Two women from very different backgrounds are leading AT&T’s remarkable efforts to literally change the world.
What Esther Lee, senior vice president of brand marketing and advertising, and Charlene Lake, senior vice president of public affairs and chief sustainability officer, have in common is a deep personal and professional need to have an impact. But the paths they took to get there—and to help AT&T innovate and transform itself and its global community—are quite divergent. (AT&T is No. 4 on The DiversityInc Top 50 Companies for Diversity.)
Lee is fairly new to the company, having joined in 2009 after stints as CEO of North America, president of Global Brands for Euro RSCG Worldwide and global chief creative offier for The Coca-Cola Co. (No. 12). She also cofounded her own ad agency, DiNoto Lee.
Many of her ideals were shaped by her father, who immigrated to the United States from North Korea when the borders were closed in the 1950s. “It was at a time when there was not a lot of acceptance for Asians—there was extremely high anti-Japanese sentiment in the United States, so he had a hard time finding a way to integrate into society,” she says.
A professor taught him to speak English and he became an organic chemist; Lee and her siblings moved a lot as children as his career blossomed, living in Germany, St. Louis, San Francisco, and Wellesley, Mass.
“There were some pretty big cultural shifts,” she says. “I didn’t wear the right clothes and I got teased for being Asian. My dad taught me to always strive for excellence and that became a very important tool to success. It starts with a belief that you are as good as anybody and you don’t have anything to apologize for or adjust for.”
Lake comes from a tiny town in rural Kansas with one stoplight. She attended Kansas State University, studying journalism, and worked on daily newspapers in her native state. She got her first corporate job in 1986, moving into communications at Southwestern Bell Telephone, one of the many forerunners of the current AT&T. “I did the employee newspaper and communications. It was a good starting place because communications is foundational to the success of all people in their work,” she says.
She moved up through the ranks in corporate advertising and marketing as the company merged and changed. In 2003, she started a public-affairs discipline at what was then SBC, and in 2007, she launched AT&T’s centralized corporate citizenship and sustainability function. Today, she is responsible for leading the company’s philanthropic and volunteering efforts and also coordinates critical intiatives connecting social needs with business objectives.
“Our philosophy is that our interaction with society is fundamental to our business … we need healthy customers and healthy businesses to buy our products and services. We need sustainable practices for our customers, investors and employees,” she says.
Both of these women are critical to AT&T’s insistence that its future—as well as the future of human society—is dependent on the ability to innovate to create long-term solutions.
“The easy thing is to throw money at a problem,” says Lake. “We ask, ‘How do I solve this problem?’” She cites two examples: the Aspire program, a $100-million program to address the growing problem of high-school dropouts, especially among Blacks and Latinos, and the Peace Through Business program, to which AT&T donated $100,000 to help women business owners in Rwanda and Afghanistan.
She notes that one of the most valuable parts of both initiatives is the interaction with AT&T employees—job shadowing for the Aspire program and the pairing of AT&T employees with budding women entrepreneurs in Rwanda and Afghanistan. “Before we meet these women, we all have an expectation of what they’ll say and how hard their lives have been,” she says. “In reality, they are so filled with hope and so eager to learn from American women. They can’t wait to go back and share what they’ve learned. We’re better as a company if society gets stronger.”
Both women note that AT&T’s involvement with societal progress has existed for the 130 years of the company’s history, in all its versions. “What’s interesting about AT&T, whether you talk about the future or the past, is that fundamentally the strategy we created or articulated is about relentless innovation for human progress,” says Lee, adding that her mission is to have branding that catches the world up to “who I think we really are as a company.”
What’s critical to innovation, she says, is to allow different perspectives to come to life. Lake echoes that thought: “Our employee base is so diverse. The ability to develop and train people, and turn them into leaders, is dependent on diversity. I can’t define sustainability without diversity.”
So what’s the next frontier for the company and these two leaders?
“We need to engage all of our employees in the effort. We want them to be passionate about understanding that what’s good for society is good for the company,” says Lake.
Lee notes that the speed of change at AT&T is far more rapid than any she’s seen before. “In the one year I’ve been here, I’ve seen the business model transform at least a couple of times. The ability to be able to pivot very quickly, to seek out the next big hill, to be able to drive a very large-scale organization to those changes is unique. I’ve never seen the imperative this high at other companies,” she says.