a little bit about Cognizant. What does Cognizant do? What’s your actual business and mission, and how big is Cognizant, Tobi?

Tobi: Well, you’re not going to believe me, but Cognizant has almost 350,000 people worldwide. And so, as we talk about the United States, Cognizant has really opened my eyes to the globe. And the amazing spirit of people all over this world and Cognizant is a global company, but we really look to serve people locally. And so that’s, you know, us as your New Jersey, Teaneck, New Jersey company. And where we are, I think people, I like to think they think this is my hometown company because the way we try to treat the people who work with us. Be involved in the community. I think young people might know us now as a company that sponsors Aston Martin in Formula One, but we’re a lot more than that. We are helping the Global 2000 really modernize their businesses, make sure they have the digital infrastructure to compete, to win, to bring those things to their customers forefront that you expect these days. We’re looking at AI all the time and how is that going to help companies? How’s that going to help their business, reach their client, get what they need fast and stay competitive? So we’re really everywhere. And with 350,000 people, you can imagine it’s a big company, but it’s got a big heart. That’s just that many people that can really show who we are and make an impact worldwide.

John: Tobi before when we started this podcast, the alphabet soup of acronyms weren’t around. ESG wasn’t a thing in 2007. Even the shift from the linear to circular economy wasn’t a thing. Sustainability was sort of a new concept coming to North America, already very big in Europe, and probably some of the more progressive Asian countries such as Japan and South Korea. But now we’re into it. Now, companies in the United States that are also worldwide brands like Cognizant is, are focused on these aspects. Talk a little bit about how you and your colleagues at Cognizant frame sustainability and ESG. Many companies focus in ESG, others focus on the G. Cognizant seems to be focusing on the S. Talk a little bit about the why and the how of that, and how you guys came to your approach to sustainability and ESG related topics.

Tobi: John, that’s funny you say the acronyms. 20 years in the government, that’s my specialty as acronym. So I guess I was meant to come to Cognizant and work on ESG issues. I would say at Cognizant, we lead with the S, all of them are important to us. We’re working with them, but we’re a people company. And with 350,000 people across the globe, you have to lead with the S, you have to lead with the sustainability aspect of making sure you are caring for the health of your people, the growth of your people, the skilling, the safety. So that’s where we lead. We have the E commitments. We have environmental commitments. We have a lot of training around climate that’s led actually by our people. We have to have good governance and compliance, not only for our shareholders and our clients, but for, again, our people. Because if a crisis happens, if something’s urgent, you have to know you have good processes that will take care of your people. So it’s the alphabet is in there, but we lead with the S. And one of the things I am most proud of about our S is our skilling efforts. And I think about it a little bit, maybe in environmental terms and that you cannot be a company today that just consumes, you can’t be a company that is consuming the knowledge of 350,000 people without reinvesting, without replanting into their hopes for their future into their communities. So we really talk about upskilling our people, continuing the growth, the trajectory of their life. We talk about going into their communities and giving a skill, teaching people how to join this technology workforce of the future. When you think about it, what do you hear all the time? No matter where you are on this planet or in the United States, if you’re in an urban or rural area, I don’t want to be left behind. What is this AI? What does it mean? Am I going to have a job tomorrow? Will my kids succeed? Can they stay where they live and have a future? And I think this is the time for companies like Cognizant to step forward and say, yes, and it’s going to be a great future, and we’re going to invest in you being part of that future. It’s not just about your kids will have these skills. How do we bring you up to have these skills? We invest in programs that help veterans transition from their career of service all around the globe, not just in the United States to getting the skills they need to succeed in a tech economy. We are in India, believe it or not, teaching young people in rural communities to code without computers. So there are opportunities out there to reinvest, to replant, to really reinvigorate the spirit, to let people know, yes, technology is leading the way, but you’re going to be part of this. Our CEO Ravi Kumar always says, nobody goes out as a ditch digger and says, gosh, I hope my kids are going to be ditch diggers also. You’re always worried about how do I make things better in the future? And I think at Cognizant, it’s our priority to say, we’re going to be part of this with you. We’re not going to leave you behind. We’re part of this and we’re going to bring people together with us on this journey.

John: I love it. And for our listeners and viewers who just joined us, we’ve got Tobi Young with us today. She’s a senior Vice President of regulatory sustainability and corporate affairs at Cognizant. To find Tobi and her 300,000 plus colleagues that are doing this great work at Cognizant, please go to www.cognizant, C-O-G-N-I-Z-A-N-T.com. Tobi, how long have you been in this position, actually, at Cognizant?

Tobi: I started with Cognizant in February, 2020 to put a finer point on that three weeks before the world closed down for COVID.

John: Wow. So when did Cognizant really start focusing on sustainability and ESG and make it part of their DNA and start reporting on it with annual reports and things of that such? Was that the advent of bringing you on? Did that predate you? How did that look?

Tobi: So coincidentally, it happened about the same time as when I joined. We started our board was looking around and had a lot of questions and wanted to make sure that we were meeting the needs of our clients today, of our communities and as a lawyer of regulatory expectations. So we have been doing reports for three years for ESG reports. Working right now on telling our story a little bit now and making sure that report gets out. So it’s I think a lot of people feel like it came on suddenly, but I think a lot of companies had been doing the work without calling it the name. And now it’s starting to communicate the work a lot more. And for Cognizant, this is not a marketing, this is a real investment. This is about taking care of our people, taking care of our clients, and showing up how we need to.

John: That’s fascinating. And I get to talk to a lot of people in your type of position Tobi, sometimes they walk into that position and there was already legacy people that were stepped in before, and they build on that. But it’s also fascinating when folks like you come into this position with great backgrounds like you had with very diverse and important backgrounds with lots of accomplishment, but you’re given a blank page. How did the blank page go? Did you sit down with the C-suite and other leaders at Cognizant and start developing then how are you going to fill in that blank page?

Tobi: So we have a great team. We brought in smart people. We brought in… I’ve inherited the ESG portfolio. I focused on parts of it and we brought in smart people and we said, what are we doing currently? What do we need to do better? What are our clients asking for? And just started talking about it more delivering, making sure that we had reports out for our investors, for our communities of here’s where we are, here’s where we’re going to improve, here’s the conversations we’re having with our clients. And so we went from a phase of the first year telling what we hope to do. At this point, we’re helping to train our suppliers in how they can meet needs and better be prepared for questions from governments, from their investors. What is your footprint in some of these areas? And then also on the sustainability skilling, how do we partner together to make sure we’re investing in people’s long-term health and safety and trajectory in the workforce?

John: And those reports, the annual reports that the impact reports that you create live on your Cognizant website, I take it.

Tobi: They absolutely do.

John: Talk a little bit specifically about and share some insights on how you make a difference, how cognizant make the difference with regards to the employees where they live and work. Because as you said, you’re a multinational corporation. You gave an example of working with veterans around the world and working with young people in India and teaching them how to code. Give some more specific examples on the importance of your employees and making their difference in the communities that your employees live in around the world.

Tobi: Yeah, thank you for asking that. This is I think a signature achievement of Cognizant in that we really do try to walk the walk. And our CEO leads by example, and we make a lot of investments around the globe in the skilling area in particular. So a few things that just [inaudible], we work closely in the United States with Teach for America and giving grants to their educators to meet the local needs of how do I bring STEM scaling into these students who are K through 12 who might not have access to everything? What do I need locally in Oklahoma might look different than what do I need in New Jersey? So we are funding grants for Teach for America, working with them, helping to make sure they are armed and equipped. We have a teacher shortage right now, and we need to make sure, not only do we have teachers, but we have teachers who can help provide the STEM skills that this student population needs for the future. We’ve also worked with the National Governor’s Association and we funded and initiated what’s called the Workforce Innovation Network. So this is an opportunity for states to get grants from companies like Cognizant to meet the local workforce training needs. And again, I think at Cognizant because we’re agile and we’re meeting different client demands all the time, we understand the same thing is true when it comes to philanthropy. There are different needs that need to be met, so states are putting grants together, working with local workforce, NGOs, their government officials. Here’s how we can get our population upskill and retrained to get jobs to have a better future. So we’re funding that with several of our clients as well. Today I’m getting ready to go to a group called Girlstart in Austin that we fund, getting young women interested in STEM and doing a panel with our partners at Aston Martin Formula One. So we like to show up in communities in multiple ways with the common goal of skill, really raising people up. Give you another example for people who are interested in skilling in tech but aren’t engineers, which I’m clearly not. The lawyer’s the last person you want in that room. But I was talking to a group that we work with at the Urban League, and they said, not only do we need people to come teach our students tech skills, engineering skills, but now the technology is at the front of the office instead of the back of the office. We need students who haven’t historically had opportunities and companies to learn how to make a presentation, how to interview, how to have the soft skills needed for success in technology companies today. So we invest there too. And our heart is for volunteering. So we have a significant amount of associates around the world who go and volunteer and do things like this and teach these soft skills, teach these tech skills. It’s I’m just really grateful that we have leadership here that backs this up. And it’s not about a press release for us. It’s truly about getting a workforce that’s needed and getting people employed and skilled.

John: So you not only head up regulatory sustainability and corporate affairs but underneath that very wide umbrella already comes the volunteerism that you’re just referring to and corporate philanthropy. How does that work? And how do you go about choosing what organizations to be involved with and to donate your resources to?

Tobi: We put a lot of thought into that. We really like to see the organizations that are getting results. And we work as a team. One of the nice things about sort of this peanut butter and jelly sandwich portfolio I have put together is it’s not siloed. We can take an investment we make in a nonprofit that we see getting great results and say, not only are we going to invest in you, we’re going to show up and volunteer with you. We’re going to tell our clients about you, and we’re going to come in together and do this. And so we really like that story to continue. And I think one thing that’s interesting is in business today, and I think ESG has impacted this, potential clients want to know that you can solve their problems. They want to know that you have AI and the technology edge. They also want to know how you show up in ESG. How you show up in philanthropy. Are you a good partner to the community you’re in? And this allows us to tell the full story of who we are as a company. And I’m very proud of it. I can’t take credit because I have amazing teammates who go out there and do the hard work. I just get to brag on them.

John: Well, someone’s got to do the bragging and that’s great. Obviously, talk about some of the classic things that we’re all talking about now as terms of trends. The shift from the linear to circular economy, the zero waste trend. The aim for zero waste is the aim to decarbonization obviously, and get to carbon neutrality. You are a people company, you’re a services company. So how do you frame that up in your ESG report and the way you think about ESG and sustainability. How do you track that and which part of those algorithms make sense to track for Cognizant and that you report on?

Tobi: Right. Well, so we’re probably, not the typical, the services industry is not where people are thinking necessarily the E. But we’ve made our carbon neutral commitments and I think everybody can do their part. So we are looking at how do we show up in travel? How do we source the energy supply for the real estate we have? How are we helping our clients to identify efficiencies that can make them better and less of a consumption industry? So using technology to fix cooling systems to help food not spoil and help companies looking at, depending on fisheries for the oceans, like detecting through technology when there’s going to be changes to preserve people, to help invent better ways to survive and live in the environment you are. So those are some of the things we look at. And we report on standard issues. We also have a carbon calculator that we use for our clients and for the work we do with them to help them in their reporting and make sure they can give the correct assurances. I think it’s really important now that when you talk about what you do in these spaces, that you’re authentic about it and that you can back it up. That’s kind of the new trend. It’s not a press release. This is legitimate. There should not be greenwashing. How do we help our clients show what they’re doing matters and is moving the needle?

John: You got to talk the talk and you got to walk the walk. It’s [inaudible]

Tobi: Absolutely.

John: Talk a little bit about someone who achieves all that you’ve achieved in what is still a very, relatively speaking, very young life that you’ve lived, gets inspired and also gets competitive. Where do you get your benchmarks and inspiration from Tobi, when you’re looking for sustainability, ESG, and other philanthropic issues that you are dealing with and managing at Cognizant? Where do you look on the outside for those type of benchmarks and inspirations and other roadmaps to help you, inform you to better manage what you’re in charge of at Cognizant?

Tobi: Great. Well, first of all, thank you for calling me relatively young. I by virtue of marriage get to be forever young, but that’s about it. The good news about today is there’s so much information available when it comes to ESG and standards that are out there. And so we’re constantly searching benchmarks, what’s expected. We’re talking to our investors, what are you seeing that’s an improvement that people can step up and do, and how do we do that? And good ideas, I’m always happy to copy those and talk to my colleagues who are in the same industries I am or in others. How do I learn from you? I was in New York for Climate Week talking to different people. What are you doing? What are you looking at? How do we need to be adjusting our business model to make sure we’re meeting the needs of the future and being responsible corporate citizens.

John: That’s right. Obviously, three years into this whole journey at Cognizant, you now have certain projects and initiatives that you get the most excited about, you’re most proud of. Can you share some of your favorite examples and pet projects that you get most excited about at Cognizant?

Tobi: Well, I don’t think your listeners want to hear about how excited I get about regulatory issues. I won’t go there. That’s my background. I am excited really to see the energy that our CEO Ravi Kumar is bringing to our company, challenging for new ideas, solutions that can make people’s lives better. And the way he’s asked me to step forward on that platform is to really think about skilling in a new and different way. And I think about it constantly and how can we partner? Because I think that’s what’s on people’s mind universally in the United States and India and the United Kingdom. How do I matter in the future of workforce and AI? And this is a way we can answer it and really step up to help skill people for gainful employment, to connect dots for them. This is the skill you need to get into this company. So that’s where I’m excited, that’s where I think I get a lot of my energy from. And then watching the volunteers who go out and do the work and train people and work with community colleges, to see the road that lies ahead for people and to offer a little bit of hope, I think pretty lucky to work in business and also get that mission charged to me.

John: Tobi, as we know, sustainability is, there’s no finish line there. It’s a journey. And so three years in is a very relatively short period. What’s coming up in the next year or two or three that you’re allowed to talk about that for Cognizant in with regards to ESG and sustainability and all these impactful things that you and your colleagues are working on at Cognizant?

Tobi: Well, we are looking for more ways to skill people, to create opportunities, to create jobs. I would say we’re looking in our ESG reports of how do we truly show impact now? We’ve been doing this, how do we show the impact of what we’re doing? How do we make that clear to anyone’s who’s interested in Cognizant sustainability plan and chart for the future that we’re trying to make a difference and we’re being creative, we’re being truthful. So those are the challenges I’m looking for as people ask more and more questions of what is your company truly doing to make a change, to serve their clients and help them get to a path of not only regulatory compliance, but sustainability. And I think trust, trust in the communities that they serve. How do we do that with our ESG efforts and investments?

John: How is it for you personally? You were on the public serving side of life and now you’re on the obviously working for a publicly traded company on the other side of the equation. Compare and contrast the different lives that you’ve led through your career?

Tobi: You wouldn’t be surprised how similar working in government can be to working in corporate America. And I think more so in this day and age, working in government, I could plan my next day, but inevitably current events would dictate what I was going to be doing. And some sort of a crisis would always happen that you needed to respond to, you needed to collaborate with your colleagues, you needed to have compassion for whatever urgent moment was happening. And I think in these three years at Cognizant, I have certainly seen that the world has been dealing with unprecedented events, new events that we don’t know how to quite deal with. The different climate things happening in their communities that we haven’t had to, how do we keep our people safe, cybersecurity, the health and safety that COVID showed us. So it’s been really interesting to see these skills developed in government of collaboration, of thinking calmly, of having a plan in place for when the unexpected happens to move on that, and to try to help lead as best I can. So maybe corporations should start recruiting from the government a little bit more. It’s not the normal place to go. But of course, I always say that I worked for the NBA President, president Bush, he ran the White House like a business, and he wanted to gauge risk and he had a propensity for action. And I think that’s very much what I’ve found at Cognizant too. So it’s been a fun transition.

John: Well, Tobi, it’s been fun talking with you today. You’re always welcome back on the Impact Podcast to share your continued journey at Cognizant and Cognizant’s journey in sustainability in ESG. For our listeners and viewers to find Tobi and all her colleagues at Cognizant and all the important work they’re doing in ESG and sustainability, please go to www.cognizant, C-O-G-N-I-Z-A-N-T.com.

Tobi Young, you’re not only making a difference in all the communities that your employees work in around the world, but you’re making the world a better place. And for that, I’m very grateful. Thanks again for joining us today on the Impact Podcast.

Tobi: Thanks for having me, John.

John: This edition of the Impact Podcast is brought to you by Engage. Engage is a digital booking platform revolutionizing the talent booking industry with thousands of athletes, celebrities, entrepreneurs, and business leaders. Engage is the go-to spot for booking talent, for speeches, custom experiences, live streams, and much more. For more information on Engage or to book talent today, visit letsengage.com. This edition of the Impact Podcast is brought to you by ERI. ERI has a mission to protect people, the planet and your privacy. And is the largest fully integrated IT and electronics asset disposition provider and cybersecurity focused hardware destruction company in the United States and maybe even the world. For more information on how ERI can help your business properly dispose of outdated electronic hardware devices, please visit eridirect.com.