Jill Slavin

Jill Slavin

Interview Date:1999
Collection: WICT 20th Anniversary Collection Project
Note: Video not available at this time

SLAVIN: I am Jill Slavin. I am president and founder of Fast Forward Communications in Atlanta.

INTERVIEWER: Could you just spell your last name.

SLAVIN: S, as in Sam, L-A-V, as in Victor, I-N.

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

SLAVIN: With quite protest. I did something really silly. I came out of public television, and before that I was in educational research. And when I was first hired at HBO–and that was a time when I didn’t even know what HBO was. And Gail Sermersheim was my boss, and she brought me in. She said, I’m forming this group called, Women in Cable. Would you like to be a charter member and speak at a meeting? And I didn’t know much about being in business at that point, and I said, oh, no. That’s not my kind of thing. She changed my mind for me, and it’s a wonderful organization. I’ve enjoyed every minute.

INTERVIEWER: When you initially began your career in cable, what was the most striking thing about the industry?

SLAVIN: It was very aggressive. Very sales oriented. I had come out of doing corporate underwriting, and grants, and membership drives. And that was kind of laid back, and pretty easy to accomplish. We had a lot of structure and a lot of support from that national organization from PBS and NPR. When I got into HBO, they kind of said, oh, here’s your desk. Here’s you lamp. Here’s your phone. Here’s your list. Go sell. I had no idea what I was selling. There was no sales support, so it was kind of the raw, aggressive entrepreneurial feeling of it which I found enormously exciting. You walked in, and nobody told you what to do. You just kind of invented it, and that was the best part for me of the industry.

INTERVIEWER: A lot of people have said that it was easier for them to enter cable during these early years when there were no rules. Would you say that the same was true for you?

SLAVIN: Absolutely. I was with HBO for 16 years, and I think five years after I was hired, if I had walked in and interviewed I wouldn’t have been hired. I didn’t have a business degree. I had lots of experience which was business related, but I don’t think it would’ve been recognized as business related. But there was such a drain, and so much demand for people who could stand up and talk, and maybe sell something that almost anybody with a decent background could be hired because nobody had experience in cable. And they had to just guess whether your experience was appropriate to cable. Luckily, mine was. It was funny when I went in for my interview, and I truly had no idea was this HBO was. My dad is in broadcasting, and I called them and they said–I said, do you know anything about this HBO thing? He said, you idiot. That’s time. You go and get that job. So I came in and I said, well, exactly what do you want me to do? And they said, well, we go on the air. We have these previews. We have these movies. And in between the movies, we ask people to call in and if they call in, we give them a tote bag. Public television. I said, I can do that. And really that was the closest experience that they could see to cable.

INTERVIEWER: What do you think helped you succeed during those first years in your early days in HBO?

SLAVIN: Gail Sermersheim was a big part of it. She is fearless, and if she is nervous about something, you would never know. She has the greatest attention to detail in a good way that I’ve ever seen. She does not micro-manage, but nothing is too much trouble for her to do no matter how many times she’s done it. And it’s like everything is new to her all the time. Frankly, I got quite bored sometimes with what I had to do, but she approached every task with her full devotion. And taught me to do that, that if you put the right kind of work into something, it usually works. And I remember I lost a sale, and I went to Gail and I said, I’m sorry. I said, but you win some, you lose some. And she said, no, you win them all. You keep going back until you do win. And that kind of tenacity and not being afraid to do that, was one of my best lessons.

INTERVIEWER: Could you talk about Gail and some experiences with her?

SLAVIN: Gail was my mentor when I first came in, and she was going to shape me up real quickly. And what she taught me was that you approach every task even if you’ve done it before with your full devotion and your full interest. And that’s something about Gail that I have always admired. That as many times as she’s done something, it’s always important to do it. She never blows anything off. She just gives it her full dedication, and she sticks with it till it’s done the way she wants it to be done. And I have watched her attack everything the same way in her life. I remember when Gail first started to play golf. She got–it was like she was learning to walk. It was that important to her. And, of course, now she’s a wonderful golfer. And she approaches her whole life that way. And what she taught me was that everything is worth putting a good effort into. I remember I once had lost a sale, and I went into Gail and I said, well, you lose some, you win some. And she said, no, you win them all. And you just keep going back until you do win. And that gave me a lot of courage and a very good model that I still use today. It’s never over until it’s over.

INTERVIEWER: What about young people entering the industry today, would you have any advice to give them?

SLAVIN: This may sound a little pompous, but I run into young women who have no idea of what’s been done for them. And they think that everything that happens good for them is solely because of their talent. I’m glad to see that they can feel that way, but I think women have to be a little bit vigilant, and a little less naive. I came from the Betty Freidan days. In fact, I remember I was in the hospital having my second child, and my husband brought me this paperback book, because we couldn’t afford to buy it in hardback and we were waiting for it. And I was just at the point where none of my friends worked, and here was my second child. And they said, well, you’re not going back to work, are you? And I remember opening the book and Betty said it was all right to go to work. And I realized what trail blazers she and Gloria Steinem and that group had been for us. And I’m not sure that many of the young women today understand that that was done for them, and it’s very often a power issue and that they have to keep mentoring the younger women coming up because it’s not just talent. It’s still not 100% the way it should be.

INTERVIEWER: How do you think you can promote awareness among young women to know that it wasn’t always this way?

SLAVIN: I think a project like this, of course, goes a long way. There’s a lot of pride to be taken in what we’ve accomplished. And I think keeping the history is very important. There wouldn’t be women in cable and telecommunications today if it weren’t necessary. I was fortunate enough to be allowed to launch the Betsy Magness Institute. We still need that kind of thing. So I would say to women, don’t be like a man, but understand thoroughly how they operate and what you do, and what they might perceive. You may mean one thing, and to learn how to play that game in corporate life, because it’s very different from the way women were brought up. We were brought up to quietly work on our own, and do the best job we can. And if you did a good job, somebody would notice. And corporate life is exactly the opposite, and that’s the wonderful thing about corporate life is the teamwork and working with other people. And I think some women are–they’re very loathe to do that. They want to be left alone to do their work. That’s not their work. Their work is to do whatever the corporation wants them to do.

INTERVIEWER: Have you seen women entering corporate America–have their attitude shifted in the last 20 years how you center corporate America or the cable industry? Do they have different expectations of their careers?

SLAVIN: I think the very young women coming in, I think, they’re nervous, and they have to learn what they’re doing and how to operate within that environment. What I love to see is that women are far more comfortable saying, I need this in my life, and it is your responsibility if you want to keep me here to give this. So things like, child care. Things like having to be open to what a women with a family needs to do. And the older men in the business it is not their fault, but they had stay at home wives, and they just didn’t think of things like that. We used to say, well, we have to wait till the older guys die off, and that the new group coming up are men with working wives. And then they’ll understand what’s necessary, and men need as much as women. Everybody should have the job of participating in their family’s life, and it goes by so fast. And it’s important that people understand the quality of life is important, because you can’t go back later and do it. And I think women instinctively understand that, and men are getting there. Men are much more active parents than they used to be, and I think it’s good for the corporation to be able to provide that environment. But what I see is that women will no longer let everything with their family go in favor of the job, in favor of the career. They’re saying, there’s more to life than just this job, and if this company can’t meet it then I’m going to go to another company. And they do. We have lost some very talented women in this industry, because they couldn’t get what they needed, or they couldn’t get the recognition they needed. Once you get to a certain level in corporate life, the people who get promoted everybody’s competent in that pool of people who are going to get promoted to the highest level. And it becomes a matter of who the corporate management is comfortable with, and so somebody who gets promoted is a better fit, for example, with the executive committee. And because it was difficult to recognize and appreciate the differences in style, leadership styles, managerial style that women had, a lot of women just bumped up and just couldn’t get any further. And were, frankly, lonely, and moved on to other things. And we have a lot of women in business for themselves that would be great assets to corporate life and just couldn’t get their needs met.

INTERVIEWER: Do you think women explored entrepreneurial opportunities as an avenue to personal success because they couldn’t find it within the corporate world?

SLAVIN: Either personal success or quality of life. I loved it at HBO. It was a wonderful place to work, but it was pretty intense. I think women are doing it going out on their own as much for quality of life as for personal success. I think a lot of women just want to build some personal wealth, and it’s a good way to do it. But it’s more feeling comfortable with their own life. For example, I loved it at HBO. They were a wonderful company, and I learned so much. But it was very intense, and I found out that my daughter was about to have my first grandchild. And I knew that I couldn’t have the kind of relationship with this child, and keep running around for HBO. And you can imagine if I couldn’t have it with a grandchild, how it is for a women with her own children. And I was determined to enjoy that part of my life, and so going out on my own where I could control my own time made it possible for me to have it all and it’s been wonderful.

INTERVIEWER: How do you think WICT influences the industry specifically?

SLAVIN: We like to think we’ve made these huge contributions to the industry. We have in, and yet I don’t know if it really influences day to day what companies are doing.

INTERVIEWER: I look back at your newsletter, and I picked out some stuff I thought was interesting. You said, changing the corporate culture of an office is far more challenging than installing a flextime program.


INTERVIEWER: Do you still have that opinion?

SLAVIN: Yes. I really feel that way. I remember when I came to work for HBO, I mean, Gail was a woman and she was my boss, but that was fairly unusual. And you would get into a meeting, and look around and it was all guys and you. One of the things I can remember is when men want to say something they just go ahead and say it. My mom taught me that that was rude. That you don’t interrupt somebody when they’re talking. As a result, it was very hard for me to get my two cents in even though I’m pretty good at getting my two cents in. So the corporate culture had to change in terms of men valuing and doing what they had to do to allow women to participate fully. This was an atmosphere that there’s no doubt that Gail Sermersheim fostered in our office, but I had been in other meetings with other companies where this wasn’t true. And the point I was making is that you can’t just say, okay, now we have flextime. Now we have long maternity leaves. Now, if you need to run out, you can do it. Because if the corporate culture doesn’t change then people are going to be very resentful. And I think that happens now. You have flex time for mothers. Women who are not mothers feel kind of, well, I’d like some time off too. I’d like to work on that schedule. So you’ve got to change the culture so that people understand if you’re not there from 9 to 5, it doesn’t mean you’re not working. You can work at home. You can work later hours or earlier hours. I personally love to get up early, so I would be there 6:00 in the morning. By 9:00, I had a whole day’s work done because it was quiet and the phone didn’t ring. People who didn’t know I came in that early might of been resentful because you can bet I walked out at 4:30 or 5:00. And I think there has to be some recognition especially at the executive level that people are self-motivated. Nobody has to tell them to work, and they either produce the work that is wanted or they don’t. And just because they don’t have somebody standing over them and watching them work doesn’t mean it’s not going to happen. So that’s what I was meaning about corporate culture, not being suspicious of different kinds of schedules, different kinds of activities.

INTERVIEWER: Do you think that WICT has the opportunity to foster new awareness?

SLAVIN: I think in many ways they have. Back in the year that I was president, Kate Hampford was working on the Cable Force 2000 study which I think did have an impact–we thought it had more of an impact then, because we got so much attention for it. What we predicted was that there was going to be a severe labor shortage, especially in this industry where we need people to be, even entry-level is a pretty sophisticated job, even being a CSR is a pretty sophisticated job. Well, yes, they said, we do understand. You’re right. This will be a problem. I don’t know how many companies actually changed their recruiting and educational policies, and of course, now we’re there. There are terrible labor shortages for every service industry, and a lot of competition. So I think we allow people within a company to bring up the topic. I think that’s what the contribution is. When we do these studies. When we have these awards. So we may motivate and make it okay for people to say, hey, look, we need this, we need this, we need this. Whether we actually cause the change, I don’t know. But we certainly do raise the awareness level. Like a good ad, right?

INTERVIEWER: Do you see WICT’s philosophy changing? Does it have the same [???] now as it did when you were president?

SLAVIN: My year was kind of pivotal that way. Initially, it was, we’ll form this group. We’ll support each other. We’ll be careful not to offend anybody, because we need the mostly male corporate culture to help fund these activities, and not be threatened when we get together. And I think that was one of the main driving goals was not to rock the boat, but let’s get ahead anyway in a quiet way. Starting, I guess, with Kate’s year, we started addressing real women’s issues which we hadn’t done before. I think in the early days, what we were doing was, we’ll try to produce the best educational programs which is a very valuable thing to corporations, and then they will want to send their people there. And they did a wonderful job of doing that. Starting, I guess, with Terry Thompson and that group, we were less afraid of addressing the real women’s issues, and trying to make change by being real advocates. And now you see people are approaching their congress people, and there was a CEO forum last year where we agreed to work on the issue of women in Afghanistan not having any freedom to develop. I think that that’s kind of a new strategy that we are secure enough at this point to get involved in the real women’s issues. Not that the early years did not accomplish that. They accomplished a lot, but I think we feel more comfortable with being more open about things like that.

INTERVIEWER: Do you see WICT changing in the next few years? Do you anticipate a time where WICT won’t be necessary?

SLAVIN: Wouldn’t that be nice. I don’t know. I think one of the problems is going to be just economic with companies downsizing, with the mergers in our field. What you’re going to see is, because there are fewer positions available, it’s probably likely that women could have problems in advancing because there are just fewer opportunities to advance. And it may be necessary to keep Women in Cable in the forefront. By the way, I don’t think there’s ever been anything malicious in women not being able to get ahead in business. I think it is more a lack of understanding, and a comfort level. And that was one of the goals with the Betsy Magness Institute. I think there are many strong women leaders at all levels of corporate life. They are not recognized as being leaders, because they lead in a different way. And when they go through the Betsy Magness Institute, not only do they hone their leadership skills, but they become very visible. Hey, look, they’ve chose this person because of her leadership ability. She must have it. Let’s look at it. And I think that’s why we see so many women being advanced while they’re Betsy Magness fellows. But back to your original question, I think we’re always going to have to have Women in Cable, maybe not to get ahead in business, but as a support system. Because what I’m finding is that women at the very top level, because there are so few of them, they’re lonely. They need a support system. They need to be able to talk to other women like them and share. Besides, it’s fun. There are some fabulous women in this organization, and many of my friends come from this organization. I wouldn’t give it up for anything.

INTERVIEWER: You started with [???], the past president council. Do you want to speak a little bit about that?

SLAVIN: That was interesting. I was really distressed when I came in and I realized I hadn’t understood how many women had been president of the organization who were really prominent in the industry and how many people had been on the board. So I took as my goal a way of, is there a way we can capture the skills of these leaders, and keep them interested in us because what I found is people kind of graduated. And they would go on from Women in Cable, and then maybe they were on the board of C-TAM, or on the board of the NCTA. And it was kind of, like, I’m finished with this part of my life. I’m going to do the big stuff. We needed the wisdom of those people, and so we made a bunch of calls. And called Kay Koplovitz called June Travis. Said, what would it take to keep you associated with this group? They said, well, we’re happy to give you our opinion, but we would really like to do is kind of hang out together. And I said, well, where would you like to hang out? They said, well, maybe a spa. And from that we developed this program of going away on retreat for three days or so, and bringing in some pretty high-level people to spend time with on a very informal basis; a very small group, 25 to 30 people each time. And I remember our first person was Francis Lear, who was a hoot. And then Betty Freidan came for a whole weekend which was just wonderful. She was so warm and so open. And then I remember we all went down to the spa to work-out, and we took a class. And we’re all dying. It was a very hard class. And we look over and there’s Betty, she’s in her ’70s, and she’s going fine. So we said, well, look, if Betty can do it, we can do it. We’re much younger. We’ll just hang in there until Betty drops out. She didn’t drop out, and then she left us and did an hour on the treadmill. But getting to know these icons who are just people in books on a personal level was very reinforcing to the people who were at these retreats. And because they were involved, and got these benefits, it was worth it for them to donate more of their time. And then the past presidents they became a network for us, because there was no reason to reinvent stuff and they had been through a lot of stuff. Plus, they had a very good view, a macro view of the industry, and we could call one of them up. We could call June or Gail and say, hey, we’re thinking about doing this. What do you think? And they’d say, no, no. You don’t want to do that. We tried that once. And just having that experience, and the wisdom, and then having them react, especially on the Women in Cable foundation where we try to generate new kinds of projects. And just having the reaction of people who are very tuned in with senior management, it’s very, very useful to us.

INTERVIEWER: Do you have one or two particular memories about being president, something that happened during your tenor that especially meaningful to you?

SLAVIN: I do. I do. Actually, it wasn’t the year I was president. It was the year I chaired the foundation, and I was on a plane. And I was just doodling, and it was a long flight. And I was on my way to a board meeting, and I came up with this idea of the Betsy Magness Institute. And I got to the meeting and presented it, and I said, oh, Jill, another one of your bright ideas. But it did work out, and Ruth Warren and Pam, you know, really got on board with this and really helped make it something. And then before I knew it, I had had this little idea. And before I knew it, I was at a press conference in Chicago, and Bob Magness had flown in every women at TCI who had ever participated in a Women in Cable program. And he handed me a check for $100,000. It was incredible. Very often, I think one of the benefits of Women in Cable is that you get to do things that you might not get to do in your corporate life because you don’t rank high enough. And here I had had the privilege of coming up with an idea, and having other people say, it’s good. And having this team of people to develop it. And then somebody said, it’s so good, I’m going to give you the money to do this. And it wasn’t me that he was giving it to, of course, but just seeing something from start to fruition was tremendously gratifying.

INTERVIEWER: WICT really did help you develop leadership skills that you brought back to the corporate world, would you say?

SLAVIN: Yes. For sure. I learned to manage large projects which was not part of my job at HBO, and I learned to interact with a lot of people at levels above. And I think a lot of women are intimidated–I think men too, are intimidated when they hang out with people who have titles that are way above them. And because I was doing this on a very regular basis in board meetings and foundation meetings, what I brought back to the company was a sense of confidence, and the ability to interact with a lot of different people at a lot of different levels. And the ability to build consensus and to negotiate. When you have 20 women in a room on a board meeting, you don’t’ have instant consensus on anything. And it’s negotiating, and the behind the scenes political stuff that has to happen that is very interesting and really builds a high level of skills. . I think that one of the best assets for this group has been Pam Williams at executive director, and I think that she may be under appreciated in the industry because she kind of keeps to the background because that’s the kind of organization it is. People who come on to the Women in Cable board come on because of the joy of the experience of actually executing projects. And so that Pam doesn’t get the same leadership role; although, she exhibits a lot of leadership behind the scenes. She’s been a tremendous asset, and I’m not sure how many people realize her influence on the organization.

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