25 Years of NAMIC: Comcast Chief Gets a Salute

Nov 28, 2005  •  Post A Comment

By Elizabeth Jensen

Special to TelevisionWeek

At Comcast Corp.’s mid-November meeting of its Diversity Council, Filemon Lopez, a senior VP overseeing the company’s South Florida region, praised Comcast programmers for vastly broadening the range of Hispanic-targeted networks his systems could choose from in the past two years.

Another report profiled the operations of the newly opened Atlantic region customer service call center, which is staffed by 20 Korean speakers.

Later, senior managers all the way up to Chief Operating Officer and Comcast Cable President Steve Burke debated strategies to remedy a developing trend at the company, a leveling off in the percentage of women who make up the company’s senior management ranks.

Four to six times a year, Comcast’s Diversity Council, made up of senior managers, meets to review what’s gone right and what needs to change when it comes to ensuring diversity at the 74,000-employee company, which sits in a highly visible spot as the largest cable provider in the nation. The results of their efforts haven’t gone unnoticed.

In September, Comcast was named one of the top 40 companies for Hispanics by Hispanic Business Magazine, based on 30 variables, including recruitment, promotion, procurement, philanthropy and marketing. Comcast ranked 24th on the list, the only cable company to make the cut.

In April, Diversity Inc. magazine put Comcast on its list of the top 10 companies for supplier diversity. And last year the company was named one of the country’s top 50 corporations for multicultural business opportunities by DiversityBusiness.com, an organization of women and minority business owners. It was Comcast’s first year on the list and a turnaround from 1999, when the NAACP’s cable report criticized Comcast for its vendor relationships.

The cable industry has taken note as well. On Dec. 1 Comcast Chairman and CEO Brian Roberts will be the honoree in New York at the 25th anniversary gala of the National Association for Multi-ethnicity in Communications.

Mr. Roberts was an obvious choice to help mark NAMIC’s milestone, said Jenny Alonzo, the organization’s immediate past president and senior VP of production, promotion planning and multicultural strategies for Lifetime Entertainment Services.

Ms. Alonzo lauded Comcast for the programming it has developed, including the TV One network for African Americans and AZN for Asian Americans. When it comes to diversity, she said, “The representation in the media is just as important as the representation in the corporate offices.” But Comcast also has a good record in promoting ethnically diverse executives to its senior ranks, Ms. Alonzo said, rattling off a list of highly visible employees who are “overseeing areas with a tremendous amount of impact,” including marketing and strategic initiatives.

Comcast also has a strong supplier outreach program, she said, so that employees “are mindful as they hire experts and resources that the net is cast very wide, to make sure it brings in lots of different people.” And finally, she said, Comcast has been a strong supporter of NAMIC itself. Three Comcast employees serve on NAMIC’s board.

“I’m sure [Comcast executives] would be the first to agree they have a long way to go; most of corporate America does,” Ms. Alonzo said. “But they are at least trying and it really shows.”

It won’t be Mr. Roberts’ first trip to the podium in recognition of Comcast’s efforts to foster diversity; in 2002 he was honored by the Walter Kaitz Foundation, one of NAMIC’s financial supporters, as the cable industry executive of the year. In accepting the 2002 award, Mr. Roberts noted, according to press reports, that his father, Comcast co-founder Ralph Roberts, had embraced diversity “because it was morally the right thing to do. Today, that hasn’t changed, but I think we have another critical reason to embrace diversity … and that’s survival.”

In an era of intense competition, he said, a company’s survival is dependent on meeting consumers’ needs, which can be achieved only by understanding those consumers. It’s a practical approach to diversity that many other companies have also adopted in recent years.

Comcast’s customer base is vast: some 21.5 million cable homes across 35 states. The company’s customers are primarily urban and their makeup varies greatly by market, from African Americans to Latinos, Asians and, in Detroit, Arab Americans. Los Angeles, with a large Mexican population, and Cuban- and Caribbean-dominated Miami each need Latino programming, but not the same programs.

Mr. Roberts received the Kaitz award in the same year that David Cohen, a private practice lawyer and former chief of staff for Philadelphia Mayor Edward Rendell, joined Comcast as executive VP. Mr. Cohen’s duties at the company include oversight of diversity efforts.

“When I came to Comcast in 2002 the thing most apparent to me was the leadership initially that Ralph [showed] and now Brian takes with respect to diversity issues,” Mr. Cohen said in an interview. “In so many companies diversity is a program or a slogan or an aspirational goal. At this company it is an integral part of the DNA, an essential part of our culture. That can only come from leadership from the very top.

“Ralph, from the day he founded the company, and Brian, from the day he became president, made it clear from the way they conduct themselves, and the way they talk about the company and talk about diversity, that this is a way of life for us at this company.”

The company’s Web site lists a “Comcast Credo” in which diversity is one of six “touchstones” or core values, alongside ethics and quality. The site makes a point of noting “Respecting the individuality and dignity of others is deeply rooted in Comcast history,” beginning with Ralph Roberts and his work with organizations such as the National Conference for Community and Justice, a human relations organization fighting bias and bigotry; the National Liberty Museum; and the UJA Federation. Brian Roberts has been recognized by the Simon Wiesenthal Center Museum of Tolerance, which gave him its 2004 Humanitarian Award.

But there is a difference between recognizing that diversity is important and putting those beliefs into action, even at a company where the founding family still holds sway and can continue to promulgate its values. When Mr. Roberts received his Kaitz award, he made a point of noting that the company still had far to go in its efforts.

“What Steve [Burke] and I found was that while everyone understood that this was important and knew we wanted to do it, they didn’t have the tools to implement that diversity agenda in an increasingly complicated marketplace,” Mr. Cohen said. Part of the problem, he added, was that Comcast, as a typical cable company, was “very, very decentralized,” and dependent on small business units in the field that didn’t have the necessary recruitment resources at a time when other cable firms were also recognizing the importance of hiring and retaining minorities and women.

So in the past few years, he said, the company ramped up the corporate infrastructure to support diversity, including forming the Diversity Council in 2002. Recruitment was a focus at every level, from technicians and customer service representatives to middle and upper-level management.

At the entry level the company supports efforts such as the Emma L. Bowen Foundation, a multiyear work and study program for students of color. About 10 percent of the foundation’s 200 students currently are placed in Comcast internships. That’s double what Comcast had been doing in recent years.

Comcast also works closely with several industry organizations, including Women in Cable & Telecommunications and the National Society of Black Engineers, in addition to NAMIC. For NAMIC, Ms. Alonzo said, Comcast has been a “beyond-platinum-level supporter,” giving both money and hands-on support such as finding conference speakers.

At the management
level, Comcast steers candidates through two internal leadership development training programs-one for middle to senior management and one for executive-level employees-that help talented staff move up the ladder.

Overall, about 40 percent of Comcast’s work force and 24 percent of its management is made up of minorities. Comcast cable systems in Atlanta, Baltimore, Chicago, Detroit, Miami, Washington and Oakland, Calif., are headed by minority employees.

No meaningful comparisons are available with previous years due to the company’s 2002 merger with AT&T Broadband, valued at $47.5 billion, which nearly doubled the company’s work force.

But Mr. Cohen said 20 percent of the Comcast employees hired for or promoted into senior management positions in 2005 to date have come from minority ranks, compared with total-year 2004 figures of 15 percent. Likewise, 12 percent of the executive-level work force was made up of minorities at the end of 2004, compared with 18 percent of those hired or promoted to the executive level so far in 2005.

“We want our current-year performance to be higher than our base is,” Mr. Cohen said. “That tells us we are accomplishing our goals.”

Diversity Council meetings, in addition to highlighting what has gone right internally, are “used to knock down barriers, to make sure we pave the way for our diversity efforts to be successful,” Mr. Cohen said. A current issue on the table is jump-starting the movement of women into senior management posts, where the numbers have leveled off, he said.

At the senior management level, 32 percent of Comcast managers are women. “Those are not embarrassing numbers by any account,” Mr. Cohen said. But he added, “If we want to move those numbers, we need to work with the field in terms of their promotions and hiring.”

Work-force recruiting is one of four areas where Comcast focuses diversity efforts. Programming agreements, which are negotiated at the corporate level, are easier to oversee and keep diversified, Mr. Cohen said. The company also makes sure that it uses diverse suppliers in its buying, and promises on its Web site that expansion of the supplier base is “a key part of the Comcast business model.” Finally, Comcast’s substantial community investments go to a wide range of organizations. In 2004 the Comcast Foundation established the Diversity Fund to support local nonprofit organizations that encourage tolerance, acceptance and understanding of different perspectives among young people.

“We do all those things because they are morally right, but we also do them because they are good business,” Mr. Cohen said.

A Comcast spokeswoman said Mr. Roberts was traveling overseas and was not available for an interview. In an e-mail, Mr. Roberts wrote of the upcoming NAMIC award: “We’re honored to be recognized by NAMIC for our contribution to supporting diversity in the industry. Like NAMIC, we firmly believe that a commitment to diversity is not a project or program, but rather the way we conduct our business. Comcast is continually focused on maximizing the diversity of our work force, the programming we deliver, our business relationships and community investments.”