More than 30 years after beginning her career as a network operator, Venessa Harrison was appointed President of AT&T North Carolina in December 2013. Since then, she has been on a singular mission to tell the story of AT&T, making sure that the technology and services the company offers can best benefit the consumers and communities it serves.
Today, Harrison’s role comes with responsibility for legislative, regulatory, and external affairs policies. She leads the effort to ensure a policymaking environment that encourages the private sector to continue investment in first-class network capabilities. “One of the things I really like about North Carolina,” she recently told Politic365 in a sit-down interview, is that “our policymakers have done a really good job in fostering a public policy climate that encourages that kind of investment. As a result, AT&T North Carolina alone has invested approximately $1.6 Billion over a three-year period in our wireless and wireline network with upgrades. Along with that comes the ability to be able to provide high-speed broadband, which is so vital to all communities today – it’s just a part of everybody’s life.”
Harrison’s goal is to make sure AT&T North Carolina is one of the country’s leading providers of cutting edge technology, doing so in a “very collaborative and unified way, so we can reach areas we don’t traditionally serve.” According to Harrison, “AT&T recognizes that we’ve got to be able to connect people anywhere they live, at work or play, at any given time.”
“Long gone are the times that we were just a telecommunications company,” she continued, “we are now an entertainment company. We’re providing internet, television, all types of entertainment technology – smart cities with better healthcare and new education opportunities that surrounds all of that – along with our citizenship and sustainability initiatives.”
Among the most important efforts AT&T has underway, says Harrison, is the company’s commitment to “ensuring that all Americans have broadband, especially in rural and underserved or unserved areas. Some of the things we’re doing, not just in NC, but across the country,” she said, “is providing small cell deployment with 5G, and we’re working very closely with local elected officials in municipalities establishing a best practice approach that creates mutual benefit and a win-win for everybody so that the consumer is the ultimate benefactor” of this new technology roll out.
AT&T is also continuing to offer broadband discounts for low-income consumers who qualify for and participate in SNAP (supplemental nutrition assistance program) so that poverty does not hinder access to and adoption of affordable and potentially life-changing technologies. Additionally, AT&T has partnered with the Federal Communications Commission and the Connect America Fund to offer broadband in non-traditional areas across its 21-state service territory. Similarly, in North Carolina the company is involved in a public-private partnership to build out high-speed broadband on a 100% fiber network serving up to 100 community centers and 10 subsidized housing units in order to bridge socio-economic gaps suffered by those who live on the wrong side of the income and digital divides.
Harrison, along with her predecessor Cynthia Marshall, who now serves as AT&T’s Senior Vice President of Human Resources and Chief Diversity Officer, was instrumental in establishing a partnership with the Urban League of Central Carolinas to establish a pipeline of diverse, STEM-ready workers to fill the company.
A long-time champion of diversity and inclusion, Harrison said that perspective is core to AT&T’s business. “We believe that all voices should be heard. Diversity within AT&T brings exactly what it means – diversity of perspectives, experience, and opinions. Diversity has been a cornerstone of our strategy to get to where we need to go. We have employees today that understand where we’ve been and where we’re looking to go.”
Where the company goes from here is linked part and parcel to Harrison’s experiences over the past three decades. “We used to have a brand theme of ‘ReThink Possible.’ I’ve been with AT&T for over 33 years, starting out as an operator and now I’ve evolved into the President of AT&T North Carolina, so my theme is ‘All Things Are Possible With AT&T.’
“I truly have a passion for what I do today,” she said. “I understand how networks are impacted by public policy and how there has to be a good fit, and how public policy has to encourage investment by network providers. But most importantly, AT&T allows me to feel like I give back – I give back to the community by telling the story of AT&T, by making sure that people understand and are aware of all the products and services that AT&T provides, and that we provide it in a manner that is second to none.”