The annual Women in Technology Award, presented jointly by the WICT Network, SCTE and Cablefax, is given to a woman whose professional achievements have extended beyond her company to impact and advance the cable telecommunications industry in general. This year’s winner, Toni Stubbs of Cox Communications, has been fluent in machine language since she was young.
As Vice President of Technology, Engineering, and Operations for Cox Virginia, she directs all network planning, engineering, and master telecommunications center operations for the footprints of Hampton Roads, Virginia. North and Roanoke. Under his leadership, Cox employees in the region support the customer experience of more than one million customers. She began her career with Cox in South Tyler, Texas, leading technical efforts in what was once known as the Central American system.
She is also an active member of the WICT network, serving on the board of directors for the Virginia Chapter and the Information Technology Executive Forum.
In her personal life, Stubbs does everything she can to give back and help young people in need. She was a former board member of the Urban League of South Hampton Roads and currently serves on the board of directors of Envision Lead Grow, a non-profit organization dedicated to breaking cycles of poverty by sharing power. entrepreneurship with young women and girls. We spoke with Stubbs about her career path, misconceptions about women in STEM, and what’s to come for Cox. Edited excerpts of the conversation follow.
What does this award mean to you and what was the first reaction when you heard about it? I was really humble. I come to work and just do what I do because I love doing what I do and I’m not necessarily looking for the accolades. And so when I got the meeting invite from my boss [Cox VP, Engineering & Operations] Bill Hulsey, I stopped and he said someone else was going to join us. I thought ‘What’s going on right now?’ [Cox SVP, Integration Management Office] Patricia Martin joined in and she shared the news with me. It was really exciting. We were talking about the phenomenal women who received this award before me. I almost felt like I should say I’m not worthy. Bill said, ‘You absolutely are.’
Was there a time when you realized you wanted to study science and technology? It really started in high school. I wanted to be a lawyer. My history teacher told me I couldn’t remember my story well enough, so I went to the library to try to memorize. I was picking up books and reading and reading and reading, and trying to memorize what it was. It was so boring for me, to be honest. And I saw this old IBM computer that somebody had donated to our school library and there was a box with all these textbooks. I asked the librarian what it was, and she said she had no idea how to make it work. I said, ‘Do you mind if I read the books because I’m trying to get better at memorizing the story’ and she said of course. I read the books and I understood. I knew what to do with those floppy disks. When I got back to the library, I started inserting the diskettes and turned on the computer. It was the start for me to really learn the technology and teach myself. I shared with the librarian that I actually had it set up and it was working and she told me you were really smart with these things. You should enter computers. That’s how I ended up going to Mercy College in Detroit to study computer science.
How did you switch to cable? I started as an intern at a former Bell company, Michigan Bell. I worked with computers and worked for a company, National Cash Register, right out of college. We went through mergers and acquisitions and stages where they became AT&T. Then I moved into the cable industry and worked for Continental Cablevision and did that for seven years through all the takeovers and mergers at the time. Eventually Comcast bought the market I was in and I left them. I went to GM’s Onstar, started working there, and got a call from a recruiter. The recruiter said there was this telecommunications company that was looking for someone to lead their technology unit in Texas. I was exhausted from all the mergers and acquisitions that were going on. I said, “I don’t know if I could come back into telecommunications.” He said, “I think you really want to talk to this company” and revealed it was Cox. I knew a few people who through all the mergers and acquisitions had come from Continental to Cox and they had nothing but good things to say about the company. So I spoke to them.
You moved from Texas to Cox Virginia. What makes your current region unique? When I first came to Hampton Roads, it was still three very separate systems. It’s the Northern Virginia system, the Hampton Roads system, and the Roanoke system, and we were just looking to do system consolidations and bring it all together. It was an initial challenge: how to bring together three unique autonomous systems into one operating model and get people all rowing in the same direction. I had really been in a situation like that before at Tyler because the Middle America Cox systems were like that. It was Texas, East Texas, West Texas, part Arkansas, part Louisiana. We were spread across several states and had people who reported to a general manager at that time. I was able to come and share some of that experience and skills so that I can make the Virginia area what it is today.
What challenges have you faced as a woman in tech? Are there any highlights of accomplishment that stand out from the rest? I was coming in as a woman, and there had never been a tech leader at my level here before. I had to earn the trust of the employees and really prove that I deserved to be at the table here. Looking at all of my male predecessors, they probably had the benefit of the doubt that they deserved to have the seat I was stepping into. Part of what I did was just listen to the employees and share with them who I was. Over time, employees had the opportunity to see that I really knew what I was talking about and also that they could trust me. Leadership doesn’t just come from being the doer. I think traditionally, in at least this space, the cable industry, people have just been promoted. It was the play for my team where they said, ‘you haven’t been promoted through the ranks.’ But I conquered them.
Is there an upcoming technology or initiative that motivates you to come to the office every day? I’m excited about what our data services have to offer customers more than just accessing the internet, sending email or streaming video. We have the ability for clients to interact with their healthcare professionals. We see that some now, but I just see it growing even more. And while the pandemic has forced us to readapt from a learning perspective, I see the opportunity to reach a lot more kids, teach them, and give them that interactive experience. Children who have not left the city of Norfolk would be able to engage and see what it is like to be in another country and experience that almost as if they were there. That’s not to say they shouldn’t strive for it, but it does give them an opportunity they might never have had otherwise. When I think about it, I’m so excited because we have the platform to be able to deliver that and to be able to empower families to see beyond their circumstances and be better than they ever have. imagined they could be.
What advice would you give to young girls considering a career in STEM? There is still, I think, the misperception that girls or women cannot be in engineering. I had the opportunity to go to an event with a male counterpart in front of a group of these young children. I asked the question ‘which one of us do you all think is the engineer?’ Everyone points to him. When I said, ‘no, that’s me’, the girls and boys said, ‘you can’t be an engineer.’ I said, ‘why not?’ There is still the perception that women and girls cannot be engineers and that is at a very young age. Getting in front of seven, eight, and nine year olds and not just letting the girls see, but letting the boys see, that girls can be engineers, that they can go into STEM fields and that’s not the corny case. When I was riding, you were considered a bit nerdy if you did math and science. It has now gone out the window. There are so many opportunities. You don’t just need to be a programmer to enter the tech space. Some of the girls we work with at Envision Lead Grow wanted to start their own makeup line. I told them, ‘Do you realize this is STEM?’ That’s the definition of science – experimenting and figuring out what things go together to create the best product you want to create as an entrepreneur.
What myths about the cable industry need to be debunked? So many people still say, ‘oh, it’s just the cable.’ We are more than cable. We provide connections to the world and across the world. We connect outside of our communities and go way beyond what people would ever think.
Why is it important to give back? I am the product of a single mother whose family had to step in and really help raise me. One of the things my great-grandparents, who were instrumental in my upbringing, reminded me of is that when you give a lot, you ask a lot. We didn’t have a lot, but I felt like I had a lot. As I got older, I really realized what it meant when they told me that. I had been so incredibly blessed. I was the first to graduate from college on my mother’s side. As I envisioned being able to not only get my undergraduate degree but also get my masters and now that I’m working on my PhD I want to be able to give opportunities to those who maybe don’t see this they have the possibility. Giving back to the community is so personal to me. With WICT, we’re talking about empowering women who are starting their careers in this industry and showing them that there are windows for them to see through and take it to the next level. For foster children, the goal is always within the foster family to provide a safe environment for these children as the parents try to get back on their feet. I want to be able to provide what my great-grandparents provided my mother in terms of a safe, loving environment in case the children cannot be reunited with their families. In my case, I have four wonderful children all of whom I adopted from the foster care system and they have made my family complete. They have a forever home with me.