Recently, the association announced its new Women in Fiber Steering Committee. This new committee will lead the Women in Fiber group, which is designed to bring together women in the industry year-round for career building, networking and moving the industry forward.
Optics spoke with the appointees of the steering committee on how they found themselves in fiber and the advice they would give for women trying to break into the industry.
Fiber Broadband Association: Tell me a little about yourself – how did you come to work in fiber?
Kim Hartwell, Senior Vice President and Chief Commercial Officer, Corning: I studied engineering in college and my first job was in telecommunications. That was in the very early days of fiber and so most of my early career was in copper based networks. I was fortunate to work for an innovative company that saw fiber as the future and so we built capabilities to support both the legacy copper networks as well as the growth in fiber.
Tanya Kanczuzewski, Senior Global Marketing and Communications Manager, Dura-Line: After I left graduate school, I was searching for a job in “marketing” but found a position advertised as a graphic designer. During my interview, I convinced the company that they didn’t need a designer, but really a marketing professional! The company was Dura-Line and that’s where my education in conduit and fiber networks began.
Mary Ellen Grom, Executive Director of Marketing Communications, AFL: I am a 25-year career veteran primarily in the IT distribution channel marketing field. Actually, fiber found me in 2017 when I was approached with the AFL opportunity I currently hold. It was during an unprecedented time in my career where I was making the decision to pivot toward new endeavors for various personal and professional reasons. It was definitely a “right place, right time” scenario.
Alexa Edens, Director of Sales, KGPCo: I started my career in 2008 working for Clearwire in Atlanta, Ga., fresh out of college at the University of Texas at Arlington. Shortly along the way, I was approached regarding a customer facing position in which the company processed refurbished materials from the field. My telecom and sales background led me to this introduction to the true “networking” side of the business that I am now forever grateful for. Working on the materials side eventually progressed into full-scale services which I support today at KGPCo, as Director of Sales. KGPCo supports areas of ISP, OSP, Wireless, Cloud, and Logistics services. Early on, I started at a truly entry-level position, worked very hard, and with results and the true heart and spirit of loving the network and brilliant people –I have progressed to being capable of supporting so very many facets of our network.
Holly Ruser, Manager of Communications/Data Business, Graybar: I have worked at Graybar the past 17 years. I manage the Broadband Business for Graybar’s St. Louis District, which covers 11 states. It’s an exciting role as we are an integral part of bringing high-speed broadband access to communities throughout the United States. I began my career after graduating with a business degree, accepting an entry-level position as an internal customer service representative within Graybar’s IT department. My role was to support any voice and data issues at Graybar’s locations nationally. I worked closely with two technicians who provided programming and troubleshooting for the company, and when one of those technicians left the company, I was offered the opportunity to learn phone system programing and onsite telephony work. This opportunity ultimately led me to learn more about telecom, as well as fiber optics within Graybar’s network. This increased my overall awareness of fiber and its importance in connecting our business to the outside world. After working many years in IT and obtaining my MBA, I spent 10 years at our corporate office on our sales and marketing team in product management. In that role I managed several of our key fiber lines nationally, which provided additional product and market knowledge. These various roles have prepared me for my current position, providing fiber material and logistics services to our customers who are increasing broadband access across the country.
FBA: What was your journey like – what was the thing you struggled most with?
KH: My career path was anything but a straight line. I took the opportunity to work in many parts of the business and in many parts of the country and the world and loved the opportunities that were presented by each new challenge. I think that the thing that was hardest from a personal perspective is that there were so few women in professional roles in the industry. While we are still a minority today, it is orders of magnitude better than when I started.
TK: I have a “technical” mindset with a strong background in science. When I first began at Dura-Line, I was excited to use what I learned in college and understand the chemical composition of the products. I jumped into learning about the products, finding the best ways to organize information, and creating simple explanations for our customers. I was the first “marketing” employee and created everything from scratch. It was an exciting time! The struggle came with the changes in management, moving into the world of private equity. As Dura-Line moved through that process, many of the employees changed, losing the early-on charm of a rapidly growing, customer-centric, privately owned company. That dynamic changed again a few years ago when we were acquired by a larger, privately-owned company.
MEG: My journey was fueled by a strong, faith-filled family upbringing, a solid educational foundation and my curiosity early on in advertising and marketing. I pursued that curiosity and solidified my choice during my College Program experience at Walt Disney World. There I learned that everyone you meet is a customer (or potential customer) who needs something: advice, time, products/solutions, services, etc. Therefore, creating the ultimate customer experience will win in every scenario, regardless of company, role or industry. I believe my biggest career struggle was understanding why more women were not involved in high tech careers like telecommunications. I strive to turn struggles into opportunities and am constantly pursuing ways to educate, evolve and empower female colleagues.
AE: My journey has really, I must say, been a dream. I come from a very small town in Texas—and when growing up it was a big deal to go to college after high school or the idea of having a job in which you could travel and see all of the cities, not to mention speak with some of the most brilliant people. That set the stage for the dream that has probably been my guiding light. Struggles are inherent with big dreams, and I think it is an important point to always remember. Pushing boundaries takes strength. Within our industry, it is heavily male dominated—it can’t go without recognizing that there is room at the top for brilliant females. Specifically for me, I particularly love the beautiful mind of an engineer or the dirty work in outside plant construction. Both can take many people off guard when they see a younger female saying, “Put me in, I love it,” but in hindsight that’s 100% of what it takes to advance us in. No keeping gates. I’m appreciative of all of those around me that know—I’m in. And I still love it. In short, it’s up to us all to minimize those struggles for newer entry individuals—recognize abilities, and value the young passionate beating hearts and continue to push beyond traditional stereotypes.
HR: My journey has been exciting and somewhat non-traditional. I have been very fortunate to work within a great company with many knowledgeable mentors and peers along the way who have been more than willing to share their expertise. It has been a continuous learning experience, which always helps to keep things interesting. Though my natural style is to be assertive, sometimes I worry about being perceived as too aggressive as a female leader.
FBA: How do you think women are breaking boundaries in telecom and fiber?
KM: Women have demonstrated success in every aspect of the industry today. I think that the opportunities for women to follow the paths that have been forged by those that have gone before us are a huge benefit that we have to recognize. Using networks like Women in fiber and others can help those women that work in companies without a great support structure. I am excited to see a world today where there are almost limitless possibilities for women that want to enter this field and make a career choice to focus on optical networks in telecom and datacom.
TK: Last year at a customer ribbon-cutting event in a rural town in Kansas, in front of the community and gathered press, a female employee “spliced the last fiber” making the new, high-speed fiber network active. What a treat! I have a lot of respect for the women who are in the field day-in-and-day-out. I think the women who have the technical training and can hold a leadership position pave the way for everyone coming behind them and I applaud everyone for their perseverance.
MEG: I see more and more females in this industry and I applaud their efforts – from CEOs and managers, to the front-line field technicians and production experts. Careers in STEM are more visible and encourage workers of all backgrounds to discover, apply and thrive. Our industry is explosive in opportunity and making an impact in our daily lives as consumers via technology, the internet and science. This impact generates interest and provides a route to careers that many women may not have considered otherwise.
AE: I love that we have this young tech spirit coming into the workforce. It tells me there are more that believe in our strength and minds. As a mother of a daughter myself, this could not make me more proud. I need to lay the groundwork for these younger entry levels, where they—in turn, will take care of my own daughter. I believe there has truly been a wave of solidarity among women in the last few years, and this is the heart of the American spirit. We fight for what is right and we make changes against the largest of odds. I am so incredibly appreciative of those who have forged before me giving me that first glimmer of confidence that it can be done. I knew, if they could do it, I could do it. Within our own company at KGPCo, we THRIVE (yes, also fittingly the name of our diversity organization, Thrive) on identifying and developing women in our workplace, and that ‘glimmer’ was originally set in place by Mrs. Kathleen G. Putrah herself, KGPCo founder, in 1973. What a beacon of hope we have been given in our own work family!
HR: I believe women in telecom and fiber are viewing opportunities from an empowered perspective—they’re choosing to focus on their abilities and what is available to them instead of any gender stereotypes sometimes associated with a job. Additionally, there is an unlimited amount of potential for women who want to expand into roles such as programmers and engineers, project managers, field installers and splicers.
FBA: What obstacles do you think women still face today?
KH: Women are still a minority in our industry and it is always hard to feel comfortable in an environment where you are the minority. I also think that many women have multiple demands on their time and that can make it difficult to dedicate the time to building a career in a demanding field. That said, I have seen many women be successful in building very strong networks and balancing family and work in a way that allowed them to be highly successful. Everyone faces obstacles to success and I think that the women that look for the opportunities rather than the obstacles are the ones that find a way to navigate a path and build a rewarding career.
TK: Over and over again, I hear from my female counterparts that their opinion really has to be proven, but if a man said the same thing it is accepted more readily. I do see that – I don’t think it’s intentional, so there’s still a need for training about unconscious biases. No doubt, it will be ongoing because embracing diversity is not just a gender issue.
MEG: I believe the primary obstacle for women is building emotional intelligence. It’s about creating awareness of our emotions, controlling them as needed and understanding how they impact our own behavior and those of others. Learning to respond, not react, has always proven extremely powerful for me personally.
AE: It may appear that we have no obstacles and the sky is the limit. But unfortunately I also believe that there are the unmentioned perceptions that can and must be overcome by proof and examples. The frontline is always the hardest. Again, I believe solidarity sets our strongest pace. Removing these obstacles and perceptions are partially all of our own jobs.
HR: While women have made great strides across all industries, there is still a significant gender gap when it comes to leadership. Across the c-suite, only 24% of these titles are held by women. Among Fortune 500 companies, only 33 CEOs are women, including our Chairman, President and CEO at Graybar.
FBA: What advice do you have for a young woman who wants to break into fiber?
KH: I would advise young women to get a good education and then pick a company that is a good fit with your values and aspirations. I always encourage people to think about selecting a company when they are interviewing rather than a job or a boss. Jobs and bosses change but, if you choose the right company, the opportunity to build a rewarding career is much greater than if you have a very short term focus. With a good education, the right selection of a company, hard work, and some support, the growth in this industry will offer young women significant opportunities to build a rewarding professional life.
TK: All they need is the desire to learn and take charge! I think the field is wide open and there’s a lot of room for energetic new talent. It’s a great time with a shortage of reliable, trained workers available today. An all-female business with fiber splicing experts would be a great addition and in high-demand in the market!
MEG: Network. Connect. Partner. Relate. Whether you are just getting started or building your exit strategy in the industry, it’s always beneficial to get advice and direction from others who have gone before. My personal guiding principle is connect the people, the dots will follow. No matter how tech-savvy and operationally automatic we are in this world, human beings are the essence of continued success.
AE: I would say first, that this is an incredible space—and for the mind that loves to break boundaries and shatter ceilings—you have a community of women waiting for you to join us. Fundamentals are very important, be prepared to accept that there is mandatory dedication in the formative years, but rest assured—with this diligence and perseverance it will give you wings to take you all of the way.
HR: It is an extremely exciting time to be working in fiber, whether that is as a distributor, a manufacturer, an engineer or an end user. The most powerful thing you can do as a young woman wanting to break into fiber is to educate yourself and become as knowledgeable as you can. Stereotypes are just that, and you should not allow anything to stand in the way of the goals you have for yourself and your team. Also, it’s important to share your goals and aspirations with leaders across your organization so they can help you along the way. Fiber is changing the world as we know it, and there are so many opportunities for someone who is interested in being a part of that transformation.