Carolyn Chambers

Carolyn Chambers

Interview Date: May 1999
Collection: WICT 20th Anniversary Series


Carolyn Chambers, Chairman and CEO of Chambers Communications, begins her interview by describing how and why she became involved in the cable industry. She explains how both technology and capital investment have driven the industry. She recalls, as the only woman heading an MSO at one time, both the challenges and advantages. She mentions the reasons for her success, and comments on what advice she would give to young people who want to enter the cable business. She predicts where she thinks the industry is headed, and the role of telephony. Chambers addresses the issue of the glass ceiling for women, and clarifies why that might be so. She explores the additional issue of women being recognized for their contributions, as well as the balance between work and personal life. She recounts how she became involved in WICT, names some of the early leaders of the professional society, and discusses the association’s greatest success. She speculates on the evolution of WICT, how the association has contributed to the industry at large, and why it must continue to exist in the future. She notes that one of the most rewarding parts of being in cable is the constant change. She concludes by stating the challenges of being an operator, and mentions the insatiable need for programming.

Interview Transcript

CAROLYN CHAMBERS: My name is Carolyn Chambers. The spelling is C-H-A-M-B-E-R-S. My current position is the chairman and CEO of Chambers Communications.

INTERVIEWEE: How did you initially become involved in the cable industry?

CHAMBERS: We had a broadcast company that I had started, and when cable came along as a new viable option, why, we decided that it was a good idea to join them rather than fight them. And so we built a cable company, and then began to merge with others, and buy, and so forth.

INTERVIEWEE: What was the most striking thing about the cable industry when you initially joined it?

CHAMBERS: The industry per se was just a small system in Oregon to start with.

INTERVIEWEE: Could you have predicted the changes that would occur in the next 20 or 30 years? Did you have any idea of the growth potential?

CHAMBERS: I think we had no idea of the growth potential, because so much depended upon technology that just wasn’t even developed. And it certainly changed the way cable operated.

INTERVIEWEE: Would you say that technology drove the industry, or is it the business investing in technological innovations?

CHAMBERS: Technology has driven the industry, but I suppose it’s the capital investment that keeps that technology going.

INTERVIEWEE: A lot of successful people in the cable industry have said that it was easier for them to enter the industry during the ’70s, during those formative years because there were no written rules. Would you agree with that assessment?

CHAMBERS: I think it was easy to get into the industry, because it was growing so fast they needed people so badly that if you were eager and willing to learn, that was all that

was necessary.

INTERVIEWEE: For many years, you were one of the only women who headed an MSO. As one of the only woman who headed an MSO, did you ever feel conscious of this being the only woman in this role, or was it I’m just a business person. It doesn’t matter what my sex is.

CHAMBERS: I was very conscious that I was the only woman, because I really had no peer group. And that made life a little bit more difficult.

INTERVIEWEE: Did you ever feel that it was detrimental to your career, or did you see at moments that it could be advantageous to your career to be the only woman?

CHAMBERS: I think it had its advantages and disadvantages. It just kind of depended on what the situation was.

INTERVIEWEE: Do you have any people you view as role models in the industry?

CHAMBERS: I don’t think so really, because there were none before me that I knew.

INTERVIEWEE: Was it hard to forge ahead on your own without any person influencing you or guiding you?

CHAMBERS: Yes. I think it was, because as I said, I had no peer group to go and discuss, how do you handle this, or do that? You kind of had to handle it on your own.

INTERVIEWEE: What were the elements, do you think, that contributed to your personal success?

CHAMBERS: I think willing to do whatever needed to be done, and learning to trust my gut reactions to how things were going.

INTERVIEWEE: Was it difficult for you to enter the industry with few role models?

CHAMBERS: Not having a role model or peer group made life very difficult in the cable industry to start with.

INTERVIEWEE: What advice would you give to young women or young men entering the industry today? What are the qualities that will help them become successful?

CHAMBERS: I think they need to be willing to do most any kind of thing, and work hard, and find out what’s going on, and learn the whole thing from start to finish.

INTERVIEWEE: I know your background is in finance. Do you know why more women aren’t interested in finance, or is there a way that we can potentially encourage women to become involved in finance?

CHAMBERS: I don’t really think a lot of the women in colleges don’t go into accounting or finance. And as a result there aren’t that many that are out there ready to take on those jobs.

INTERVIEWEE: What do you see as your most significant personal or professional success?

CHAMBERS: I think my best success is being able to get a company established, and to have it running, and to meet the payroll.

INTERVIEWEE: What were the challenges of running your own company?

CHAMBERS: I think the challenges to running my own company has been to be sure that the employees figured that I was serious and willing to do whatever needed to be done to get that company going.

INTERVIEWEE: Obviously, there have been many rapid changes in the business lately. How do you see cable and telecommunications evolving in the next two years? Do you have any predictions?

CHAMBERS: I think telecommunications in the next few years are going to probably keep consolidating as telephony becomes a bigger part of the industry, and you need the large numbers in order to make it work.

INTERVIEWEE: Are you satisfied with the progress that women have made overall in the industry?

CHAMBERS: I really don’t feel that women have made a lot of progress in the industry. They have not gotten the top jobs as much as I feel they should.

INTERVIEWEE: So all this talk about the glass ceiling, do you think it still exists then?

CHAMBERS: I think probably the glass ceiling exists more in the cable industry than it does in some of the other occupations.

INTERVIEWEE: Why do you think that is?

CHAMBERS: I think the cable industry is not as old as some of the industries. And it still has a lot of the people in it that started things, the men that got it going, and they just haven’t been willing to accept the promotion of women.

INTERVIEWEE: Do you think the very recent and dramatic changes within the industry are going to have a positive or negative effect on women?

CHAMBERS: I think the more consolidation that takes place within the industry, the less likelihood that the women are going to be the ones that are retained, unfortunately.

INTERVIEWEE: Is there any way that we can prevent this?

CHAMBERS: I think that Women in Cable can certainly try to promote the women, and see to it that they get some help in knowing where they might make a difference and getting involved.

INTERVIEWEE: Do you think that women have been adequately recognized for the contributions they’ve made to the cable and telecommunications industry?

CHAMBERS: Some of the women have been well recognized for the contributions that they have made to the industry. And I feel that some of the others probably haven’t. Theirs have gone unheralded.

INTERVIEWEE: Has the emergence of the female executive in cable changed the contours of the industry?

CHAMBERS: I think that there have been a lot more female people emerging in the industry, especially in the programming end of it. And I think that that has changed as they have made success of their companies that some of the people in the operator side have taken great notice of this.

INTERVIEWEE: As you obviously know, the industry is quite demanding. Do you have any advice for young folks entering today on how to achieve balance between their professional life and their work life? Is it possible?

CHAMBERS: I think it’s possible, but you have to define your limits in your work life in order to keep a proper balance. You have to say, this is what I will do. And then take some time with your family.

INTERVIEWEE: Could we start talking about WICT, and your presidency, and how you got involved in WICT?

CHAMBERS: All right.

INTERVIEWEE: I was talking to Gail and Lucille in New York, and they said there is always discussions around the name. Should it be Women in Telecommunications? Should it be Professionals in Cable? Do you remember any of these discussions over the name?

CHAMBERS: I think initially that the name Women in Cable was the one that was most often brought up, and every time we would have cable convention, a bunch of us would gather in somebody’s room and talk about it.

INTERVIEWEE: How did you initially become involved in WICT?

CHAMBERS: I was friends with Lucille Larkin, and somehow we would always get together at the cable conventions and start talking about what we could do. And we finally got it started.

INTERVIEWEE: Was it exciting to launch this new professional society?

CHAMBERS: It was. And I think it was exciting to us. It was exciting to see how it would be received by the men in the industry.

INTERVIEWEE: How was WICT initially received by the men in the industry?

CHAMBERS: I think they were kind of indulgent of us to start with, and it took awhile. But as they saw and recognized some of the people who were involved, they began to have more respect for it.

INTERVIEWEE: When did you see the sediment shifting, and people began to talk WICT more seriously?

CHAMBERS: I think that the industry took the Women in Cable more seriously as some of the women were able to get some funding for the company, or for the industry organization. And other then would say, oh, well, if that company thinks it’s worthwhile, then maybe it is. And it began to grow from there.

INTERVIEWEE: What do you see as WICT’s greatest professional achievement? Greatest contribution?

CHAMBERS: I think that Women in Cable greatest contribution has been the numbers that they had been able to get working into the industry, and to get going to the meetings and learning how to promote themselves a bit.

INTERVIEWEE: Can you recall any events from your year as president that are particularly memorable?

CHAMBERS: I have trouble remembering what events took place during my year, whether they were before or after.

INTERVIEWEE: Do you have any good stories about the founding of WICT, or any of the folks involved?

CHAMBERS: I really don’t. I probably will think of some as soon as I get away from here (laughter).

INTERVIEWEE: Is WICT different from other professional associations, or how is WICT different from other professional associations?

CHAMBERS: I think a lot of the women’s professional organizations are more for accounting, or for advertising for this in that they go across more businesses; whereas, Women in Cable is one industry, and one industry only.

INTERVIEWEE: Do you see WICT evolving as we move into the next century?

CHAMBERS: I think WICT will evolve as the industry evolves. It will have too, and there will still be the promotion of women and the various parts of it, but the technology will cause different things to be stressed.

INTERVIEWEE: Do you foresee a time where WICT is no longer needed in the industry?

CHAMBERS: No. I think that WICT will always be needed, because women will always need to have some promotion going for them.

INTERVIEWEE: How do you think WICT helps women throughout the industry specifically?

CHAMBERS: I think WICT helps them because they give them training, helps them with support at their monthly meetings, or whatever they do meet so that if they have common problems, they can help each other advance them.

INTERVIEWEE: Do you think WICT has influenced the industry at large?

CHAMBERS: I think WICT has caused the industry at large to take notice of women, and to realize that they are promotable and should be.

INTERVIEWEE: Can you think of any initiatives or programs that have especially shaped the industry, and how they view work life issues?

CHAMBERS: I think one of the programs that WICT did that help things was that you went on life balance, and how they might take care of their needs on both sides of their life, both work and their home.

INTERVIEWEE: I know the first few years of WICT it was difficult to get membership. Was that ever frustrating to you? Was their ever a point that WICT might not make it during those early years?

CHAMBERS: I think that getting WICT membership to start with was difficult because there weren’t a lot of women in the industry in the positions they felt that the organization would be of help. Then they began to see that they would, but we were so spread out across the country and we were not in all the urban centers so it was difficult.

INTERVIEWEE: How do you think the presidents, and that initial leadership group met those challenges initially? Gail, and Lucille, and yourself, and Kay.

CHAMBERS: I think we tried to get meetings in various cities, and to move around so that there would be a visibility for Women in Cable around the country.

INTERVIEWEE: You must have thought of some questions that you thought I might ask. Did I not ask anything that you were expecting? Something that you want to say about the industry, where it’s going, or Women in Cable, in general?

CHAMBERS: I think the industry is exciting in the way it’s evolving. It’s providing so much more via the satellites, and the various programming channels. It has all sorts of possibilities that we just haven’t seen yet.

INTERVIEWEE: Are you excited about the future?

CHAMBERS: I am. I think that what happens with high-speed access to the Internet, and the various programming, and the technology that they have of doing programming and Internet in the same machine is going to be very interesting.

INTERVIEWEE: Do you think that consumers are prepared for these changes yet?

CHAMBERS: Most consumers are not totally prepared for it. But they’re going to like parts of it, and they’ll learn it over the years.

INTERVIEWEE: Do you see these changes happening within the next five years, or the next ten years?

CHAMBERS: I think that there will be a lot of changes in the next five years. I have an example here. Like AT&T said there were only be two million telephones, I think, by the year 2000 in use. There’s that many in use in Oregon now, and that was a few years back. I think there’s just no way to know what innovations will cause changes.

INTERVIEWEE: Is that most rewarding part about being involved in this industry is the constant change?

CHAMBERS: I think one of the most rewarding parts about the industry is it is constant change. You don’t get bored. You don’t have time to get bored. Something going on all the time.

INTERVIEWEE: How can people prepare people who are interested in being involved in the industry for these changes?

CHAMBERS: You just have to be adaptable to be ready to face changes whenever they occur. It goes this way, well, you make your change too.

INTERVIEWEE: Did WICT contribute to your professional growth?

CHAMBERS: I probably was in place in my position when WICT started, and so while it certainly has been helpful to get other people to talk to about various problems, it probably didn’t help as far as my being in the same position.

INTERVIEWEE: So it was more of a group to help you network–

CHAMBERS: It involved more of a peer group for me to have Women in Cable.

INTERVIEWEE: Come up with any good stories yet? (Laughter, pause). So the peer group for you was what was most important?

CHAMBERS: I think having a peer group to talk about various subjects was extremely important to me.

INTERVIEWEE: Your experience on the operator side that I haven’t brought up yet?

CHAMBERS: I think being a cable operator has lots of challenges that people don’t realize. I talked with a broker not long ago that said, if you told me how hard it is to operate a cable system, I would never had started it. It’s different. There’s a lot of trying to do right by the subscriber that you just don’t realize until you’re involved in it.

INTERVIEWEE: What have been the biggest challenges for on that side, do you think?

CHAMBERS: I think there’s a lot of challenges in the marketing, and in gaining and keeping good employees is a big challenge, especially as you’re in the smaller systems because the larger systems come after yours.

INTERVIEWEE: What has been the most rewarding thing now that we’ve looked at the challenges?

CHAMBERS: That’s a hard one to say. I don’t think I have a good answer. Because I run three broadcast stations and a production company as well, I kind of try and balance them all together. So some of the things that you asked about, one industry kind of mixes in with the others too. It’s hard to–

INTERVIEWEE: So you’re on the broadcasting and the cable?

CHAMBERS: Yes. And production. We do productions for the cable channels.

INTERVIEWEE: Have you seen the quality of programming changing in the last ten years with productions?

CHAMBERS: I think there’s an insatiable need for programming, and as a result, I think that it had to be done with lower cost. And probably has changed somewhat.

INTERVIEWEE: Is that hard juggling these different industries for you?

CHAMBERS: Sometimes when cable is fighting broadcast it is, or broadcast is fighting cable. But we see what we think is appropriate and we follow along with that line.

INTERVIEWEE: Is it difficult to pick sides, or can you remain above the fray?

CHAMBERS: Sometimes you pick sides because you know what really is the right thing. And then you just follow it, because you know that’s the way it really ought to be.

INTERVIEWEE: Because you have a foot in both worlds, do you see broadcasting or cable, either industry, as being more conducive to women’s success?

CHAMBERS: I think the cable industry is more amenable to women’s success.

INTERVIEWEE: Why would you say that?

CHAMBERS: I think broadcast, for the most part, is still run by what you might call, the good old boys.

INTERVIEWEE: So in cable there’s more flexibility?

CHAMBERS: There’s more flexibility in cable versus broadcast.

INTERVIEWEE: I saw your Website. You have a lot of stuff going on (laughter).


INTERVIEWEE: Plans for the future as a company?

CHAMBERS: I think we always keep doing something new. If we aren’t doing something new, I’d be bored. And I can’t stand when that happens.

Skip to content