Interview Date: November 29, 2017
Interviewer: Seth Arenstein
Pioneering engineer Tonya Adams describes the beginning of her cable television career in 2001, signing on at Comcast Business Communications as a network engineer. She notes the difficulties women faced in the engineering field in the early 2000s. She discusses her move to operations, where she helped build systems in the Midwest. Next, she examines her role in the launch of Comcast Business Digital Voice, and the success of introducing the technology to the public. She also describes the challenges she faced as a woman in a male-dominated environment, and how she adapted. In addition, she stresses the importance of mentorship, emphasizing good communication skills and the development of leadership skills as well. She talks about her experience with Comcast University and the Betsy Magness Institute. Adams describes her move back to operations as a manager at Comcast Cable, where she directed teams to communicate well with customers. She defines the concept of good communications, and what it means to be a team leader. She praises Comcast as a business that invests in its employees, its family-oriented environment, as well as the company’s commitment to providing broadband service to urban areas at reduced rates. She goes on to describe her position at the time of the interview, her advice to women who are entering the industry, her award as a corporate trailblazer from the National Coalition of 100 Black Women. She references her own belief that it’s crucial for her and others to “ give back” and not forget where they came from.
SETH ARENSTEIN: Hi, I’m Seth Arenstein for the Hauser Oral History Project for the Cable Center. We’re here in New York City. It’s the end of November, 2017. We’re here with Tonya Adams from Comcast. I want to get your title correct here. It is “Executive Director Business Services Reliability Engineering, Comcast Cable.” Can you get that all on your business card?
TONYA ADAMS: I do. I abbreviate it.
ARENSTEIN: There’s got to be an abbreviation for that, right? Internal.
ARENSTEIN: And we’re joking about that, but as I look at that title, there couldn’t be a more responsible or more important job on the engineering side than business reliability. But we’ll get to that. So welcome, Tonya.
ADAMS: Thank you, Seth. It’s great to be here.
ARENSTEIN: Tell me where were you born and where did you grow up?
ADAMS: I was born in Chicago, Illinois, outside of Chicago. From there I migrated. I went to high school, of course, graduated, went to the University of Dayton, where I received my Bachelor of Arts in communication management. And I really didn’t know what I wanted to do exactly when I was in college. I wanted to be an FCC attorney. But unfortunately, I took ill while I was in school, so I had to readjust. And after graduation, I took a year off, and I decided to go back to grad school where I have a Master’s of Science in information systems.
ARENSTEIN: And that was where? What school was that?
ADAMS: De Paul University in Chicago.
ARENSTEIN: In Chicago. So you stayed in Chicago.
ADAMS: I stayed in Chicago for grad school and then Dayton, Ohio, for undergrad.
ARENSTEIN: And pretty soon after that, you were at Comcast. But there were a couple of years in between. What did you do in those years in between?
ADAMS: In between, I worked for a company called Braun Technology Company. They were an IT startup consulting company, and I started out as an intern and my old boss, Bill, is the one who opened the door as a female in IT for me while I was an intern, and hired me full time. I stayed with Braun for about two years, and then I went to work for Lucent as an engineer when Lucent was popular in the 5ESS world.
ARENSTEIN: Right. So, this was all in the Chicago area?
ARENSTEIN: OK. How did you find your way to Comcast, which wasn’t that long? Two years, right? Two or three years.
ADAMS: Yes. I started Comcast in 2001. It was ironic because my best friend, Pat, and I, back then, “Sex and the City” was a popular TV show. So we had the vision that we were going to be the “Sex and the City” Samanthas and the Carries, and we were going to move to the East Coast and we were going to take over the world. So back then, monster.com was the hot job website. We started applying for jobs and Roger Williams interviewed me for an engineering position at Comcast, and that is how I ended up on the East Coast.
ARENSTEIN: OK. And what was Comcast like in 2001?
ADAMS: 2001, it was called Comcast Business Communications. And we were a smaller child company to the parent company, Comcast. And at that time, that was when the cable industry was trying to move into the small-medium businesses, offering different types of SONET, ATM technology. And at that time, it was a very hard industry to break into because of course, we’re cable, and people only saw Comcast as a cable company. I was very fortunate with Roger again a male giving me an opportunity because you know, back in the early 2000s, it was very unheard of for females to be in the engineering industry. And once again the doors of opportunities opened up for me, and I was very blessed for that.
ARENSTEIN: And that to me—I guess we’re getting ahead of ourselves here, but that’s been a theme of your career, to take care of people, to take care of women specifically who want to get into technology, who want to get into the cable business. I know that’s been a big part of your career.
ADAMS: It’s who I am, it’s ingrained in me, and I wouldn’t be the person I am today if I didn’t believe in giving back because someone opened up that door, and as we continue to grow our careers, it’s important that we always remember to give back and never forget where we came from.
ARENSTEIN: Right. So you were at Comcast in 2001. What was your next step?
ADAMS: After I left the network engineering, I was in operations. I helped build a lot of the systems in the Midwest because that was my territory. And from there I moved to Comcast Digital Voice. That is at the time where a lot of the cable industries were trying to launch a phone service, so we became competitors to your local Verizons and AT&T. I was one of the engineers to build the first system that launched in the Midwest and the Chicago region, and the Midwest was my territory. So Chicago, Indiana, you name it, I was part of that. As time went on, I learned how to do a lot of the coding myself. And what happened was, because I was able to make a lot of the configuration changes and at the time was known as the BTS and the Safari—those were the gateways to supply the voice services. We got to a point where we didn’t really need the vendors as much to do the plans for us. And due to the success of that, I also launched Comcast Business Digital Voice, where now we were offering phone services to businesses, and I also was part of one of the first launches for the business side of Comcast Digital Voice.
ARENSTEIN: So tell me, I know you were on the engineering side, on the operations side, but I’m sure this impacted your business or your career and your life, your professional life. As you said, people thought of Comcast or thought of the cable industry as providing cable. Now we want to give you your telephone service, too. What was that like? Initially was there some, you know, curiosity and hesitancy, I would have to say, on the public’s part?
ADAMS: Absolutely. I think more than anything what made us successful is the curiosity because we came in very competitive with our competitors. But also you know you think about how technology has evolved, what better way to have all of your services combined where you only paying one company per month for everything that your household uses. And it’s great being a part of Comcast. I’m a champion of Comcast. So when we launched the Digital Voice, I started telling all my friends and family about it. “You have to buy this. It’s the next best thing! It’s better than having a home phone.” So of course, everyone was like, “Oh, you’re such a great salesperson.” Because I’m selling for the company I work for. But if I didn’t believe in what I do, I wouldn’t continue to do it. I believed in the product that we were launching. Just like any other new technology, you’re going to have some hiccups, but I was confident we had the correct engineers, we have a great team at Comcast where no matter what the hurdle was, we were going to overcome it. Because failure was not an option.
ARENSTEIN: What was the climate like in terms of being a woman in kind of an engineering area? Were there a lot of women in that sector at the time when you were starting to launch Voice?
ADAMS: Absolutely not. It was very challenging. There were many days, honestly, that I felt like maybe I needed to find a new career path. But it was through my family, my friends, my faith in God that I was not going to give up. I was going to be the first and pave the way. There were a lot of women working on the project, but most of them were in project management. They were not in the engineering space. And honestly, it was tough working with my male counterparts, especially because many of them saw me as someone who was fresh out of school, they had been in the cable industry most of their lives so when you come in with new ideas, they’re not always received the way that you would hope that people would receive them.
ARENSTEIN: Very diplomatically put, I must say. When did you notice that changing?
ADAMS: The change as far as—
ARENSTEIN: As male acceptance of you.
ADAMS: I think it took a couple years, but because of my personality, the one thing that I always make it my mission: whenever I meet someone or someone that I don’t particularly get along with, and we have a difference of opinion, I make sure that I sit next to that person instead of sitting across. I have conversations, and what really helped me, I got to know the men that I worked with. I started asking about their families. What were they interested in? And most of them were very surprised to find out that I was an avid, an advocate for football. I love football. I am a die-hard Dallas Cowboys fan.
ARENSTEIN: I’m sorry to hear that, by the way. (laughs)
ADAMS: Once they saw that I loved football, we started to realize we had more things in common than not. And I just made myself one of the guys. It was hard at times, and often times my friends would tease me. “Tonya, you’re becoming just like a man. You don’t have any feelings anymore.” And I was like, “That’s not true.” But when you’re in a male-dominated environment, you have to find ways to interact, to do what’s best for the business, and to continue to move the projects forward. Because it doesn’t matter how I feel, or how anyone else feels, I always tell people, and even my team, “’QTIP.’ Quit taking it personal. This is a business and we have things to do so let’s move forward. Put the personal differences aside because at the end of the day, we all want to be successful in everything that we do.”
ARENSTEIN: You know, my next question was going to be how do you mentor people, because I am sure you’re a mentor.
ARENSTEIN: I think you just gave me a great tip there: QTIP. What a great—
ADAMS: Yes, QTIP. It was something that I learned in one of my leadership classes. As a matter of fact, it was Dale Carnegie. It was called QTIP. “Quit Taking It Personal,” because often times you may get a different Tonya in the next ten minutes. It doesn’t mean that I disrespect you or I don’t value your opinion, but sometimes the stresses of the job and you’re trying to be there for everyone, you can’t take things personal. Because if you do, it will eat you up on the inside. And one of the things I tell my mentees all the time, as my mentors have mentored me: when you’re in the business where technology is always changing, there’s a lot of pressure. There’s a lot of stress that comes with that, but it’s how you learn to manage your time and learn how to maneuver around the obstacles. Nothing is going to be perfect; nothing is always going to be successful the very first time you try to launch it. But if you keep the end goal in mind, you’re always going to be successful.
ARENSTEIN: Now the other thing that I noticed is that you said that if you don’t get along with a person initially, you personally attack that—not attack—you sit right next to them, you go after the problem forcefully and strategically. Is that something else you tell your mentees?
ADAMS: Absolutely. When you come to work, we all have different personalities. Some people are introverts, some people are extroverts. You have to learn how to manage the people that you’re communicating with. The one thing as I’ve been going up the ladder in the corporate industry, I used to always hear people say, you know, “Manage, lead others like you want to be led.” No, that’s not good advice. You treat people the way they want to be treated because I may want to be treated totally different. Everyone doesn’t want to be treated the same way that Tonya wants to be treated. So when you get to know people, you now understand how to communicate and how to interact with them because you know how they want to be treated.
ARENSTEIN: You mentioned Dale Carnegie. What other outside forces or influences or courses were things that you read or people that you followed? Did you take along the way as you went up the ladder, because I bet you have all kinds of things that you have been looking at outside of the office to improve you as a person and as a professional?
ADAMS: Yes. So I have a lot of friends and a lot of them are vice-presidents, CEOs of different companies. I solicit constructive feedback. There are times where people were kind of hesitant to tell me the constructive feedback that Tonya needed to hear, but how would I ever improve if I don’t get the constructive feedback that I need? So I’m a big fan of always seeking feedback. I’ve taken a lot of different leadership courses. I’m very thankful to Comcast because they’ve been a big part of where I am today and the courses that I’ve taken. And I’ve been part of Fundamentals of Leadership; it’s called “FOL” within Comcast. I was one of the founders with Tony Werner and John Schanz as the champions for Toastmasters. I was the—
ARENSTEIN: We’re going to get to that. We’re going to get to that.
ADAMS: And then I’ve been very fortunate just reading books based on recommendations, and the mentors I’ve had inside and outside of Comcast. So for me every day that I come to work, I must always learn. The day that I stop learning, I am not doing my job.
ARENSTEIN: Now, Comcast University, is that part of all this?
ADAMS: Yes, so Comcast University under Martha Soehren, who you guys have had the pleasure of interviewing—she’s a wonderful person—she’s over that. And because of everything that Martha and Dave Cohen and Brian Roberts do for the company as a whole, that is why we are so fortunate to have the classes. And the biggest one, I think, of all the classes that I’ve taken, is the Betsy Magness Leadership Institute. That was the best class that Comcast could have ever sponsored for me to attend.
ARENSTEIN: Tell us a little bit about what the Betsy Magness Institute is. Tell us about the program, it was in 2016, I believe, right? And that’s what, the 34th class?
ADAMS: Class 34, that is correct.
ARENSTEIN: So, Betsy Magness. If I don’t know what that is, tell me what that is.
ADAMS: Betsy Magness is a nine-month program. It runs from September to May, and during those nine months, you have the opportunity of going to various places. It is a high potential leadership course where you get to interact with all different type of women from all over the United States in various industries to learn how to network. It is the class that will make you cry because you get to learn so much about the real you. You get networking. But the most important thing with Betsy Magness is just the learning. The things that they taught us are just invaluable. And anyone who has the opportunity to take the class, I would strongly recommend it. After taking that class, so many people saw such a major change in who Tonya was, and my leadership abilities after taking this class.
ARENSTEIN: Give me an example of something that changed for you as a result of Betsy Magness.
ADAMS: The biggest thing—Betsy is big believers, you have to be fit to be a leader. As part of the Betsy Magness program, they challenged us, the very first class. So the class challenged themselves to go vegan for thirty days. We made it to thirty days and after thirty days, we said we would do it until the holidays. And this time, it was 26 of us in the class. Two people in the class are already vegan, but the whole class got on the bandwagon and we were all vegan. So when we graduated in May, more than half of us were still vegan.
ADAMS: Yes. It’s life-changing. But it also helped me to start focusing on Tonya. I give so much of Tonya to others, being the leader, working in operations, being there for my family, my friends, that sometimes you forget about yourself. And it’s hard to balance that work life. But Betsy has taught me how to take time for Tonya. And it’s OK to say no. I doesn’t mean that you’re being rude or disrespectful. Sometimes you just need time for yourself. And I have learned to take time for Tonya.
ARENSTEIN: Good. Let’s dive back into the timeline here.
ARENSTEIN: Let’s say we are at 2010, when you become a manage for business network operations at Comcast Cable. Tell me about the transition there going from sort of business back to cable. Although you’re still with business networks. What was that like? What was that move like?
ADAMS: I was excited when the opportunity presented itself for me to come and lead and go back into operations. But I will tell you it was a life-changing career move for me. What I mean by life-changing—for several years, I had been out of the operations environment. And now to move back into operations, managing a 24×7 team, and at the time, so that call was just taking off. So it was a new product, it required a lot of time, and we had teams that were trying to learn. They had become stagnant in their roles. The morale was a little low and when I first got there, it was definitely a male-dominated environment. And of course, anytime you have a new leader come in, there’s a lot of hesitation, especially when you’re making big changes to move the vision forward. I recall having people that I worked with when I first started with Comcast, still in their role. And now knowing that I was going to be their new leader, some of them were very accepting of it, and others were a little hesitant and wanted to know, how did she get here? It was challenging because now I had to figure out and get to know 26 people on the team. And this goes back to what I said of not being treated the way I wanted to be treated, but how they wanted to be treated. And one of the things I did when I first came in, I said, “Everyone starts off with an ‘A’ with me.” And prior to taking that position, I didn’t allow anyone to feed any negative energy or information to me about what the team was like, what I was walking into. I walked in with an open mind, everyone had an A, and it’s just like being in school. The teacher will see who’s the brightest on the team. And that is what happened.
I gave everyone to represent themselves to see what they knew, and from there, I knew the next move I had to make to grow that business and that team.
ARENSTEIN: And shortly thereafter, you got to be the Toastmaster’s Club president, the Xfinity Communicators’ Toastmasters Club president. What is that?
ADAMS: Toastmasters is a public speaking organization. Toastmasters was at corporate headquarters for Comcast, and we were commuting from the New Jersey office down to the Philadelphia office to be a part of Toastmasters. The one thing that people fail to realize when you’re communicating, we have a lot of “crutch” words that oftentimes people don’t even realize it. People use a lot of “ums” and “ahs” and “so’s” and things that we call crutch words when they’re looking for their next thought. Toastmasters helps engineers, especially people like myself and others; we’re so used to speaking in acronyms in our language because that’s what we do all day long. But not everyone understands what we do and they don’t understand the acronyms, but most importantly, as you continue to go up the corporate ladder or just interacting with customers, your family, your friends, we all need to become better communicators. And that was one of the reasons why I champion and went to John Schanz and Tony Werner to be our executive sponsors because it was something I firmly believed in and I thought would benefit everyone in the company. And they were our executive sponsors and today that chapter still exists.
ARENSTEIN: Let me ask you. Just talking about communications and combining that with engineering, which you obviously have done. When you’re hiring now, are you looking for an engineering background more than a communications background? Or are you looking for somebody who has both?
ADAMS: I look for someone who has both. The team that I lead right now, we only touch high-profile customers. And of course, we have a knock-to-knock relationship and therefore we’re on the phone with our customers, we’re working in their network, we need to be great communicators because there are times where’s there’s outages, we’re on conference bridges where executives may join the customers, the executives may join, we need to show up every day and be good communicators so no matter who we’re speaking to, if there was a five-year old or a sixty-year old, we can all understand what’s happening and what we’re working on. So they must have both to be part of the team.
ARENSTEIN: How many people did you get involved in the Toastmasters Club?
ADAMS: When we first started, we started with about 28 people in the New Jersey location. From there it has steadily grown so right now I think the last number I got for Toastmasters, they were almost at 50, which is great, because it is truly a commitment, but it is a commitment in yourself. And there are several members on my team who hold office positions in there and they love it. They have been in competitions with Toastmasters, because with Toastmasters, it’s an international organization. They have competitions, you do speeches and that is one of the reasons I credit Toastmasters for helping me be a better communicator.
ARENSTEIN: Wow. Tell me, we’ve been talking about communicators, we’ve been talking about buzzwords and things, and you said we shouldn’t use them. What makes a good communicator? Let’s define what makes a good communicator.
ADAMS: I think being a good communicator is when you show up as your authentic self at all times. Don’t try to pretend to be something that you’re not. Don’t try to speak a certain way because you think it’s the right thing to do. Because when you’re trying to imitate something that you’re not, you’re going to fail at it. You can’t be successful if you’re not going to be your authentic self.
ARENSTEIN: OK. Message received. You got into the NAMIC [National Association for Multi-ethnicity in Communications] Leadership Seminar Program. Tell us what that was about. That was in 2013.
ADAMS: Yes, I was fortunate to have the opportunity to apply for the NAMIC Leadership Program. And the first time I didn’t get in. And I will tell you I was devastated. Because it was like, “Me? Why didn’t I get in?” But I understood, and everything happens for a reason. I would not have been able to receive what was being taught to me when I first applied. When I was accepted two years later, I was more equipped and I was better prepared to receive the training. The beauty about NAMIC, it’s multi-ethnicity. It doesn’t matter the color of your skin. You were there because you were a high potential or someone who your company perceived as having a great future. The networking that had been the speakers that they brought in was just dynamic. But also that was the first time I ever did a 360 to learn about my personality and what others thought about me. It was very humbling when you get the results.
ARENSTEIN: Sure. And what did you do with that 360? Tell us a few of the things that you learned if you want to do that—
ARENSTEIN: How did you react to that?
ADAMS: When I first got the 360, I was heartbroken. I went to my mentors, I went to my leader, Charlotte Field at the time, and I said, “I don’t understand. I worked so hard.” The biggest thing that stood out were people told me they were intimidated by me because most of the time when I speak, they said, I was very crass or I was sharp. But my passion sometimes is taken that way because I’m so passionate about what I do. When I set forth to do something, I want to make sure that it’s done and excellent. I want to make sure it’s done correctly. So when you’re attacking things, I’m passionate. So I went, “No!” So that was the hardest thing. But I will say on top of that when I talk about the humbling experience, I brought in all the supervisors and managers that were underneath me and I shared those results with them. That was very hard, and it took a lot of humiliation on my part to share such critical results that were so personal to Tonya. But it was helpful because they opened up and said, “We think you’re a great leader and yes, sometimes you do come off a little rough.” And that’s when the little light bulb went off as part of that leadership program. I’m great at what I do. But if I can’t communicate to get my message across, then what’s the point? Exactly.
ARENSTEIN: Wow. What was the mood in the room when you brought in your people who report to you and told them that that’s what you were going to talk about, about your 360?
ADAMS: Initially they didn’t know. So what I did was I took them to Cracker Barrel. You know, you always feed people first. (laughs)
ARENSTEIN: Good philosophy.
ADAMS: I just wanted to share the results. They’re a big part of why I’m leading the team, and I wanted to share the feedback because of course, they had to take a survey as well and provide feedback. And they were very open and honest. Initially they were scared. “Why is the boss lady taking us out to eat during work time? Why are we doing this?” But I said, “No one’s in trouble. This is just me wanting to know how you guys really feel to help me be a better leader because we have a very important business that we must make successful. And I can’t do it by myself. We are a team.” And their opinion was very important to me because I value what they did day in and day out as well as, “If I can’t be a good leader, then I can’t lead the people that are under me.”
ARENSTEIN: Now we’re talking about NAMIC, we talked about Betsy Magness. You’ve been at Comcast your entire career.
ARENSTEIN: I mean, other than a couple of years at the beginning there. You really haven’t been in other industries, but then you look at NAMIC, you look at Betsy Magness, which are fabulous things that are part of the cable industry. But you have friends in other industries. Do they tell you or do you know of other industries that do things like this for diversity and for leadership and things like that?
ADAMS: I have friends in other industries. They do have a few internal diversity, but none of the friends that I have, they never talk about their company investing back in them. And when people will say, “What keeps you at Comcast?” “Because they invest in their employees.” If I didn’t love what I did at Comcast, I would have left a long time ago. We truly have a family-oriented environment, we have owners who truly care about their employees and I think the biggest thing for me is that fact that they give back so much. Because I am a big advocate for community service. The things that Comcast does for communities around the world is just, I’ve never heard of any other company doing the things that Comcast does.
ARENSTEIN: Now how do you get involved with that, and how does your team get involved with those kinds of community affairs efforts?
ADAMS: So the biggest thing that everyone is aware of is Comcast Cares Day. We every year, the team and I, we get together to figure out where is a central location where we all can go. And we go as a team. Now because we are 24×7, my entire team, of course, cannot leave, but we have “no-sew” blanket activities where they can sit at their desks and put together blankets where we donate them to the hospitals. We have blood drives to give back. So there’s a way that everyone on the team can participate. And over the years I’ve also been a big champion of Comcast Cares, where I had the opportunity to lead one of the projects at the recreation center from start to finish working with our community investment team.
ARENSTEIN: OK. Tell me about, I know Comcast provides broadband in urban areas at a reduced rate or maybe even free. I don’t know the specifics. Are you involved in that in any way?
ADAMS: So that’s the Comcast Internet Essentials, and this goes back to me saying why I love working for Comcast. When you look around today, technology is our future. Without Internet, without a computer, basically kids, students, you name it, we can’t exist almost. And the fact that a company is willing to give so much back to others who are less fortunate because they had been very fortunate to be successful in this industry, that speaks volumes. Because I know people personally who benefit from Comcast Internet Essentials.
ARENSTEIN: OK. So now here we are, you’ve been through Betsy Magness, you’re now in your present position—as we said at the beginning, you’re the executive director for Business Services Reliability Engineering at Comcast Cable. I think I know what that means and it sounds to me like a very important job. Because you lose your television reception—OK, it comes back on a few minutes later perhaps. But when a business loses its telephone or voice or anything, any kind of communication for an hour or so, it could be a disaster. So being in charge of something like that, it’s got to be a lot of pressure. Tell me about that.
ADAMS: It is a lot of pressure. Today, I have four teams under my leadership. Two teams are located in Denver, Colorado, and the other two are in Mt. Laurel, New Jersey. With the exception of my Denver team, they’re on call 24/7, but my Mt. Laurel team, we’re in the office 24/7. So including the holidays, we are working when others are out enjoying time with their families and friends. It is a lot of pressure, but I think if I was doing something different, I wouldn’t know what to do with myself. Every day there’s different network challenges, whether it’s a software bug, a fiber cut, and now with the teams that I lead, we’re also responsible for managing NBC Universal Broadcast Video. That is, of course we’re the same company, but a lot of their TV stations run over our IP network. Now imagine, when you’re watching TV, and you have a black screen or frozen video, there’s a lot of pressure to get that up, quick, fast and in a hurry. And just in your daily lives. Because although I work for Comcast, if I get frozen video while I’m watching “The Voice,” for instance, I’m having a heart attack because I’m like, wait, it’s “The Voice,” I want to see that! And it doesn’t come without challenges, I will tell you. Some days are very good days. And then there are other days where I may be up for two or three days without any sleep because the outages were just that bad. And when you have outages at that magnitude, you have to have post-mortems. You have to talk about what happened. What could we have done better. Is this FCC reportable?
There are a lot of things but the biggest challenge, and I will say for me, is making sure that I am always calm with my team. Leaders have to remember: your team feeds off of you. When my team knows that I’m having a bad day, it impacts them. And we have a division president and one thing he always says is, “Your employees should never know you’re having a bad day.” And I appreciate that. Because now being in the position that I am today and watching my leaders over the years, your employees cannot know that you’re having a bad day because it sets the tone for everyone else for the rest of the day.
ARENSTEIN: Talk to me about technology. Your career has been about technology but it has also been about communicating about technology and with technology. But let’s just go right on to the tech side here. What fascinates you about technology and cable technology. In the next five years, what do you think we’re going to be doing that we’re not doing today? And what are you particularly excited about?
ADAMS: I am particularly excited that Comcast has just announced we’re moving into the software-defined wide area network. It’s called “SD-WAN,” [software-defined wide-area network] where you can connect any device around the world. I’m very excited about that next opportunity. It’s the next big thing in the industry. Cloud computing, artificial intelligence, and the fact that you had a cable company that is now moving into a technology company is just amazing. And I’ve been very fortunate because all the new technology that Comcast has put out to our consumers, I’ve had the opportunity to be part of that changing environment. So I’m excited about the next five years for the company, the industry and technology as a whole because our future is so bright. I’m looking forward to the day I can buy a car where I can be like the Jetsons, and I really don’t have to drive, but I can just sit and let the car drive me sometimes.
ARENSTEIN: OK. When you started out—we’ve gone through your career in forty minutes, which is amazing. It took you twenty years to do it, but we did it here in forty minutes. Seriously, when you started out at Comcast in 2001, did you have any idea that this was going to be your home for sixteen years?
ADAMS: Absolutely not. I figured I would be like everyone else as a female, not being able to find a place I could truly call home. Honestly, I only thought I would be at Comcast three to five years, and I would be looking for the next company to go to, because we just talked about how hard it is for females. And the struggle—the struggle was real. I tell anybody, especially as we’re mentoring young females today and trying to get women in engineering, you cannot not talk about the struggles. The struggles are what got us here. And they need to understand, just because you set out to do something and you fail, it doesn’t mean you won’t succeed. If we don’t talk about the struggles, then what good is it to only talk about the good because life is not all about the good. It comes with the ups and the downs.
ARENSTEIN: So I’m a young woman and I come to you and say, “Tonya, I want to get into the technology field. I want to get into a company like Comcast. What do you tell me? Is it a good place to go? Is it a good field for women? Is it still challenging for a young woman right out of maybe getting a Master’s in Science? Is it still a male-dominated area?”
ADAMS: It’s still male-dominated, of course, but it has drastically improved. Are we where we need to be? Absolutely not. And we were talking about this several weeks ago when the new survey came out, and I think it said by 2026—if I remember correctly, don’t quote me on the year—but it was like fifteen years out. It would take—and only 1% of females would make the same amount of money as their male counterparts. As a female, that is beyond frustrating and I will tell you when I read that, I was angry. Because I am working just as hard as my male counterpart. I have the same educational background if not more than my male counterpart. So what is it going to take for companies to start opening their eyes to start valuing the women? I’m not saying that they don’t today. It’s better, and if any young lady comes to me, I’m going to tell them: “Do not let men distract you from what you want to do. Only you can set the goal and set your career as to where you want it to go. And then once you know what you want to do, you take control of your career by seeking out the mentors.” And one of the things ironically is, several years ago, my bishop told us, “If you have a boss and you want that office, you go in that office and you tell God that one day you’re going to be sitting there.” And that is some of the things that I had incorporated in my career. Ironically, as we talked about Charlotte and we talked about John Schanz, who was also a great mentor to me. When I first moved to the Bishops gate office, Charlotte used to sit in the office that I now occupy. And I went in there and I said, “One day I’m going to be here.” And whenever I would go talk to John, I would say, “OK, John, I’m going to be in this corner office with the glass…” So I was speaking it and because of who Tonya is and because I know where I want my career to go, I know what I need to do to get there. And I tell any young lady who is passionate, “Don’t give up on your dreams. It’s hard, but keep encouraging yourself. No one is going to do it for you. You will have people that will encourage you and there is going to be people that bring you down. But up here, mentally, you have to know that you are breaking barriers. And you can be the first to do something different.”
ARENSTEIN: Fair enough. Fair enough.
You’ve talked about a lot of people in the past forty or so minutes. Are there any mentors or any people who you want to mention who have been particular influences for you?
ADAMS: So I’ve had a lot of mentors. But I think, when I look back on all the mentors, Charlotte Field will be by far someone that I know that anytime Tonya needs her, she can reach out to her. The advice she’s given me and our relationship when she was at Comcast was very special. Because as an SVP, a female, sitting at the top over hundreds of people, she was someone I looked up to because it gave me hope that while I’m struggling and I’m fighting everyday with my male counterparts, there is still hope that one day I too will be an SVP because she has broken boundaries. And her story is phenomenal. She shared those things with me. Her humility; she’s so humble in her upbringing and how she got to where she is today. As I continue to go up that corporate ladder, I’ll always remember the conversations I had with her and I can never try to be something that I’m not, and that I can never forget where I came from. Because I then would become a leader that no one wants to report to.
ARENSTEIN: Agreed. Your legacy. Let’s talk about your legacy. I know you have a visual aid here. You can pick it up because we can zoom in on it. And show it to the—
ADAMS: This is my legacy.
ARENSTEIN: So explain to us what that is and why that’s your legacy.
ADAMS: This right here, when I was in Betsy, we had to do a vision board. And through all the rewards I have received, and all my speeches, my communication, I always tell people that one day I am going to be a CEO. But the one thing that I’m most passionate about when I leave here, this industry or this earth, I don’t want people to remember Tonya for what she did for the cable industry. I want people to remember Tonya because of how she gave back and helped others. And when you look at the Forbes—because I will be on Forbes one day—it talks about the world’s top 25 greatest leaders with my name. And my motto has been: being the voice for others while inspiring everyone I come in contact with. Often times, especially as a female, when new females are entering the industry, they don’t have a voice. I can’t sit and be silent and watch things happen to them, without speaking up for them and giving them the confidence that their voice does matter. So I want to be known for that person that spoke up for those who didn’t feel comfortable or thought they had a voice, but also because I inspired so many through all of the community service activities that I’ve done in my lifetime.
ARENSTEIN: Speaking of community service, there is an organization that I know that it’s a big part of your life, and we haven’t talked about it yet. That’s the “Daughters of Destiny.”
ARENSTEIN: Why don’t you tell us what that is and what your role in that is.
ADAMS: The Daughters of Destiny is a nonprofit organization founded by Cheryl Marion. That is an organization that gives back to women who are less fortunate, whether they’re homeless, they’ve been displaced out of the work environment, they’re struggling. But also it’s Biblically-based because we’re very rooted in our spirituality. Every year, we have a women’s prayer brunch and the proceeds from that we give back into our holiday hope campaign. We volunteer at the Ronald McDonald House, where we go and feed the families that are staying there because their kids are sick, of course. We also, at Christmastime, we give back; we donate to families who are less fortunate. We pray for them. And on this particular organization, I am the treasurer on the nonprofit for the board of directors.
ARENSTEIN: So we were talking about your legacy, and there’s another item here that I really don’t want to forget. In 2016, you were honored with the Candace Corporate Trailblazer Award from the National Coalition of 100 Black Women in the South Jersey chapter. Tell us about that nice award. Tell us about that—congratulations, first. Tell us about that and what went into that, and I know that ties into your sorority as well.
ADAMS: So the Candace Corporate Trailblazer Award was afforded to me. The South Jersey chapter of 100 Black Women, they did a STEM event for 6th through 8th graders. They bussed in about 100 young girls, and they had women from all different areas of science, technology, engineering and math. And I was one of the presenters and I talked about information security. Of course, we touched upon Facebook and Instagram and all the different avenues of social media, and why it’s so important, the dos and the don’ts of when you’re posting. I also told them that you have to realize that while it seems fine now, as you get older, that can never be erased and employers look at that. You want to make sure that you’re carrying yourself, you’re being savvy because there are predators out there. And based on that, and the responses from the parents, one of the chapter members of the National Coalition of Black Women, she nominated me for that award and I was honored with that award last year in March because of what I did for that organization.
As far as my sorority, I am a member of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Incorporated, and I belong to the Upsilon Delta Omega chapter. And also, as part of the legacy, our supreme president that’s over the entire sorority itself, has a target and that target is named, “A.S.C.E.N.D..” And that program is a youth enrichment program where we partner with local high schools, and we not only teach them about how to fill out a college education, we partner with the United Nations, we bring them to New York where they have the opportunity to visit the United Nations. But the most important part of that program is the fact that we’re teaching those students about STEM, and how that is our future.
Oftentimes, when you talk about STEM, students don’t realize that when they’re playing on their phone and they’re playing with the apps, that’s about STEM. You’re in engineering, and when you kind of let the light bulb go off for them, it’s amazing and it’s also a thing to see the children’s faces when you talk about, “You really can do this because you know how to fix it when there’s a bug; you know what you need to do to go in and get it to work again.” So these are the things this program instills in the students in the high school to help them as they are preparing for the next phase of their life, which is college.
ARENSTEIN: Tonya, this has been a pleasure. It’s so nice to finally meet you.
ADAMS: Yes, thank you.
ARENSTEIN: And go through your career. And I have no doubt that one day I am going to pick up Forbes and see you on the cover and I can say to my friends, “She told me this back in 2017, and it’s on video.”
ARENSTEIN: So thank you so much.
ADAMS: Thank you, Seth, it was an honor to be here.
ARENSTEIN: My pleasure.