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Sanford Williams

Interview by Laura Phillips

I was fortunate to be able to take some time this month to visit virtually with Sanford Williams.  Sanford has worked at the Federal Communications Commission in a variety of offices and capacities since 1999 so it is fair to say he has done and seen a lot.  He is currently part of the office of FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel, starting there initially as a Special Advisor.  However, recently he was named Deputy Chief of Staff for the FCC.  Sanford is also a Professor at UCLA Law School and a very proud and committed family guy.  It was delightful to get some time with him to chat.

Q.        What attracted you to the field of communications? 

A.         Fun fact – I started undergraduate college when I was 15, so when I graduated with an Engineering Degree from Cornell University, I knew I was not ready to start working.  Instead, I continued at Cornell to get an MBA.  At that point I did work for several years in New York City.  But as time went on, I determined that if I wanted to make a positive difference in the world, I could take one of two paths, either to become a lawyer or a teacher.  I think you can guess which path I chose – I earned a Law School Degree from UVA.  I then started working for a law firm in Atlanta.

My wife at that time was a physician in training, and we had young children when she was graduating medical school and starting a residency at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore.  As a result, staying in Georgia was not going to work for us.  It was at that point that the Washington region came into my sights and after weighing the options, I am glad to say that the FCC offered a great platform for me to combine what I had learned in pursuing all my degrees.  Communications law and policy was a perfect fit then for me and it continues to offer new challenges and insights all these years later.

Q.        Tell us about the various places you’ve worked through the years.

A.         Primarily, I have worked at the FCC for almost 25 years.  I started out in the Wireline Competition Bureau in the Policy Division and our current Chairwoman joined the Policy Division around the same time I did, so we have known one another as colleagues for quite a long time.  Over the years I have worked on mergers, procurements, numbering issues and spectrum matters among other things.  As Special Advisor in the Chairwoman’s office I was deeply engaged in the FCC’s Task Force on Digital Discrimination. 

In terms of other work I’ve undertaken, I was a three time elected school board official in Manassas, Virginia for about 11 years, until I moved to Southern California about two and a half years ago.  More recently I’ve become a professor at UCLA Law School where I teach one course a semester either on Telecommunications Regulation or on Administrative Law with an emphasis on Communications.  I also coached high school girls basketball for 2 years during my time at the FCC.

Q.        Have things unfolded in your career more or less the way you planned?

A.         Not at all.  I never anticipated being at the FCC for so long and getting to work on so many meaningful issues, running for public office or teaching at a law school.  But each of these experiences has influenced who I am and here we are.

Q.        What’s the most interesting or challenging thing that you’ve done in your current position?

A.         As a professor, the most interesting and challenging thing I have done is finding a way to relate to students.  Telling them what I do day-to-day is easy.  Conveying it in a manner that is insightful, useful, understandable, and relatable, while showing compassion for them and their experience, has been interesting, challenging, exhilarating and unbelievably rewarding.  I’ve also enjoyed having various colleagues and industry friends participate in my teaching, offering their own insights and perspectives to my students; that has been really interesting and enriching. 

Q.        Is or was there something interesting or someone who surprised or impressed you during your career and why?

A.         There have been tons of interesting things and lots of impressive people I have interacted with at the FCC and at UCLA.  I have known the Chairwoman for over 20 years and she has been amazing.  And because you gave me limited space, I will shout out a few more folks, my college roommate at Cornell and FCC colleague for over 20 years, Rodney McDonald, he is the epitome of an excellent government worker; Ann Berkowitz, whom I worked with for years on numbering issues and touched me by mentioning our friendship in a previous newsletter column; and my mentees whom I talk to the most, Kiara Ortiz, Kimia Nikseresht, Jaime McCo, Roxanna Barboza, and Celia Lewis, all phenomenal people and impressive TMT attorneys.  I have literally dozens of other mentees and colleagues (including current FCBA President Diane Holland, Narda Jones, D’wana Terry, Mindy Ginsburg, Mark Stephens, Mikelle Morra, Dana Bradford, Marlene Dortch, Alex Johns, Gina Perini, Darlene Biddy, Brenda Villanueva, Michelle Sclater, Ann Stevers, Marilyn Jones, Jodie May, Erica Myers, Romanda Williams, Vickie Robinson) I could mention, so I apologize for the many people I left out.

Q.        What do you enjoy reading?

A.         Anything about sports, romantic comedies, various fiction books, biographies, and books dealing with the law, equity and justice.  So, lots of stuff. 😊

Q.        Is there something (a hobby or other tidbit) people don’t know about you that you are willing to share?

A.         I will give you a couple.  I have 3 grandchildren (ages 3, 1, and almost 1) which is still surreal to me but of course in an incredibly good way.  And I love watching sports, including college sports, especially all things UVA, Cornell and UCLA Women’s basketball (shoutout to Coach Cori Close who has become a good friend).

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.         Don’t ever think you know everything.  This is a dynamic field, so it is incredibly important that you have the attitude of being a lifelong learner.  Also, I find that you can learn so much from others by observing them in all kinds of professional situations so I would counsel people starting out to seek out mentors and watch how they handle all kinds of situations.  Finally, everyone has value and should be treated with respect.  Listen more than you talk.  Be authentic.

Q.        How has your life changed as a result of COVID-19 and what are you looking forward to doing next?  

A.         My life changed unbelievably because of the pandemic.  It led my wife Anastasia, and me to move to Southern California, and resulted in me teaching at UCLA Law School, which has been so enriching and rewarding that I would almost do it for free (note I said almost 😊).  Also, to combat any feelings of being disconnected in the early days of the shutdown, I started a daily quote list that I shared with FCC colleagues.  I have continued it and it now has over 300 people on it (inside and outside of the Commission).  It is sometimes funny and other times quite moving to see the reactions to some of the quotes I have picked.  For example, one quote on mental health still resonates with me and with some of my faithful audience: “you are not required to set yourself on fire to keep others warm.” 

While it has always been a part of who I am, the COVID experience highlighted again my drive to have a discernibly positive impact on everyone I work with, on all my students, and my friends and family.  And hopefully make a positive difference in the lives of the citizens we serve through our work at the FCC.

Q.        How long have you been an FCBA member, and what to you is the value of FCBA membership?

A.         I am not sure.  I know that I participated when I started at the FCC, and I took some time off as my three kids (now 34, 32 and 24 years old – hey Kiara, Sanford and Nia) grew up and all graduated from UVA.  Then I hopped back in when I had more time.  The FCBA has been immeasurably valuable to me for networking, learning more about TMT, connecting with folks in our industry on a personal level and making lifelong friendships.  While there is a range of great programming and other initiatives, I am especially appreciative of the Diversity Pipeline Program.  Finally, I have to add that I truly appreciate my friend, Kerry Loughney, the executive director of the FCBA, who does so much behind the scenes to make the FCBA Tech Bar the best Bar.