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Maggie Wilderotter

Maggie Wilderotter

Interview Date: 1999
Collection: WICT 20th Anniversary Collection Project
Note: Video not available at this time

WILDEROTTER: Maggie Wilderotter, W-I-L-D-E-R-O-T-T-E-R. I'm the president and CEO of WINK Communications.

INTERVIEWER: As a warm-up question, could you just tell us initially how you became involved in the Cable industry?

WILDEROTTER: I joined the cable television industry back in 1978 in Sacramento, California. I answered an ad in the newspaper for a job with Cable Data which, at the time, was just starting to be a leader in billing services for cable TV. We had a warehouse in Sacramento where we produced bills for cable television operators around the country. And I remember when I went in and interviewed for the job, it was, well, what is cable television? Because it hadn't even come to the community where we lived yet. So it was a pretty exciting time in the industry. A time of very high growth. A time of when cable was really starting to make its way and really become a player from a video service provider perspective.

INTERVIEWER: At the time your career began, what was the most striking thing about the industry that you noticed?

WILDEROTTER: I would say that when I started in the cable television industry in the late '70s, it was a time of high energy. It was a time of entrepreneurs looking at a different way of delivering television. It was trail blazers really focused on bringing new product and more choice to consumers. It was also a time where technology was driving change, and it was really, I think the start of many, many years of how cable would use technology to reinvent itself for customers.

INTERVIEWER: The question of whether it's business that pushes the change or technology, you see it more as a technologically that's really driving the change within the industry?

WILDEROTTER: I think today as you look at changes that are taking place in the cable industry, it's a combination of business and technology together. Cable has come a long way over the last 25 years, and it's now more focused on the customer. It's more focused on, how do we deliver new services, and how do we transition services to telecommunications not just video programming.

INTERVIEWER: A lot of people have said in the past that it was easier for them, women, to enter the cable industry during its early stages because there weren't a lot of definite rules. Would you agree with this assessment?

WILDEROTTER: I think that the industry provided a lot of opportunity for women in the early days. I know at least from my perspective I was with one company for 12 years, and I held 14 different jobs in that company. And it was a company that was a high growth company, because it served the cable television industry. So it gave me a lot of opportunity to kind of move around within one company, and stay within one industry. And get the experience that a lot of people have to go to other businesses or other jobs to get. And I think when you're with a new industry, and you're in an industry that's growing, you really have the opportunity to excel and to kind of prove yourself in an environment of chaos. And I think for a lot of us that grew up in the cable industry, you took advantage of that chaos. You could bring order to that chaos. You could make a name for yourself, and also add value to the companies that you worked for. So it was a very exciting time for women to be able to breakthrough in that environment.

INTERVIEWER: Do you think the landscape has changed at all today? Is there still that same opportunity?

WILDEROTTER: I think the landscape is starting to open up again for opportunities for women, maybe in different ways than in the early days of cable. I think there's a lot of mature aspects of the cable business, but there's also a lot of new business opportunities. I, for example, run a company that is a start-up company providing services to cable television. So I think it's a very exciting time. There's a number of women that work in my organization that have the same type of opportunities that I did back in the early days just at a different level, and with a different type of product offer.

INTERVIEWER: What are some of the challenges at WINK do you face as the president? Is it an easy task running a company? Obviously not, but what are some of the specific struggles that you encounter?

WILDEROTTER: I've been running WINK communications now for a little over two years. It's definitely the most challenging job I've every had in my entire life, but its definitely been the most fun as well. And I would say that one of the challenges is as a small company doing business in a very large industry, you're constantly trying to stay in front of your customers; constantly trying to make sure that they can perceive the value that, not only you can deliver today, but what you can deliver for them tomorrow. And it's building a team. It's taking a technology. It's operationalizing it. It's building a business. It's raising money. And it's putting all of those things together in order to deliver a product. I think it's very exciting. It's something that I've learned a lot as part of the process, kind of trial and error. But it's also been very rewarding. I think that the cable industry has been very open to new business, and it's really an industry that prides itself on the ability to create new product. And to build creativity within the context of the products it offers to customers.

INTERVIEWER: What do you think have been the elements of your personal success in the course of your career?

WILDEROTTER: The elements of my personal success. Well, I think luck and timing have a lot do with success. I also think that we try to make our own luck and timing. I also think that I've been afforded great opportunities in terms of the different jobs that I've been able to hold. I've had a lot of great mentors in the business, both men and women that have helped me in my career and helped me to learn and grow in order to take on new challenges. And I also have faced the opportunities with the type of attitude that says, there's nothing I can't do. And I've always tried to vision where I want to be in the next three or four steps ahead. And really set my sights on it, and make sure that I get there. I've also found that you have to sometimes tack in order to go forward. And I think that in the cable industry you have the opportunity to kind of move around and be creative in how you position your company, your job, your business in order to get where you want to get too.

INTERVIEWER: Would you have any advise for young people, young women in particular starting their career, how can they be successful?

WILDEROTTER: I think for young women that are coming into our business, it's really important that they try to get a variety of experience. And I think critically as you want to move forward in organizations, it's important to have operational experience. To have PNL experience. To be on the front line and running and managing operations, because that's really where the value is going to be added for the customers. And I would encourage women that even if they don't' have that as part of their discipline and background, to take the risk. And to get into those type of roles within the companies that they work for today, or to go to companies where those opportunities are going to be there for them. Because that's really how they're going to have the opportunity to move forward, and, hopefully, someday run their own business as well.

INTERVIEWER: There are a lot of women, entrepreneurs today, do you think entrepreneurship is going to be a levelizer for women through--being an entrepreneur they can finally be on the equal playing field with men just through running their own business?

WILDEROTTER: I think entrepreneurship is not for everybody. I think it takes a certain type of individual whether it's a man or a woman to really focus on either creating a new product, or delivering anew product a different way. I also think that it gives you an opportunity to build creativity and to build skills different than you do in the context of coming into an organization and working your way up through an organization. I think it does give women opportunities that they might not have in big organizations. There's a lot of organizations that are very set, and the advancement ladder is a pretty clearly defined way of getting to the top. And it takes a long time to get there. I think entrepreneurship gives women the chance to kind of break out of that mold, and to kind of build their way more quickly in an environment that offers them a lot of opportunity and a lot of experience.

INTERVIEWER: Let's step back a moment. You mentioned role models before. Are there any specific people who really shaped the way you view the industry, or how you approach your career?

WILDEROTTER: I've been pretty lucky to have a number of role models along the way, and a number of people within the cable industry have helped me a long the way. I think that as I look back on my career, there were folks that were in leadership roles within the company that I worked for, and then other leadership roles throughout the industry that would give me advise and help, and also take a chance. And allow me to provide them with products and services that they might not have done otherwise. So I think it is important that we get mentorship along the way. I've also tried to be a mentor to women along the way in my career, because I also believe that as women move forward in the business, we have an opportunity and an obligation to help other women move forward as well. And I think that it's an exciting time for me to be running my own company, because I can now afford different types of opportunities for women versus what I've been able to do in the past.

INTERVIEWER: Can you think of what specific things, how, at your company, do you think make it a better place for women? Any specific programs that you've instituted?

WILDEROTTER: I think that my leadership style--being a women I understand also that there are different pressures on women and how they have to manage their work life. I'm a mother. I have two boys who are terrific, but I know it's challenging when you have a demanding career and you have a demanding home life that you have to have that flexibility. I run a company where the hours are flexible where what's important to me is the productivity that employees bring to the table, not necessarily punching a clock and having to be there from 9 to 5. Wink is a 24 hour a day operation. We have some people who work in the middle of the night, because that's the time they want to work. We have other people that work during the day. We have people that travel or don't. I try to give flex time. I try to be very lenient with the women in our organization if they need that personal time. Because they give their heart and souls to the business, they should be able to have that time when they need it with their family, or to go to a school, to a meeting, or just to take some personal time off for vacation with their kids. And I try to encourage that by modeling that in my behavior as well, because I think it's important that your employees see that from the top that it's okay to have balance in your life.

INTERVIEWER: Do you think your organization is an exception, or do you think the industry as a whole has become more flexible with work life issues?

WILDEROTTER: I can't really speak for a lot of companies in terms of what they do for work life. I do know that I need to have that kind of an environment as a benefit to all of our employees in order to stay competitive. I run a technology and services company in the greater San Francisco area. It's a very competitive work environment, and I think it's just good business. I think when you give people the opportunity to enjoy their jobs, and to do that in the context of a bigger thing called their lives, it's a win-win for the company, and it's a win-win for the employees.

INTERVIEWER: There's a lot of talk in the early '90s about a glass ceiling. Do you think there is a glass ceiling? I mean, you're the president of a company, so have you ever faced barriers?

WILDEROTTER: I faced a lot of barriers in my career. I think as most women have. But I've never let a barrier stand in the way of me getting around that barrier, so I do believe that there are glass ceilings in all of our careers. And what we have to do is to figure out a way to work in the context of the environment we're in to move around it. And I think women have to make choices in terms of how they do that. In some cases, you can stay within the context of a company and work around a barriers. In other cases, you have to leave that company in order to get to the next level. And, again, I've really tried to look at barriers as opportunities. They've been opportunities for me to learn, and for me to grow, and for me to really look inside and say, well, what's important to me? And how do I move to that next level? And how do I do it in such a way that it's positive and healthy, not just for me, but for the company that I work for? And I've been able to do that in my career. I sit on the board for public companies in addition to running my own. And, again, I try to model that behavior and be a mentor even on those public companies for the women that work in the context of those organizations, to set an example that, for women, you can move forward, and you can break through. It's not easy, but you can work at it and get there.

INTERVIEWER: I was just wondering how do you see WICT as influencing the industry at large?

WILDEROTTER: I think women in cable and telecommunications has a great role in this industry. I think that there is still a lot of work to be done in providing women more opportunities in helping companies really shape what they do from a work life perspective, and providing the right kind of environments for women to move forward. I think WICT also has a great opportunity to provide development and mentorship programs for women that are up in coming in companies. And to really get the women at senior levels to [???] together, because as a force we can be a powerful group that can add value to women within the industry in terms of moving forward. I do think that there needs to be a higher level of support for WICT activities at the senior levels throughout our industry. And I think that the senior women and the senior men in this industry need to see that women in the workforce in levels of authority, in levels of responsibility are only going to make the products better for their customers who, in fact, at least 50% of them are women. So I think its competitive advantage for businesses to recognize that women are important and are strategic in the decision process. And WICT has an opportunity to keep that top of mind in our business.

INTERVIEWER: Do you have an idea then how we could potentially promote WICT at the upper levels to get more people in the higher echelons to pay attention to our message?

WILDEROTTER: I think that WICT has to get to the CEO level of companies, and get support. Not just support from a financing perspective, but support of senior executives in this industry that are going to be advocates for women and women's issues. And really model that behavior by putting programs in place within their own organizations. I think WICT should sponsor some opportunities for CEOs to get together and interact with the senior women in their organizations; to have a different kind of dialogue than they do today. I think WICT also should be able to bring CEOs together to give them information and knowledge about maybe what's happening from a benchmarking perspective in other industries. And how when women do move forward in those industries, they help the bottom-line, and they help build the business and make the business a better place to work and give them more competitive advantage.

INTERVIEWER: Do you see WICT evolving in the next few years? Do you see a point in time where WICT won't be necessary?

WILDEROTTER: I would love to see a point time when WICT isn't necessary. I think it will be a very long time though for us to continue to work together to provide the type of environment where women advance freely not just through middle management ranks, which I think happens a lot today in our industry, but really into that senior level rank and really in running companies throughout the business. And I hope that WICT will continue to take a leadership role in that, because I think they've been very effective but it's a journey. And we're not to the end of the road yet.

INTERVIEWER: Women in the industry have often been recognized for being on the programming side, but fewer women are actually involved in the operations and technical side. Has this been a challenge for you involved in more of the business end? I mean, there aren't this many women on the business end, and have you developed any strategies for maybe recruiting women in the future or bringing women in?

WILDEROTTER: I think that there is a great opportunity for women to move into the operations and technology side throughout the industry. I think that is not a traditional place for women to excel in our business. But I do think that there are tremendous opportunities for women to move into those arenas. I think either in an MSO where they can work in the technology section. I think there are several senior women now that are starting to make their mark on the technology side. I think also from start-up companies providing products similar to what I'm doing that there are examples of women that are starting to break through on the technology side. But I do think that companies have to encourage women to move in those directions, and to provide programs where women can be trained on the specific skills that they need to be successful there.

INTERVIEWER: This is a retrospective project, but we're also interested in knowing where you think the industry is going in the future? Do you have any predictions?

WILDEROTTER: I think that the cable television industry is really changing quite a bit. I think over the next five years we're going to see a lot of convergence of products between video and high-speed Internet access as well as telephony products. Definitely at the heart of that is interactivity, and having consumers go from that totally passive experience with television as we know it today to an interactive experience. I think the challenge for our business it not to get ahead of our consumers, and to make sure that we bring the consumer along with us as we look at new capabilities that our networks are going to be able to provide. And I think we have to be more customer focused on what's important to customers and how we add value to those services. I think it's probably one of the most exciting times for the industry, but at the end of the day what's important is execution. And we have to be able to put the right kind of systems and processes in place so we can be successful with the customer.

INTERVIEWER: Do you have any specific advise on how to prepare the customer for these changes?

WILDEROTTER: I think that we have to prepare customer for change through communication, through evolution, and not necessarily revolution. We have to make sure that we stop to ask them along the way, is this what they want? Are we providing with them the choice and the control to make the decisions of what kind of technology, what kind of telecommunications, what kind of video product they want in their homes, or really in their businesses. And I think it's really important that we build a discipline as a part of the process of rolling out products, is getting that feedback from customers, learning from the feedback, applying that feedback, and moving forward, because customers don't buy technology. They buy convenience. They buy value. They buy products that enhance their lives, and we have to focus on our products from that perspective.

INTERVIEWER: Is there anything that I haven't asked you today that you want to say either about the industry, or WICT, or women in the industry?

WILDEROTTER: The one thing that I would add about women in the industry, is we have an industry that has a lot of very terrific people that work in it, men and women. And I think we have to look at all of us as assets to the business, and our industry will only be as good as the people that provide a contribution through their day in and day out efforts. And it's really important that this industry recognizes that both men and women are critical to their successful in the long run. And I hope that the women that are up and coming in this industry will look at women in telecommunications as an opportunity to really move forward and to leverage the services that WICT provides so they can have great careers in the cable television industry.