Welcome to our series of interviews with leading female CSR practitioners where we are learning about what inspires these women and how they found their way to careers in sustainability. Read the rest of the series here.
TriplePundit: Briefly describe your role and responsibilities, and how many years you have been in the business.
Tessie Topol: I am Vice President of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) at Time Warner Cable (TWC), the nation’s second largest cable provider. I am responsible for building TWC’s CSR strategy – overseeing its execution and integration company-wide and communicating its evolution and progress to both internal and external audiences. As part of that charge, I lead TWC’s signature philanthropic initiative, Connect a Million Minds (CAMM), a five-year, $100 million dollar program to inspire young people to pursue science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education and careers.
I joined TWC in 2008 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.
3p: How has the sustainability program evolved at your company?
TT: Time Warner Cable has a long tradition of strong community interaction and support. In 2009, 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 Connect a Million Minds.
With a solid foundation in strategic philanthropy, I advocated for expanding our view of CSR to include other areas that we can most effectively influence and positively impact in our communities. In addition to our philanthropic efforts, central priorities of our CSR platform are: the environment, diversity and inclusion, and governance.
3p: Tell us about someone (mentor, sponsor, friend, hero) who affected your sustainability journey, and how.
TT: My parents have spent their lives trying to leave the planet better than they found it, 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 over three decades. Together, they instilled in me the core belief that bringing about positive change is possible and, whether on behalf of a company, the country or an individual child, equally worthwhile.
3p: What is the best advice you have ever received?
TT: I learned in my formative years the importance of taking initiative and being personally accountable for the decisions I’ve made and the actions I took. As a gymnast growing up, some of the best advice I received in those particular areas was from my coach and the sport itself.
In gymnastics competition, there are four events. If you perform poorly in one, you could very well have three more ahead of you, one after the other. When those difficult experiences occurred for me (and they did), my coach would pull me aside and stress that it was up to me whether or not I would allow those failures to prevent my future success. Being able to tackle the next event as if the last one never happened, taking each one on its own merits, and persevering to get the next one right taught me how to stay focused on what was in front of me, instead of dwelling on the past.
This same attitude was critical to the success of evolving the company’s philanthropic strategy. There were many bumps along the way, in trying to change an approach that was deeply entrenched in the company’s DNA. But I tried not to focus on them for too long or carry any sense of disappointment into “the next event.”
3p: Can you share a recent accomplishment you are especially proud of?
TT: Much was accomplished in 2013. It was a very exciting year for us. I would say that the release of our inaugural CSR report is a highlight, as it marks the beginning of a new journey for the company. The process of writing this report prompted us to take a take very close look at our broader role in society and examine our sustainability performance today and where we want to be tomorrow.
Of course, I am especially proud of Connect a Million Minds (CAMM), a program I helped to create nearly five years ago when I arrived at TWC. 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. In October 2013, Connect a Million Minds was inducted into PR News’ Platinum PR Awards Hall of Fame and recognized as a best-in-class model for all future communications initiatives.
3p: If you had the power to make one major change at your company or in your industry, what would it be?
TT: We know, anecdotally, and through the efforts of small groups of employees self-organizing around the country, that there is a growing desire to help make TWC a more sustainable company. I want to harness this enthusiasm and give employees the platform and tools they need to support the company’s growing sustainability efforts. We have already taken a step in that direction by collecting stories of environmental impact from across the company, to surface best practices. Now our challenge is to create a way for any employee, anywhere in the company, to join this effort in a way that is meaningful and measurable.
3p: Describe your perfect day.
TT: My perfect day involves waking up without an alarm clock, taking a long hike, catching up with friends and family, and watching cable TV (of course!).