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April 1, 2021

AT&T Business CEO Anne Chow Reflects on Leadership, Discrimination as an Asian-American Woman

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As the first woman of color CEO of AT&T Business, Anne Chow B.S. ’88, M.Eng. ’89, MBA ’90 manages more than 30,000 employees and helps lead a $37 billion business group that serves customers worldwide. But alongside the daily challenges of being a CEO, it also means navigating gender and racial biases.

In her March 25 talk “Leading as Lifelong Learner,” Chow described her path from pursuing a career in technology to leading one of the largest networking corporations and explored how she has adapted her leadership style as an Asian-American woman in business and engineering.

Chow is the co-author of The Leader’s Guide to Unconscious Bias: How to Reframe Bias, Cultivate Connection, and Create High-Performing Teams, which explores how leaders can create more inclusive workspaces, and was recently featured in Fortune’s 2020 Most Powerful Women.

“Be a lifelong learner. You will never know everything so don’t try to do that. But fuel that curiosity,” Chow said in the virtual Cheng Distinguished Lecture in Technology, an annual lecture that allows leaders in technology to connect with the Cornell community.

Chow said her experiences at Cornell as an electrical engineering and business student cultivated her resilience as a leader. 

“How many times do you feel like you’re failing but then you get back up? For me it was countless … times over those six years,” Chow said. “My experience at Cornell taught me about resilience, taught me about grit, taught me that there isn’t actually such a thing as failure. There is only success and learning.” 

Chow’s resolve propelled her through her career at AT&T, where she started as a network architect in 1990 and gradually moved into sales and strategy. But as she continued to build her career in business technology sales, Chow recognized that men held most of the powerful positions at the company — and resolved to bridge this gap. 

“As a woman of color, I recognized that there were not a lot of minorities or women in those jobs that were responsible for [business] strategy,” Chow said. “So I worked hard to break out of that technical realm.” 

As an Asian-American woman in engineering, Chow recalled that she was often the only woman — and almost always the only woman of color — in her technical classes at Cornell. However, this experience also empowered her to educate others on the impact of unconscious gender and racial biases in the tech industry. 

“You realize that some of these things that you experience are not actually coming out of a place of malice. They’re coming out of a place of ignorance,” Chow said. “[It is] racial insensitivity, not deep racism, and I’ve learned to peel that back and take moments of opportunity to enlighten people and to educate them.”

Chow launched a series called “Candid Conversation” that invites speakers from various backgrounds to share how their social identities have shaped their experiences in corporate America. She believes these conversations will spread awareness of unconscious bias at AT&T and encourage listeners to reflect on their words and actions toward minorities. 

“We all have bias … and it is that unconscious bias that is so dangerous because it shapes our words, our actions and our decisions and we don’t even know it,” Chow said.

However, for Chow, the task of educating others comes with its own set of burdens.

“Whenever I do these [conversations], I get some hate mail,” Chow said. “These are difficult topics and I want to meet people where they want to be met.”

Chow said she hopes that “Candid Conversation” can create a workplace culture and environment that feels safe for all her employees to address racism and social injustice. 

Chow called on Cornellians to act on these injustices, reminding viewers there is always more to be done to embrace diversity, equity and inclusion. 

“We’ve each been given the ultimate gift of this one life to live,” Chow said. “Make a difference and leave a legacy that makes the world a better place for everyone.”