- Anne Chow, the CEO of AT&T Business, has faced prejudice and bias throughout her career.
- She’s using her platform to speak out against Asian hate and get more women of color in leadership.
- In an Equity Talk, Chow shares her advice for the next generation of CEOs.
As the CEO of the business arm of the telecommunications giant AT&T, Anne Chow is often insulated from the outside world by a league of assistants. But that doesn’t mean she’s immune to racism, sexism, or prejudice.
In her ascension to the coveted CEO seat, she’s been talked over in meetings and faced doubts about her leadership and public-speaking abilities. The hardest part of her career, she said, wasn’t the sacrifice the work called for. Instead, it was soldiering on through implicit and explicit bias from colleagues.
“I think there’s an assumption that because I’m a CEO, I don’t run into any of these problems,” Chow told Insider. “It’s so not true.”
A Cornell-educated engineer turned business executive, Chow continues to endure such microaggressions as remarks about how “articulate” and “good at public speaking” she is. People still ask her, “Where are you really from?”
“I’ll get those until the day I die,” Chow, who is AT&T’s first woman of color to serve as a CEO, said. “I have always had to be conscious about managing people’s perception of me.”
Her history dealing with bias has fueled an insatiable desire to help other professionals from marginalized backgrounds. Since taking the helm of her company in 2019, Chow has put AT&T on course to increase the representation of women and people of color in leadership positions. When she started, women made up 36% of all leaders, and people of color made up 39%. Women now make up just under 40% of all leaders, and people of color make up 41%, according to a 2020 report.
Before she became CEO, Chow created a mentorship and sponsorship program for women of color at the company. Because of her, over 400 women of color have expanded their professional opportunities within the company or have been promoted as a result. During her 31-year tenure at AT&T, Chow has held several high-profile roles, including president, senior vice president, and assistant vice president.
With plans to continue increasing diversity in leadership, Chow is “looking to move all of this representation forward, strategically,” she said.
In the latest installment of The Equity Talk, I talked to Chow about her recent condemnation of Asian hate, lessons from last year, and the wisdom she’s imparting to the next generation of CEOs.
Interview edited and condensed.
In March, after a string of anti-Asian attacks, you penned a moving letter against Asian hate. You wrote, “What we do today will shape generations to come. It’s time to listen. It’s time to seek to understand. It’s time to engage and take action.” What moved you to speak out at that time?
That piece came from my heart. I felt like I needed to write these thoughts down. As an Asian American person, I’m having all these emotions and issues go through my mind: anger and frustration. I felt I needed to represent my community.
Then, as a leader, as a CEO who happens to be Asian, I realized I have this platform that can be used to increase awareness, catalyze change. That also compelled me to write it.
I was nervous to put this out there. It was raw. But I have no regrets.
I heard from one of my employee’s daughters after I published that piece. She’s 16. This girl, who was trying to work through her own identity and feeling biased against, said she found my piece relatable and inspiring. That’s why I wrote the piece, because I don’t want anybody to have to think they’re alone in what they’re experiencing.
Tell me about your greatest accomplishment in diversity, equity, and inclusion.
One of the things I’m most proud of creating is the Women of Color program. I started noticing a trend both inside my company and outside of my company. Women were making notable progress in the workforce. But women of color were not.
Then, LinkedIn and McKinsey came out with their Women in the Workplace report in 2016. So finally, when those reports started coming out, it had the data that proved exactly what I was observing. It says something like, “When a company focuses on women only, women of color are left behind.” So I went to our chief diversity officer and I said, “We have to do something.”
We got together and looked over the research and pulled together a focus group of women of color – Black, Latina, Asian, Native American. Those sessions were cathartic. There was so much commonality in the stories. It was a moment of realizing we had to do something about the prejudice and bias women of color face.
We developed a Women of Color initiative back in 2017. We’ve had some 400 women and their supervisors participate. We work with supervisors on what it means to support a woman of color in her profession. For me, I think it’s one of the greatest legacies that I will leave behind at this company.
How were you personally impacted by the tumultuous year of 2020?
In 2020, with the trigger points of the murders of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and Breonna Taylor, I, like so many others, wanted to figure out how to lean in and do something. I gathered a group of my Black leaders that I trusted to tell me the truth. I had several discussions on what I could do. One idea was leading through authentic communication. So we created this series called “Candid Conversations.”
We’ve talked about the Black professional experience. We’ve talked about racial trauma. I had a fireside chat with Dr. Ibram X. Kendi on how to be an anti-racist. We’ve had conversations with the LGBTQ+ community, the Asian community, the Latino and Hispanic communities, and conversations around parenting. We need to have compelling, candid conversations.
The next one we are doing is going to be with law enforcement. Because this whole thing about defunding the police and the polarization between Black and blue is just not right. We have a deep-rooted commitment to public safety and to serving and enabling law enforcement as our customers. So you know, we’re going to tackle that conversation because not only is law enforcement a constituency to us as a business, it’s important to us in general, right? Whether you’re talking to the FBI, the police, the military, they’re important. So that’s going to be our next conversation. I want normalize the ability to have a conversation in a safe environment.
What’s your advice for the next generation of corporate executives?
I’d say that you should surround yourself with as much difference from you as possible and listen more than you speak.
You also have to really ensure that you have a clear articulation of your company values and your company mission. Because this shouldn’t and this cannot be a side thing. It can’t feel like diversity is compliance. My hope is that you know, triggered by the pandemic and this reckoning, there’s this realization that change doesn’t just happen in the public sector. It has to happen in the private sector, too.
Our future as a country is diverse. So the question becomes, do we lean into it and do we harness it as an advantage for our organizations and our communities? Or do we not? Embracing diversity is a business imperative to your workforce, your customers, and your partners.