Women in Business: Tessie Topol, Vice President, Corporate Social Responsibility, Time Warner Cable

03/09/2015 05:50 am ET | Updated May 09, 2015

Tessie Topol is Vice President of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) at Time Warner Cable. In this role, she is responsible for developing and implementing the company's corporate philanthropy and overall CSR strategy and programs. She collaborates with units across the company to develop and track key sustainability indicators to improve business practices, CSR reporting, and overall corporate reputation.

Ms. Topol has been the driving force behind Time Warner Cable's signature philanthropic initiative, Connect a Million Minds (CAMM). CAMM is the company's $100 million cash and in-kind commitment to inspire the next generation of problem solvers by connecting young people to science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education and careers.

CAMM was launched in November 2009 at a White House event with President Obama, in conjunction with the Administration's Educate to Innovate campaign. Since then, CAMM has won multiple awards including "Community Relations Program of the Year" by PR News, CableFAX Magazine and the Association of Cable Communicators (2010); Public Relations Society of America's "Award of Excellence" (2011); and "Gold Stevie" for Community Relations Campaign of the Year from the American Business Association (2012). In 2013, CAMM was inducted into the PR News Hall of Fame, recognized as a best-in-class communications initiative. CAMM partners have included the Boys & Girls Clubs of America; U.S. Department of Education; White House Office of Science and Technology Policy; inventor Dean Kamen; former Vice President Al Gore; artist and entertainer; NY Giants wide receiver Victor Cruz; and Food Network Chef Anne Burrell.

Prior to joining Time Warner Cable, Ms. Topol was Director of Strategic Partnerships & Public Affairs at MTV. Before MTV, Ms. Topol served as Director of Development at the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society. She was also a Junior Fellow with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Ms. Topol is Chair of UJA-Federation of New York's Commission on Jewish Identity & Renewal (COJIR): Former Soviet Union Task Force. She is also a member of the 826 National Board of Directors.

She holds a Master's degree in international affairs from the School of International and Public Affairs from Columbia University and received her undergraduate degree in political science from the University of Pennsylvania, where she graduated magna cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa.

How has your life experience made you the leader you are today?
Growing up I was a competitive gymnast. From a young age, I learned the importance of taking initiative, persevering even in the face of failure, and being personally accountable for my decisions and my actions. Some of the best advice I received regarding initiative, determination and accountability came from my coach and the sport itself.

In a gymnastics competition, there are up to four events - often one event comes right after the other. My coach would remind me that only I could decide whether a failure in one event would impact my success in the next event. He taught me how to stay focused on what was in front of me rather than dwelling on the past. He trained me to tackle each event as if the last one never happened - to stick to the course. These lessons have stayed with me throughout my life.
I believe it is this ability to persevere and stay focused, in addition to the deep belief and passion that I have for what I do and the small, but mighty, team I work with every day--namely, Leah Gutstadt, Tara DeGeorges and, more recently, Stacy Zaja, that have been critical to the evolution of Time Warner Cable's (TWC) philanthropic strategy.

When I first joined the company, I was charged with reimagining the company's approach to giving - changing something that had become part of the corporate culture, the company's DNA. However, the bumps along the way (and there were many) did not ultimately deter me.
Today, Time Warner Cable, through its signature philanthropic initiative, Connect a Million Minds (CAMM), has provided cash and in-kind investments far in excess of its original $100 million commitment to inspire student interest in STEM. In May 2014, together with our partners, we surpassed that milestone and exceeded our goal of connecting one million students to STEM learning opportunities.

How has your previous employment experience aided your position at TWC?
I joined TWC in 2008 as Director of Strategic Philanthropy, following two and a half years at MTV, where I was Director of Strategic Partnerships & Public Affairs. Prior to that, I spent almost 10 years in the non-profit and government sectors.

I have been in the shoes of my nonprofit counterparts. I know what it's like to raise funds and seek grants. I understand the nonprofit culture. It is my experience working in the nonprofit sector that helps me ask the right questions of potential grantees. I understand what capable leadership and efficient operations look like at a nonprofit. I know the importance of diverse revenue streams and adequate facilities and tools to deliver on a philanthropic mission. I have a strong sense of when a nonprofit can truly deliver on its promise and when it cannot.
At MTV, working across the organization and collaborating with all departments was necessary to foster innovation and creativity. If I wanted to launch a campaign, I had to leverage all internal assets and build relationships across many departments, including sales, marketing, media and talent. This same approach has proven immensely helpful at TWC. In order to do my job successfully, I must also reach across the organization and build strong cross-collaborative relationships.

What have the highlights and challenges been during your tenure at TWC?
When I came on board at TWC, I was tasked with making considerable change. Time Warner Cable had a long tradition of strong community interaction and support. However, to attain greater reputational return on investment and more tangible social impact, we began marshaling our resources to drive the majority of our philanthropic activity toward a common cause for greater local and national impact. The result was the launch of Connect a Million Minds in November 2009.

With a solid foundation in strategic philanthropy, I then advocated for expanding our view of CSR to include other areas that TWC could most effectively influence and positively impact in the communities served by the company, including a much stronger focus on the environment. Today, many of our employees are actively engaged in our green initiatives. That takes a lot of personal commitment, and support from the highest levels of the organization.

Getting people to think in a new way was quite a challenge. Change is hard and for many people; it can be downright scary. However, this very real and tangible change has also served as the highlight of my tenure at TWC. It has been a pleasure to see some of our biggest skeptics ultimately become our biggest fans. Of course, I am especially proud of Connect a Million Minds (CAMM). CAMM truly unites our employees, customers and community leaders to impact one of our nation's greatest challenges - building student interest and proficiency in STEM.

What advice can you offer women who are looking for a career in corporate responsibility?
It is important to be tenacious when looking for a job in this field. They are few and far between. You may likely hear many more "No thank yous" before landing on a "You're hired!", so it's important to play the long game. Also, while you might not land the exact CSR role you want immediately, there are many roads that can lead you there, and it's to your advantage to consider them. Perhaps the bridge to your ideal role will be at a nonprofit that works closely with companies in the CSR space. Or maybe you'll start at a consulting agency with CSR clients, one of which may ultimately hire you.

How do you maintain a work/life balance?
As you have no doubt heard before from other interviewees, achieving that balance can be elusive and difficult at times. I personally believe we can get there by setting and enforcing the boundaries we want in each of our lives. That takes great discipline--and that's not always easy for me. However, having meaningful passions that extend beyond the office walls help me to keep a broad perspective on my life and provide other outlets for me to engage with friends, family and the community. For example, I love to dance and I co-founded a dance collective in Harlem called Harlem Dance Club. We offer group classes, performance opportunities and dance lifestyle for everybody!

What do you think is the biggest issue for women in the workplace?
I believe that daring and assertive women are game changers. Unfortunately, for many women in leadership positions, these qualities can often be perceived negatively. Unlike their male counterparts, many women feel they must walk a tightrope, watching what they say or how they say it, for fear of being judged as aggressive. Men and women leaders are often perceived differently and, for some women, this can have a devastating impact on their ability to achieve top-level positions.

How has mentorship made a difference in your professional and personal life?
My parents were my first mentors. They have spent their lives trying to bring about positive change in this world, and there is no doubt this has shaped my chosen profession. My dad has been a champion of social causes for as long as I can remember, and my mother is a recently retired middle school reading teacher, her job for more than three decades. Together, they instilled in me the core belief that I have the power to make a difference in this world.
My professional mentors have also influenced the trajectory of my career. I have always welcomed their wealth of knowledge and unbiased, honest professional opinion. When faced with a job opportunity that would require me to accept a cut in salary and title, but one that had the potential to positively change the course of my career, my mentor helped me envision a long-term view and a broader perspective. She was able to help me weigh the pros and cons of what felt, at the time, like a monumental decision. Ultimately, I took a few steps back to take a giant leap forward, and a whole, new world opened up to me. My earnings potential changed considerably and I was exposed to a host of new contacts.

Today, mentors continue to empower me to take calculated risks--and I am always grateful for that.

Which other female leaders do you admire and why?
I really admire TWC's Chief Communications Officer Ellen East. Ellen maintains a strong sense of inclusiveness among her team. She is a bold leader who firmly believes that it takes the creativity, innovation and opinion of her team members to effectively support and impact our communications vision and company's objectives. I remember the first time I asked Ellen what to do in a certain work situation. She wouldn't tell me. Instead, she reminded me that I'd been hired for the expertise I was now seeking in her. She said "What makes you think I'd have a better answer than you?" It was a quality of leadership I'd not seen before. By being open about not having all the answers (although she pretty much always does!), my respect for her only grew. And by positioning me as the expert, even though I was more junior, she gave me a heightened sense of ownership in my role that made me want to work harder.

I also have great admiration for women in national security leadership roles, including Hillary Clinton, Condoleezza Rice and Madeleine Albright. Earlier in my career, I worked in the national security field, and went on to obtain a degree in International Affairs. At one point, I even seriously considered joining the Foreign Service. These women have made it to the top in what has traditionally been a male-dominated field, and did so without many female role models. They are trailblazers who have grappled with some of the most complex issues of our time. They've been toe-to-toe at the negotiating table with leaders from around the world, many from highly male-dominated cultures. I draw inspiration from their example when I find myself in the minority.