By: Laura Phillips
Donna Epps is a Senior Vice President with Verizon. In that role, she leads Verizon’s Public Policy, Network Regulatory Strategy and Strategic Alliances Teams. These teams focus on developing Verizon’s policy positions, developing and implementing Verizon’s regulatory strategy to become a nationwide broadband provider and engaging with a variety of stakeholders in the consumer, think tank, academic and civil rights arenas to make sure the company’s policy positions are well informed by a variety of perspectives. The team also educates outside stakeholders on policy concerns of mutual interest; provides input to think tanks on questions that would benefit from more research; and promotes good policy both inside and outside of the company. Donna is particularly proud that her team also leads the work Verizon is doing currently to engage in the various federal broadband funding programs and that they are focused on a variety of critical policy issues including privacy, spectrum, closing the digital divide, competition policy and more. Her team also is responsible for maintaining Verizon’s relationship with the Biden Administration on policy matters. I was delighted to be able to spend a little time with Donna to chat about her career and perspectives.
Q. What attracted you to the field of communications?
A. I kind of stumbled into the field. When I started practicing law, my law firm had a need in the Communications group. I didn’t know anything about the field, but thought I’d give it a try. I absolutely loved it. I loved the fast-moving and cutting-edge nature of the communications/tech policy work. I appreciated the fact that this industry actually is moving the country forward by bringing life-changing innovation to society. I also felt good about working in an industry that has powered so many solutions for everyday people and continues to, because connectivity impacts every facet of our lives.
Q. Tell us about the various places you’ve worked through the years.
A. I started my career as a Public Relations professional for Merck. I then went to law school and got my first legal job as a law clerk in federal court in the Central District of CA. I then started as an associate at a large law firm, Covington & Burling, where I stayed for several years in DC before moving to Verizon. I’ve been at Verizon for twenty-three years, although when I started it was known as Bell Atlantic and the big legal and policy issue of the day for the company was getting its Section 271 applications granted to offer long distance services. Seems quaint to remember that.
Q. Have things unfolded in your career more or less the way you planned?
A. Not at all. I didn’t even realize public policy positions such as mine existed when I got out of law school. I really stumbled into the policy field after spending a few years in the legal department at Verizon. I am so glad that I found it because there were aspects of doing PR that are a bit similar, but when you meld law and policy into the mix you have an opportunity to use a range of skills to persuade or advocate and to communicate. It’s intellectually stimulating.
Q. What’s the most interesting or challenging thing that you’ve done in your current position?
A. Perhaps the most meaningful thing I’ve done in my career is to work with a broad coalition of organizations to help close the digital divide by providing a historic government subsidy to low-income people to purchase broadband. The program, known as the Affordable Connectivity Program, was historic because the federal government had never authorized a broadband subsidy for low-income people. I had the pleasure of working with a broad coalition of diverse organizations from the public and private sector, including groups from different partisan affiliations that typically don’t agree on much, to urge Congress to take this important and unprecedented step. It was great to see so many different groups came together to help millions of low-income people get connected to broadband. It’s one of the most important steps the country has taken to date to close the digital divide and in a time when there are so many divisions in society, it was great to see people come together on an important issue. The country could experience the benefits of this program for years to come if the program is extended.
Q. Is or was there something interesting or someone who surprised or impressed you during your career and why?
A. I have been very impressed by the policy philosophy shared by the Verizon senior leadership. Since my earliest days here, senior leaders, including our general counsels and DC office leaders have taken the view that our government affair-related teams should figure out the best policy for society because if we did that, it would also be the best policy for Verizon. They truly believed in putting the public interest first and that by supporting policies that did that, the company would benefit. I think many people have a jaded view of corporate America and would be surprised to know that senior executives at a large company would have this philosophy and would instruct their teams accordingly.
Q. What do you enjoy reading?
A. I am a bit of a personal finance geek so I like reading personal finance books like the “Simple Path to Wealth” by J.L. Collins or “Buy This, Not That” by Sam Dogen. I’m also a history buff so I love reading biographies like “Team of Rivals” about President Lincoln’s cabinet by Doris Kearns Goodwin. And to top it off, books on leadership and human connection are always a favorite; I particularly enjoy works by Brené Brown, who studies human connection, which is the study of our ability to be empathetic and belong.
Q. Can you share your perspective on the pitfalls to avoid or other career advice for those who are just getting started in the communications field?
A. This may sound like a cliché but building meaningful relationships is so important. You obviously should perform at a high level and do everything with excellence. But it’s also incredibly important to develop relationships within your organization with people who can help you develop and who can speak on your behalf when you aren’t in the room. Having a sponsor in an organization is critical. But it’s also important to have relationships with an array of people outside of your department, and at all levels, who can speak to your effectiveness and performance. Oftentimes, we think we can put our heads down and just do a good job and people will notice. But the higher up you go, people will assume that you are doing a good job and that you are competent. What really will separate you is the relationships that you build because people will be more likely to think of you when opportunities arise if they have a good relationship with you.
The other thing I have learned over time is that everyone needs to know their value, find their voice and use it as early as you can. I think many women in particular have a narrative in their own head that stops them from offering their ideas very freely. I think even if you feel the fear, speak out anyway. Most of the time it will be a positive contribution, and even when it is not, it’s useful because you have to learn to pick yourself up and move on. We have to learn not to internalize our mistakes or failures.
Q. What is something interesting that you about you that people are not generally aware of that you’re willing to share?
A. I started my career as a public relations specialist for a pharmaceutical company. I majored in journalism with a concentration in PR in college. I took a year off before going to law school to try out public relations because I really enjoyed the corporate PR internships I had while college. One was with the predecessor to Merck Pharmaceuticals at a company called Burroughs Wellcome. The company developed the first drug to treat AIDS, called AZT, in the early days of the AIDs epidemic. The drug was really expensive, so the company faced a big public backlash complete with protestors and sit-ins on the front steps of the company. I joined the company right after that, but it was exciting to be a part of a PR team that was faced with a such a huge challenge from a crisis communications standpoint, and to learn how to navigate such a high-profile issue. I ultimately decided to go to law school, but I spent an exciting year in corporate PR.
Q. How has your life changed as a result of COVID-19?
A. I have a much more flexible schedule now because I usually work a few days from home. This allows me to structure my work differently. I generally try to reserve work that requires a lot of solo time and deep thought like writing or analysis for days when I’m working from home and have the benefit of quiet time with few interruptions. I try to schedule meetings and projects that require cross-functional collaborations with my colleagues for the days I’m in the office. Before Covid, I wasn’t as intentional about managing my calendar in this way. Like many others, I find the flexibility of working from home a few days a week helps me to have greater control over my personal life. By cutting out my lengthy commute a few days a way I am more productive at work and at home.
Q. How long have you been an FCBA member, and what to you is the value of FCBA membership?
A. I have been a member of FCBA for over 20 years. I joined as soon as I started as a junior associate at my law firm. I value the opportunity to network with other members of the bar that I may not have an opportunity to meet or spend much time with in the normal course of my work. I have built meaningful personal and professional relationships through FCBA. It’s also incredibly impactful to have such a large bar pool the resources of the companies and law firms represented in the bar to give back to aspiring future professionals through FCBA’s many scholarship and mentorship activities. I served a stint on the FCBA Foundation and had an opportunity to see first-hand how FCBA scholarships change the lives of so many talented students.