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4 Top Women of Telecom: How They Got Where They Are Today


According to the U.S. Department of Education, women now earn 60 percent of all college degrees. Business Insider reports that women make better leaders, and the advocacy group Women in Cable Telecommunications asserts that companies with women in their top ranks are more profitable, have higher employee retention rates and greater overall staff morale.

Despite this, just 20 companies on the Fortune 500 list have women in at least 40 percent of executive roles. Telecommunications remains a particularly difficult industry for females to rise in, as women must vie for roles in more technical fields that have traditionally been dominated by men. These include computer science and electrical engineering: two fields where around 15 percent of those employed are women.

To find out how women looking to rise in this industry can overcome the odds, we interviewed four female executives at prominent U.S. telecom companies. Here, we highlight the unique paths each took to the top and how they’re currently making a name for themselves.

Heather Burnett Gold

Heather Burnett Gold

Title: President, FTTH Council Americas
Education: Tufts University, Washington University

Heather Burnett Gold’s impressive 30 year career began when she earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in economics at Tufts University. She then went on to receive her Master of Business Administration (MBA) from Washington University, and completed a general management program at Harvard Business School.

Before venturing into telecom, Gold worked as a senior analyst at Anheuser-Busch in St. Louis, where she gained a keen eye for numbers that would prove extremely helpful later in her career.

Gold’s first telecom role was senior financial analyst at Satellite Business Systems (SBS), a company that sought to provide long distance services via satellite after the 1982 breakup of AT&T’s Bell System monopoly. The breakup required massive regulatory filings in order to set out the financial terms for carriers like SBS, which led Gold to embark on what would become a long career in regulatory affairs.

She later went on to work for Sprint, where she performed financial analysis of regulatory issues, before joining Allnet Communications as the manager of the company’s regulatory analysis group.

There, Gold created an innovative pricing model to predict how the breakup of the Bell System would affect long distance carriers—something she says her experience at Anheuser-Busch helped prepare her for.

“At Anheuser-Busch I did fundamental financial and economic analysis, which involved looking at merger and acquisition candidates,” Gold says. “This enabled me to review the various computations that Bell System members used to price their services and see if they appeared reasonable.”

Next, Gold joined the Association of Local Telecommunications Services (ALTS) as president, where she advocated on Capitol Hill to open up the market to small businesses that were building competitive local networks.

“We were the little guys in the middle, between the cable and broadcasting companies,” Gold recalls. “We didn’t have the funds that they had, and we didn’t have the lobbying dollars that the more established companies had.”

Gold later went on to serve as senior VP for telecom giant XO Communications. In 2011, she assumed her current role as president of the Fiber to the Home (FTTH) Council, where she continues to advocate for new entrants in the marketplace.

In terms of advice for young women, Gold recommends getting a broad background that includes “quantitative analysis” in disciplines such as finances, math and engineering, because “it helps you think logically and gives you a better perspective on how business works.”

Another important piece of advice Gold has is to remember the importance of business relationships, whether you’re negotiating contracts or arguing a case to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC).

“If you can’t get empathy or connect with others in some way, it’s going to be very hard for you to make your pitch,” she explains.

Finally, Gold emphasizes a willingness to take risks. “It’s important to take on the tough projects and say, ‘’I’ll do that.’ A lot of times we women don’t think we’re ready to do something that stretches our comfort zone.”

Cathy Bradley

Cathy Bradley

Title: President, Spoken
Education: University of Connecticut, University of Bridgeport, University of New Haven

With over 30 years of senior management experience with major telecom players, Cathy Bradley is an industry heavyweight. Much of her expertise is in business process outsourcing (BPO), or contracting operations to third-party service providers.

Bradley studied economics in school, earning a bachelor’s degree from the University of Bridgeport and an MBA from the University of New Haven. Her first job post-graduation was doing economic studies for the local telephone company—Southern New England Telephone (SNET), which eventually became AT&T.

As chief operating officer (COO), Bradley created business plans for SNET’s outside plants and retail store locations, gaining an understanding of the operational metrics that affect telecom costs. Her first experience with outsourcing occurred when she was forced to look beyond SNET’s internal centers to find an alternative to traditional staffing solutions.

“As COO of a deregulated long-distance business, it forced me to look at cost structure that would be competitive with companies like MCI,” she says. “So I partnered with Fortune 100 companies that had wholesale operations for our backroom functions, which was unheard of in the traditional telecom world.”

The model let her test the metrics of outsourcing versus internal business, providing her with a comprehensive view of how they stacked up against one another.

After AT&T, Bradley went on to handle customer care and IT outsourcing during a four-year tenure as chief service officer and senior VP at Nextel Communications. At her next role with Accenture, she co-founded and served as managing director of Accenture Customer Contact BPO Services, a division leading BPO strategies for major telecom players (including AT&T).

After running Accenture’s customer contact space, Bradley says she was recruited by Spoken to “translate visionary thinking into communications that would be effective in the marketplace.” Spoken has brought her career into the cloud, which she says is a growth opportunity to learn new skills.

Over the span of her 22-year career, Bradley says that being identified as a woman in a nontraditional role has been the key to putting her on a high-potential career track. However, she notes that women in these roles are often marginalized, and says the biggest challenge she’s faced as a female leader is not being recognized for her technical and financial competence.

“For leading practices that are technical or operational, women still aren’t recognized to their full potential,” she says. “These aren’t skills that people assume women have. People assume a lack of credibility, or that any woman in the room is a token.”

For young women seeking to overcome this barrier in telecom, Bradley emphasizes the importance of developing strong business relationships.

“It’s very important to have good relationships with the people you respect in the business who can be your mentors,” she says. “Never be afraid to ask for help. You never know it all, and that’s okay, but don’t underestimate your abilities, and don’t wait for it to be offered to you—reach!”

Deborah Crawford

Deborah Crawford

Title: VP of Engineering Operations, CHR Solutions
Education: Kansas State University

CHR Solutions is a fast-growing company that specializes in billing and operations software, compliance and managed IT services. As the VP of Engineering Operations, Deborah Crawford heads the company’s managed services and cloud business unit.

After graduating from Kansas State University in 1992 with a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering, Crawford opted to participate in a 27-month program with telecom company WilTel Communications. The program hired candidates straight out of school and rotated them through three nine month programs, each with a different area of focus.

It was here, Crawford says, that she learned how to find solutions to her customers’ problems, which set her on her career path.

“I worked in a group that dealt with proposals from companies that needed solutions, so right from the start my perspective was focused on finding solutions for the customer,” she explains. “I was doing the core engineering, but I was also getting that customer viewpoint, which has helped me in my career ever since. After all, we’re here for the customer, not for the technology.”

Crawford went on to become the operations engineer for WilTel’s largest wheel network. Because Crawford’s large enterprise clients wanted to connect their various facilities to this network, the solutions she delivered required secure site-to-site networks.

Today’s IP networks weren’t yet in place, which meant Crawford had to work to build private, internal IP networks—at the time, no one wanted to be on shared networks because of privacy concerns. “That’s been a big industry change over the years,” she says. “The evolution to layer 2 technology made shared IP networks common. People don’t think twice about it now.”

Crawford went on to become the lead architect at the startup Splitrock Services in 1997, where she was responsible for building a nationwide dial-up network; a notable career achievement. “My team and I built a network from scratch, plus all the required back-office systems,” she explains. “We grew the company from a few employees to 500 people in a few years.”

In addition to Splitrock, Crawford’s resume from 1997 to 2012 included stints with McLeod USA and PAETEC (which were ultimately acquired by Windstream), before joining CHR in 2013.

Crawford’s advice to aspiring young women in telecom is to always find ways to add value to your team, regardless of the situation. She gives the example of when she was working as a director of network and engineering at McLeod, where she was managing telemetry and corporate networks. The company was struggling with debt, going through a series of restructures and selling off assets.

Though it was a difficult time, Crawford stepped up to take responsibility of managing and programming the company’s entire VoIP [Voice Over Internet Protocol] program rollout from start to finish. As a result, she was promoted to VP of application development and product engineering.

“The key is not to shy away from challenges,” she says. If you’re feeling uncomfortable or you have doubt, then you’re probably growing. If you’re comfortable, you’ve probably reached your limit in your job.”

Tamara Saunders

Tamara Saunders

Title: Chief Financial Officer, Telesphere
Education: Texas Tech University

Tamara Saunders is the head of finance at Telesphere, a leading provider of fully hosted VoIP and unified cloud communications services, which grew nearly 316 percent from 2008 to 2012.

Surprisingly, Saunders says she never intended to end up in telecom. Her career path started at Texas Tech University, where she collected master’s and bachelor’s degrees in accounting before starting a five-year tenure with the auditing firm Arthur Andersen, which at the time was one of the “big five” auditing giants.

Though the firm met a dubious end with the Enron scandal, Saunders says it was the right place for her at the time. “I think if you’re in a finance role, the best place to start is a public accounting firm. You learn so much about different industries and all the aspects of a company,” she says.

Saunders describes her time with Arthur Andersen as “invaluable” because it taught her how high-tech companies operate, which led her to gravitate towards a role in the tech industry. “The people that technology companies attract tend to be more innovative, and they have great energy,” she explains.

Seeking this innovation and energy in her own career, Saunders went on to serve six years at the Web conferencing company and Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) provider iLinc Communication, where she served first as corporate controller, then as the VP of finance, running every aspect of the finance department.

Saunders says she learned a lot about the telecom industry as she moved up the ladder, eventually gaining enough experience to move onto Telesphere, where she started as controller.

As with iLinc, Telesphere’s hosted telecom services are cloud-based and marketed to businesses that need high-tech collaboration tools without investing in on-site equipment. The increasing shift to cloud-based services, Saunders says, is one of the biggest changes she’s seen in the industry.

“When I started at Telesphere, we had to explain to our customers what we did,” she explains. “But now we’re seeing more and more companies who want to be in the cloud.”

When it comes to succeeding in business as a woman, Saunders says the ability to wear multiple hats is key—something motherhood has taught her. “Once you become a parent, whether you’re working or not, you have to take on a lot of roles,” she explains. “I’ve always been able to manage multitasking very well.”

Saunder’s advice to other young women starting their careers is to always take on more. “Be willing to go above and beyond and help the people around you—even if it’s not in your job description,” she says.

“Seek out ways to learn. This is what I’ve done in my career, and that’s part of my success, which has all been due to hard work. I have a lot of energy and a lot of accountability, and I’ve proven I can get things done when they need to get done.”

“Businesswoman Using Cell Phone on Private Jet” created by Sam Churchill used under CC BY, cropped.

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Marshall Jones

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Marshall Jones is a contributor to Software Advice.

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