Connectivity Champion

Power Suit in the Executive Suite:

AT&T executive Susan Santana has made narrowing the digital divide her life’s work

By Erin Chan Ding

AT&T’s Susan Santana attributes her professional life in part to Career Day in eighth grade at Southwest Middle School in San Diego, which is about an eight-minute drive from the US–Mexico border.

Santana, now in her early 50s, recalls how the school “brought in a mechanic, a nice lady from the cafeteria, a hairdresser, and a lawyer. All my girlfriends wanted to go see the hairdresser because we all wanted to look cute and learn how to fix our hair.”

But Santana’s curiosity was piqued by the attorney.

“I was like, ‘I’ve never met a lawyer before—what does one look like?’ And so I ended up going to the lawyer, who was Irma Bustamante—beautiful brown skin and navy-blue power suit. I was so in awe and impressed by her. And I thought, ‘Oh, my God! She looks like me. She looks like my tías. She looks like my family. If she can do it, I can do it.’ ”

Santana, who has been a lawyer for three decades in a profession severely underrepresented by Latinas—who constitute more than 9 percent of the total US population but just 2 percent of lawyers, according to the Hispanic National Bar Association—now serves as vice president, legislative strategy, for AT&T California, a position based in Sacramento.

A 15-year veteran with AT&T who has also worked on the company’s federal-relations team, Santana has made part of her professional mission a focus on digital equity for tens of millions of Californians, especially as gaps in digital access, adoption, and affordability disproportionately affect Black, Brown, and rural communities in the state.

Diversity Woman: What is it that you and your team do?

Susan Santana: I might not lay fiber, I might not cut cable, splice, climb on poles or go down manholes, or connect a remote terminal to a central office—that’s not my job. There are hundreds of thousands of people who do that expertly across the country for the company. What I do is identify those policies that prevent us from growing and being able to deploy that broadband as expeditiously as possible.

Trying to develop relationships under COVID is not the only challenge in this job. One of the biggest challenges is the sheer number, breadth, and scope of legislative proposals that get introduced in a session [of the California State Assembly], typically about 3,000. And they’re coming at all different angles: labor, privacy, cybersecurity, all sorts of broadband-related issues, employment issues, retail issues.

Our job is to monitor the proposals. Which ones are going to have the biggest impact to the company? Narrow those down, and then identify which ones we can work on, perhaps amending, finding a compromise, a solution? Which ones are onerous? How do we block some of those? But my goal is ‘Let’s come together and find proposals that we can work on, especially in the space of bridging the digital divide.’

We identify those legislative proposals, and we weigh in. We spend most of our time educating policy makers and their young staffs. And then working closely with the legislature as these bills go through the process of policy committees, appropriations committees, and final floor votes.

DW: What motivated you to work in communications for AT&T in California?

SS: I never even knew these jobs existed growing up. I’m not just saying this, this is not corporate speak: I do feel blessed and fortunate to work for a company that allows us to bring our authentic selves to work, that has corporate values aligned with my personal values—meaning social justice reform, meaning connecting every American to high-speed broadband—and that encouraged me to lead this team in California.

Not only was I born and raised in the state, but I’m Latina, which represents a big portion of our population. It’s the right business thing to do, as well. California is one of the most important states for the company. It’s got one of the most important market shares. I feel like I’m where I’m supposed to be.

I knew taking this job was going to be challenging because I would have to learn a whole new legislative process. I was familiar with the federal congressional legislative process. Every state has its quirks. California, you know, lives up to its reputation as being a little crazy-California. But I love it. So I had to learn this new legislative process; I had to learn who the players were, develop the relationships in the legislature.

DW: After you got your position in California, everything shut down, right?

SS: I got appointed in January 2020, and then in March, COVID hit. I’m a very positive person by nature. Growing up in a Mexican American household, we used to have piñata parties. They give you a stick and the target of the piñata, but they blindfold us. And then they spin us around. And so we’re expected to blindly swing and hit this target. That’s how COVID felt. We were totally at a disadvantage. Everything is stacked against us to hit the darn piñata, but when you hit it and the candy falls, it’s extremely fulfilling. My point is that this didn’t scare me. I was up for the challenge, like, ‘Bring it on!’ I think it’s because I have such an amazing team. There’s so much love and respect and support for one another.

DW: You brought up the digital divide earlier. How are you trying to close it?

SS: The digital divide 20 years ago was, “Where’s an Internet connection? Where is the access?” Today, we’re connecting—whether high-speed broadband, mobile, or wired—close to 99 percent of the state. But why isn’t the actual adoption rate/subscriber rate as high? There’s still a gap between where it’s offered and where people are actually taking it up, so that’s where equity comes in.

Only 75 percent or so are actually signing up. Digital equity, digital divide, whatever you want to call it, is really a three-legged stool. It’s not only about access—people have to want to sign up as well. That’s the multidimensional challenge, and the state, private sector, community leaders all have to come together.

How do you explain to a Latino community or a single mom who works three jobs why Zoom is important for her child? That’s the digital literacy, why it matters to them as a family, and also to the sixth grader trying to do homework who can’t because there’s no way to do it.

And then there’s the affordability component. AT&T led on this, and other Internet service providers contributed to participating in a national program, the Affordable Connectivity Program. We offer a $30-a-month high-speed broadband, and if you get the federal benefit, it comes out to zero. It’s a free Internet offering.

I feel like we’ve evolved as a company. The important thing is that we all come together and acknowledge that it takes different stakeholders to solve this problem, because there remain tens of thousands of communities or households that aren’t connected.

DW: What has helped encourage your own growth as a leader?

SS: I lead a Women’s Leadership Forum. This was started a few years back by a leader, Joan Marsh, whom I love, who has been an incredible role model. She said, “All the women leaders, of all levels, need to get together and get to know each other, even during the pandemic.” We have Zoom calls or chats. Once a month, we read a book, read an article [on topics like], What does executive presence mean? What does it mean to lead from the bench? What are some of the latest servant leadership models out there?

It’s something that I would argue men have been doing, whether on the golf course or, you know, after work grabbing beers, but women weren’t doing as much because we would run home and take care of families. This [leadership forum] allowed a safe space that was sanctioned and encouraged for us to talk about our challenges in balancing life with work.

DW: What’s your personal approach to leadership, and how do you ensure you’re taking care of every aspect of your life?

SS: In my little world in Sacramento, my aspiration is to always act as a servant leader, which means you serve your team. I serve them because they are a team of leaders in their own right. My job is to prepare them and provide them with the tools that they need to succeed. Because if each of them is succeeding, then the whole team is succeeding as a unit.

And my philosophy is family first. Because what’s the biggest thing on your mind when you show up to work? You want to make sure that your family is taken care of, that the kids are off to school, that they’ve been fed, that their lunches were made, that pickup is taken care of, that no one is home sick, right? Family first. When you take care of that, then you can bring your 100 percent full, authentic self to work that day. DW


Erin Chan Ding is an independent journalist based in the Chicago area who reports, writes, and edits stories and profiles related to business, news, race, gender, politics, fitness, health, justice, and parenting for a variety of magazines, newspapers, and media websites.

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