Since the founding of our nation, Washington, D.C., has been the hub of power players and politics focused on driving what’s best for Americans. And while that notion has certainly come under more scrutiny as of late, Washington still has people who strive to do what is noble and right for all citizens, regardless of politics, circumstance or background.
As Vice President of Public Policy and Strategic Alliances for Verizon, Donna Epps is one such individual utilizing her position to work with lawmakers and influencers to ensure basic broadband internet should be accessible for not just some, but all Americans.
By 2020, 77 percent of all jobs in the United States will require computer skills. Yet, today millions of Americans—particularly students and minorities—remain unable to access vital technologies either due to economic or geographical circumstances. This is known as America’s digital divide, and it’s become a top initiative Verizon and its key executives including Donna Epps are working to address.
Her Agenda recently sat down with Epps to learn more about what inspired her to launch a career in public policy, why it is necessary for Black women to occupy roles of leadership, and how Verizon’s various initiatives are enhancing the way that students of all ages learn how to engage with technology.
Her Agenda: Fortune Magazine’s Ellen McGirt penned a very compelling piece that discusses the lack of Black women in top-level leadership positions, despite our incredible ability to lead. Can you speak to your experience as a Black woman in leadership, what lessons you have learned throughout your career and any advice you may have for millennial women (like myself) to one day be leaders in Corporate America?
Donna Epps: I think my experience has been characterized always working really hard and trying to deliver excellence in everything to the best of my ability. It’s also very clear that substance matters but once you get into a leadership position people assume that you have the substance, so just working hard begins to have diminishing returns. Being good, having good work – you still have to do that but that’s just table stakes. To really move higher, you have to develop networks and relationships with influential people. They have to know you, like you, and understand your value so that you have people who can advocate for you when you are not in the room. Also, having emotional intelligence skills and the ability to connect with people are so important to your ability to advance. In playing the corporate game, we often think that by just keeping our head down and working hard will get us far but it doesn’t. It’s really important to get to know the power players in your organization, as well as outside of your organization because you want them to report back to your leadership that you’re an asset.
I also think another thing that can plague Black women in leadership is the assumption that we suffer from the “angry Black woman” syndrome. On occasion I’ve had people assume I’m angry – when that’s hardly the case. I’m just direct or business-focused in certain circumstances, rather than being more casual and informal in the workplace. But as a Black woman, if you aren’t very casual or don’t engage in a lot of small talk in the office, your professionalism can be misinterpreted more quickly as angry or make you seem less approachable or aloof. I think some of that has roots in the prevailing cultural stereotype that Black women are angry. We saw Michelle Obama during her husband’s first campaign struggle with the same misperception in the media. So I try to work against that “angry Black woman” stereotype. As a result, I probably spend more time overcompensating by going out of my way to develop more interpersonal connections or to explain myself [more] than I think I otherwise would if I weren’t a Black woman.
Her Agenda: What would be your advice to those millennial women who are currently in mid-level positions as they navigate not just corporate America, but any sector so that they are successful?
Donna Epps: I think to really believe in yourself. Try not to second guess yourself and even if you do, speak up anyway and move past the fear. I really do believe in the ‘lean in’ concept – when you do lean in and speak up, make sure you have something to say. Even if you think someone in senior leadership may be too busy to meet with you, make time to speak to them. Sometimes when opportunities come up, we may be overlooked because people don’t know us. We have to show up, be present and ignore what you may perceive as people dismissing you.
Her Agenda: In your role as Vice President of Public Policy and Strategic Alliances, you are responsible for managing Verizon’s public policy initiatives and various partnerships. How has studying public relations, journalism and practicing law helped shape your career up to this point?
Donna Epps: In terms of the work I do in public policy, I try to lead the company to develop public policy positions that are good for the company, but also good for the communities that we serve. A big part of those communities are non-profit organizations that my team also manages. So, the advocacy skills I’ve learned from my practice of law have been very helpful. Also, I did corporate public relations for a year before going to law school and essentially that’s also the selling of ideas. Usually those ideas are about selling products and services, and why they should be appealing to people. I’m essentially selling or advocating for ideas to both policymakers and key external stakeholders who have constituents that would benefit from those policies, but also to those constituents who have no idea about the policies because they’re not in the tech space.
Her Agenda: What inspired you to pursue a career in public policy and communications? Who are some people that you look up to and have served as your mentors?
Donna Epps: I grew up in the generation of L.A. Law, which may be a show before your time. But when I was coming up, there were a lot of television shows that depicted women lawyers. The Cosby Show, for one, and I didn’t have a lot of exposure to a lot of non-traditional careers. It was sort of: teacher, preacher, doctor, or lawyer. So I always said I wanted to be a lawyer, because I had interned at a civil rights law firm in high school. It was a profession requiring skills that I was good at and that I enjoyed. Once I got to college and discovered public relations, I thought, “Oh, this is even better,” because I really like advocacy, but I like talking about these issues even more than writing about them. Even though I practiced law at a firm for about four years, I was always interested in how I can marry my PR background with my legal background. And what I found in policy was a perfect marriage between those two disciplines. With policy, you’re really advocating those ideas and talking about how to come up with strategic ways to educate and influence decision makers and rally support from influencers in the community.
In terms of role models, I think – and this will sound cliché – but first is my mom who is very big on excellence. She always stressed the importance of me bringing my A game to any task and she explained that I was going to have to be twice as good because I’m an African American woman. I learned at an early age that education was the great equalizer in many ways because it was the one thing people can’t take from you. My mom taught me that if you work hard and you’re really good, that is going to go a long way because at the end of the day, people want success. If you can help them succeed, then you will help create opportunity.
Beyond that, I certainly have some really good mentors. At my law firm, there were senior associates and partners that took me under their wing and encouraged me, not necessarily about the substantive issues, but the intangible issues that are unwritten rules that as a minority, I might not have known. They taught me the importance of networking, establishing relationships with influencers within the firm, and various those sorts of things that can have an impact on your career.
Her Agenda: Verizon has taken up the charge of “closing the digital divide” in America. Can you define the digital divide, who is directly impacted, and what Verizon is doing to ensure that impacted communities have access to technology? Also, what can everyday consumers do to ensure that the gap is closing?
Donna Epps: When people say the digital divide, they can mean different things. It’s a multifaceted issue and problem, which means that it’s going to take a multifaceted solution to address. One issue is access, making sure that everyone has access to advanced technology – so high-speed broadband. That literally means, make sure you can buy it if you want to buy it because the cables are running in your neighborhood. The other issue is getting people to adopt broadband because we have many people in this country who have access, but they have yet to purchase the service for a number of reasons. Studies show that some people say that it’s too expensive while many others don’t think it’s relevant to them — and that’s typically the highest number of people. We’re trying to get people to understand the relevance of the Internet to their life. For example, a lot of elderly folks who are affluent have not adopted because they don’t think they need it. And the third reason for lack of adoption is the lack of digital literacy, which typically overlaps with relevancy.
We have tried to do our part to improve adoption, but we’re not alone. We participate in a program called Lifeline, which is a government program that gives vouchers to people that qualify as low-income and they can apply the amount ($9.99) to their broadband bill every month.
There are also a lot of grassroots organizations on the ground doing great hands-on training with communities and helping to educate them about the relevance of broadband services. Our Verizon Foundation in particular has done a great job with equipping low income students and at-risk schools and communities with cutting edge technology. We have equipped schools with technology in at-risk communities. We call them our Verizon Innovative Learning Schools. We’ve also trained the teachers on how to use the technology. As a result, we’ve seen test scores improve and interest in STEM careers among the students improve.
Her Agenda: Congratulations on your “Woman of the Movement” award from the National Urban League, as well as appointment to the FCC’s Advisory Committee on Diversity and Digital Empowerment! How important is diversity in the technology space? Do you think the industry as a whole is making strides when it comes to inclusion?
Donna Epps: It’s critically important – it’s the future and the future is already here. Much of how we navigate simple tasks in our lives is conducted online. There have to be diverse professionals in tech field to make sure there are checks in place so when companies are developing the next innovative solution, the coding, algorithms or whatever don’t have a negative impact on communities of color and poor people. We have more work to do to increase the number of women and minorities in the tech field. I don’t think we’re doing enough as a country. One, we have to create more opportunities for diverse professionals with STEM-degrees. Maybe 20, 30 years ago the excuse that we can’t find enough people of color with the right set of skills may have had more validity. Today, while we certainly need more, there are plenty of people of color with STEM skills, but they’re not being recruited or hired at the level that they should be.
Her Agenda: What’s the best career advice that you’ve ever received?
Donna Epps: The power of relationships. Early on, I was in the INROADS program and they really stressed the importance of developing relationships, networking and not just mentors, but champions – and that has always stuck with me. Often times as people of color, we don’t think we have anything in common with the leadership of our organization because they have different backgrounds, race, etc. But I think it’s imperative that we reach out and speak up and help our colleagues see that we do have commonalities.
If you operate under the premise of, ‘I have a purpose’ and ask yourself, ‘what are the strategic steps that are going to get me from point A to point B?’ One of those steps should be developing meaningful relationships with people.
Her Agenda: What is your personal motto?
Donna Epps: To have faith. It is to hang on to the faith that my best days are ahead, that no matter how good or bad things seem now – the best is yet to come. And that really goes back to my faith in God; that’s why I believe in Him. Things may happen that I may not be pleased with, but I know that they’ll ultimately be for my good.
[Editors Note: This interview was recorded and written prior to the December 14, 2017 FCC ruling to repeal Net Neutrality. We have since reached out to Ms. Epps to get her perspective on the repeal in respect to her role, and Verizon’s position. She shared with us that she would “rather not focus on a substantive policy issue in the piece.”
This interview published on December 18th, 2017. It has been edited for length and clarity.]