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Dec. 5, 2020

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Anne Chow, AT&T’s first woman of color CEO in 144 years, adds another groundbreaking role

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DALLAS — Less than a year ago, Anne Chow was promoted to CEO of AT&T Business, the telecommunications giant’s $37 billion unit that provides services to nearly 3 million business customers, including nearly all of the world’s Fortune 1000 companies.

The 54-year-old daughter of Taiwanese immigrants is the first woman to hold this position and the first woman of color to be named CEO at any AT&T company in its 144-year history. She’s also the corporation’s highest-ranking Asian American.

For most mortals, that would be enough precedent to absorb for a while.

But then, Chow isn’t like most mortals.

She studied classical piano at The Juilliard School as a child, is the proud mother of two Generation Z daughters, clips coupons, has co-authored a book on unconscious bias and is obsessed with fitness boxing.

You might take comfort in knowing that she stinks at golf and can’t sew a button on a shirt.

On Friday, Chow became the first female or minority global CEO to chair the United Way of Metropolitan Dallas’ annual workplace campaign.

While Chow is honored to be the standard-bearer for diversity, she says it comes with an obligation. “Those of us who are given the opportunity of being first must ensure that we’re not the only or the last,” she says.

Chow shrugs off the suggestion that this is a lot to tackle during her rookie CEO year in the midst of a pandemic, social unrest and the dawn of 5G technology.

“As someone who has been so fortunate in my position and in my life, I have an obligation to serve,” Chow says in a Webex interview. “My lifelong journey and mission is to leave this place better from whence I came.”

A total package

Eight of the past nine United Way workplace campaigns have been spearheaded by CEOs of the area’s largest corporations, beginning in 2011 with Randall Stephenson at AT&T.

Cowboys Hall of Famer Troy Aikman, who quarterbacked the 2017-18 drive, was the only outlier.

Jennifer Sampson, president and CEO of United Way of Metropolitan Dallas, wanted to break the white-male mold but keep the global CEO star power when she hit up Chow about heading the all-important workplace drive.

“Anne’s the total package,” Sampson says. “She is a visionary leader, a fierce competitor, a diversity and inclusion champion, gifted communicator and brilliant strategist. The icing on the cake is Anne’s caring, kind and empathetic.”

Chow has changed jobs 17 times in her 30-year upward trajectory at AT&T — her only employer since getting undergraduate and graduate degrees in electrical engineering and an MBA from Cornell University.

She’s relatively unknown in D-FW, having moved here five years ago when she was promoted to president of AT&T’s national business.

“My day job is to serve businesses of all kinds, across all sectors, across the country, across the world. This seems like a very logical extracurricular activity for me to do,” Chow says.

Her boss, John Stankey, agrees.

“Anne’s proven leadership skills in business are complemented by her longtime passion in advocating for communities, including those in need,” says Stankey, president and chief operating officer, who will become AT&T’s CEO in a leadership hand-off from Stephenson on Wednesday. “Her collaborative and caring approach is what our customers and employees appreciate about her.”

Last year, former executive chairman of Kimberly-Clark Corp. Tom Falk and his wife, Karen, chaired the campaign that raised $45 million dedicated to United Way’s health, education and income stability programs.

But this is an unprecedented time for fundraising.

“I will measure our impact and our success in the number of individuals, communities and businesses that we engage,” Chow says. “Being in the network business — pun intended — I view that as one of my strengths. Our goal is to amplify and extend our impact.”

She intends to focus on a holistic view of health. “Businesses can’t be successful, communities can’t be successful, unless we address the whole of the individual — not just their access to health care in its traditional sense of their physical well-being,” she says.

Land of hope

Chow calls herself an ambivert — a blending of an extrovert mom and an introvert dad.

Ming and Joann Chow met through a matchmaker. Before Joann agreed to marry Ming, she laid down the law that they’d move to the United States.

“Even back then, my mom knew that in America you could become who you aspire to be,” Chow says.

The couple had all of $500 when they arrived in the Midwest in the ’60s so that Ming could go to graduate school at the Missouri University of Science and Technology in Rolla. He earned his electrical engineering master’s degree and Ph.D. in three years and took a job at Bell Laboratories in New Jersey.

“We had a very simple, suburban, immigrant upbringing in that we didn’t have a lot of money,” Chow recalls. “They very heavily pushed my brother and me to try to do as many things as we could that they perceived to be opportunistic, American-shaping, cultural things.”

Anne started piano lessons when she was 4. Six years later, she was admitted into The Juilliard School’s prestigious pre-college program. Every Saturday for seven years, she and one of her parents made a 90-minute commute into New York City.

Chow considered being a music major in college but abandoned that idea because, one, it would be hard to make money as a musician, and two, she wasn’t naturally gifted, just exceptionally trained. Perhaps most important, she was burned out from a childhood without a social life.

Engineers were making good money. She chose electrical engineering because she had no aptitude for mechanical. “Don’t ever ask me to fix something, because I don’t have patience, and I don’t care that much,” she says. “Now I have a husband who we call Bob the Builder, and he can fix anything.”

Move over, boys

Chow cleans out her collection of corporate kitsch every time she switches jobs. But she swears she’ll keep one coffee mug as long as she lives.

She was in her mid-20s when she took on her first large operational job at AT&T, leading a team of about 600 people spread among six cities across the country. She calls it her corporate boot camp.

“I remember doing a team meeting with several of my technicians. It was brutal, because I was literally half the age of 99% of them, almost entirely men.”

One guy accused her of being a young Ivy Leaguer just climbing another step in her career ladder. She nicely assured him that she’d prove him wrong.

“That same technician upon my departure from the group three years later gave me this mug that I will keep until my grave. It says, ‘Boys I’m Taking Charge Here,'” she says, leaving me to figure out the acronym. “Legal doesn’t like me to use that word. I still tear up thinking about it, because I earned that respect from him and the others.”

Balance is a crock

She and Bob Moore have been married for 25 years and have two daughters, a 21-year-old studying chemical engineering at Georgia Tech and an 18-year-old who just graduated from Carroll Senior High School and is heading to the University of Michigan to study biomedical engineering. Moore retired early from his 20-year career in IT to manage the household. He’s also president of their Southlake community’s homeowners association.

Chow calls the notion of work/life balance bogus. Rather, it is an optimization equation of shifting priorities that only you can decide for yourself.

“This situation today makes it even more bogus because when you’re working remotely from home, there is no separation between church and state. You look up and 10 hours have passed.”

One of her favorite current movies is Crazy Rich Asians, released in 2018.

She says she totally identifies with Rachel, the Chinese American economics professor at New York University and female protagonist. “Chinese American. Living between two worlds and bridging between them. Unswayed with material wealth. And Rachel is a lover of game theory, which is similar to how the corporate world works.”

Chow is a motivational junkie and disciple of Stephen Covey’s The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. So she was delighted when Bob Whitman, CEO of FranklinCovey Co., asked her to join its board four years ago.

“Anne was probably a recruit above our rights,” Whitman says from his home in Park Cities, Utah. “She’s got this great spirit, is very collegial and everybody loves working with her. But she also has this ability to see how big or important an idea could be. Rather than being satisfied with just getting something done, she wants to think about what the full potential might look like.”

She is co-author of The Leader’s Guide to Unconscious Bias, which will be released by FranklinCovey in October. The book is already in pre-order demand.

‘Tiger leader’

Employees have voted Chow’s internal blog the best in all of AT&T-land for the past nine years. She writes about inspirational, personal and sometimes touchy topics — including one post about being a tiger mom.

In early 2011, Amy Chua’s Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother stirred up heated debate when the Yale law professor touted the benefits of a traditional Chinese parenting style that demands high achievement over what she calls the permissive Western way where parents worry about a kid’s self-esteem.

Shortly after the book came out, Chow wrote a blog explaining that she has attributes of both a tiger mom and a tiger leader — hopefully not to the negative extremes.

She sees herself as someone who encourages excellence — driving to deliver, constantly raising the bar and never giving up. She says those traits are extensions of her mother, who was and still is “the epitome of a tiger mom.”

Chow’s motherly advice to her daughters: ” ‘Try new things. Meet new people. Keep an open mind. You never know if you’re going to be good at something unless you try it.’ That started when they were little, tiny babies with food and then with experience and opportunities.

“The tiger mom in me pushed them into martial arts. They’re both second-degree black belts in taekwondo. It’s awesome.”

Chow is a collector of wisdom quotes. “My favorite is Ghandi’s: ‘Be the change you want to see in the world.’ So I tell them, ‘Be the change. If you don’t like something, try to change it.’

“It’s part of my whole trailblazer, maverick mentality. I don’t want them to be victims of circumstance.

“Quite honestly, I want everybody to be change agents.” she says. That’s another reason why the United Way of Metropolitan Dallas campaign opportunity is a no-brainer for me. It’s all about being a catalyst for change. That is the only way that progress is made.”

Racial divide

Chow has felt the current sting of prejudice. In the early days of COVID-19, Chow was heckled by strangers for being Asian. “People had that racial bias that COVID was a Chinese thing.”

She believes that everything happens for a reason — even COVID-19 and the racial injustice that has led to civil unrest.

“COVID, even in its darkest hours, has had the whole world united around the common enemy called the coronavirus,” she says. “COVID also showed us how important connections actually are. The power of those connections is what makes the world work and make us human.”

As for the Black Lives Matter movement sweeping the world: “There are deep-rooted systemic racial issues across society and many systems. There’s no question that for our community — including the North Texas community — to thrive, to prosper, to grow, we must address these racial issues head-on with grace and professionalism and respect.

“I believe that the year 2020 is the year that had to happen, because we as a business community, we as humanity, we as a country needed it to happen.”

Boxing off steam

Chow considers fitness boxing, which she discovered four years ago, a necessity of life.

“When I moved to Dallas, there were all these life confluences: new job, big move. I’d spent my whole career on the East Coast. I was turning 50 and in the worst physical, mental and emotional condition of my entire life,” Chow recalls.

“I had girlfriends who were rolling into their 50s looking fantastic. And I’m like, ‘Dang, I had that dream and then I moved to Texas.’ What I used to say for my first two years in Texas until I got myself back: ‘Everything’s bigger in Texas, including me.’ It was totally true.”

She loves coupons and rarely buys anything that’s not on sale.

“I was Grouponing like crazy trying to find an exercise to get myself back on track. I stumbled upon fitness boxing, and I am literally obsessed with it.”

She doesn’t have many regrets but one is that she didn’t push herself to learn to play golf.

She hosts clients at the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro Am and at the Masters golf tournament, but she can’t play with them because her game is dreadful.

“Golf is such a big part of the Texas business community,” she says. “I have an appreciation for it, but I know my limitations. I would never put myself out there to actually play it.”

Chow has several basic problems with the sport: It’s expensive, it’s time-consuming and practice does not make perfect.

“There are some pretty terrible golfers out there who spend a lot of time and a lot of money on it.” she says. “For me, that lack of certainty on outcomes is unacceptable. I do not want to spend that much time or that much money and all that practice to probably still be God-awful at it.”

Always a mom

A year ago, Chow’s parents moved from New Jersey to a retirement community in North Dallas.

Her mom still worries about her daughter’s job security. “I’m not even kidding you. I tell her, ‘Mom, don’t worry. If I don’t have a job anymore, and it’s time for me to leave AT&T, I’ll be fine.’ Until about five years ago, every time I’d see them, she’d slip me 20 bucks.”

Last Sunday, she visited her parents physically distanced outside. Her mom, as usual, had prepared meals for her to take home.

“Apparently at age 54, I’m still incapable of cooking and shopping for myself,” Chow says with a laugh. “Once a mom, always a mom.”

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