Working toward digital equity in technology and telecoms at Comcast
Telecommunications

Working toward digital equity in technology and telecoms at Comcast

Comcast’s executive vice president for public policy and executive vice president for digital equity, Broderick Johnson, discusses digital equity initiatives and leading through unforeseen circumstances and challenges.
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In this podcast, Heidrick & Struggles’ Julian Ha speaks to Broderick Johnson, who is currently the executive vice president for public policy and executive vice president for digital equity at Comcast. Johnson has over three decades of experience as a lawyer, policy advisor, and strategist, and has served under two US presidents—as deputy assistant to the president for legislative affairs in the Clinton administration and as assistant to the president and Cabinet Secretary for the Obama administration. Johnson discusses what digital equity means to him and the initiatives and commitments Comcast has undertaken to close the digital gap between communities across the United States. He also shares his advice for navigating a transition from government to corporate work environments and cultures.

Some questions answered in this episode include the following:

  • (1:18) What led you to Comcast and this role?
  • (3:50) Can you share a little bit more about Comcast's commitment to digital equity and how you define that? What's planned for the future to continue driving progress on these issues?
  • (6:35) Could you share a little bit how you are driving diversity and inclusion, perhaps beyond just the technology, in your public policy and digital equity role?
  • (9:09) I imagine there's a bit of a transition from government to corporate work environments and cultures. And you've done that before, having worked in top-flight law firms. But which leadership skills and experiences have been most helpful as you've made this most recent transition?
  • (11:24) From a leadership perspective, what are some of the most important ways you are building on the lessons of the past year, which included a global pandemic, social justice movements, and shifting work environments?

Below is a full transcript of the episode, which has been edited for clarity.


Welcome to the Heidrick & Struggles Leadership Podcast. Heidrick is the premier global provider of senior-level executive search and leadership consulting services. Diversity and inclusion, leading through tumultuous times, and building thriving teams and organizations are among the core issues we talk with leaders about every day, including in our podcasts. Thank you for joining the conversation.

Julian Ha: Hi, I'm Julian Ha, a partner in Heidrick & Struggles' Washington, D.C., office and the leader of the global government and policy and association practices. In today's podcast, I'm talking to Broderick Johnson. Broderick is executive vice president for public policy and executive vice president for digital equity at Comcast. He oversees the company's public policy team in Washington, D.C., and is responsible for leading its efforts and digital equity. Broderick has over three decades of experience as a lawyer, policy advisor, and strategist, and has served under two US presidents—as deputy assistant to the president for legislative affairs in the Clinton administration, and as assistant to the president and Cabinet Secretary for the Obama administration.

Broderick, thank you so much for joining us today. Our first question is, what led you to Comcast and this role?

Broderick Johnson: Well, thank you very much, Julian. It's great to be here with you for this podcast. And I appreciate you noting my multiple roles at Comcast; they do intersect, I think, with respect to overseeing the public policy group. I'm excited to be able to do that. I've had a broad interest in public policy matters throughout my career, even going back to when I first started on Capitol Hill drafting legislation and a variety of different measures in lots of different public policy areas. That has continued throughout my career. And so, while I have taken a very strong interest in, and have had both in-house and consultant positions in technology and telecommunications, I've done a variety of public policy issues. But the opportunity to come to Comcast at this point in my career to oversee the broad public policy concerns of the company, whether it be from tax policy to broadband policy to closing the digital divide to many other things, that compilation is what got me excited about the position at Comcast leading the public policy group.

That's one hat. The other hat is overseeing the digital equity work. Going back to when I worked for President Clinton in the late nineties and into 2000, addressing the digital divide by providing digital equity is something I've been concerned about, I know the country has been concerned about, and that lawmakers on both sides have been concerned about, especially over the last several years. And so, the opportunity to come to Comcast, to help oversee those efforts, relates to concerns I've had from a moral perspective about being fair and providing opportunities to folks, and also enhancing their educational opportunities. And there’s also an economic perspective. We are an increasingly digitized economy across the world. And so, for the United States to compete effectively, we need to make sure that all of our citizens really have the opportunity to be able to have the resources to compete and to succeed in an increasingly digital world. Comcast has—really, over the last 10 years, and then looking forward—committed a great deal of resources to efforts to close the digital divide. So, I was so excited about being able to do that as well. And the two roles intersect, so it's not like one day I'm over here going into a set of things related to public policy and then the next day I'm doing digital equity work and the two never really get conjoined. They actually very, very important in the way they intersect.

Julian Ha: That's a great Broderick. Can you share a little bit more about Comcast's commitment to digital equity and how you define that? What's planned for the future to continue driving progress on these issues?

Broderick Johnson: Yes. Let me start with my view of what digital equity is all about. And it's really Julian, this simple: digital equity is making sure that all people have access to the digital resources necessary to help them connect to the country and to the world so they can succeed in an ever-increasingly digital world where you need digital access and digital skills in order to be successful. So that's how I would broadly define digital equity. It's also important that people are aware of what kinds of resources are there; it’s not enough for the resources to simply be there. People aren't aware that those resources are available to them that they're affordable to them. So that's a big part of digital equity as well. Comcast’s commitment really goes back over the last decade. For example, it’s committed tremendous financial resources and built community partnerships with schools and with individuals around the Internet Essentials program, which has been designed to make sure that millions of people have access to broadband, to the internet.

And so, Comcast has, over that decade, expanded on the Internet Essentials work to do a number of other things as well. For example, Comcast has provided over 150,000 free or affordable, subsidized computers to people across the country. The company has also established a Lift Zones program and made a commitment that by the end of this year, it would establish a 1,000 Lift Zones in communities across the country. Essentially, a lift zone is a community center or rec center—someplace where people can go and have access to the internet. We know that there are many, many, many communities, many households, where people don't have access to the internet. But they could go to a community center and be able to have that access as well.

And, a year ago, Comcast established something called the Rise program, which is focused on trying to make sure that small- and minority-owned businesses and women-owned businesses have the opportunity to begin, to be able to connect in the digital world, to make their businesses more successful and more connected. So those are examples of what Comcast has done over the past several years, and we are celebrating this past decade’s worth of enormous commitment and resources. And now, as we look to the future, we've actually started a new initiative called Project Up, which speaks to connecting 50 million more people to broadband, to the internet, and a number of other initiatives as well.

Julian Ha: That's great Broderick. Thank you. Building a little bit on that, I want to turn to a certainly a related area. I know diversity and inclusion is very personally important to you. While serving in the Obama administration, you were also appointed as chairman of the White House's My Brother's Keeper task force, which is an inter-agency initiative designed to identify and address the disparities that hamper the success of boys and young men of color, and to improve the lives of all youths. Could you share a little bit how you are driving diversity and inclusion, perhaps beyond just the technology, in your public policy and digital equity role?

Broderick Johnson: Yes. I was very fortunate, as you mentioned, to have had several hats in the White House as well. And the Cabinet Secretary was one and the chair of the My Brother's Keeper task force was another. I was proud to serve in that role, of course. It was really driven by President Obama in the wake of the Trayvon Martin tragedy and other murders of young African American men. And by just looking at the overall disparities and circumstances that have continued to impede the success of boys and young men of color especially, but women and young girls of color as well.

So, we focused throughout the last three years of the Obama administration on that work, with real, hard data and evidence-based approaches. And that work continues. I continue to be the volunteer chair of the My Brother's Keeper Alliance, which is now part of the Obama Foundation. And we continue to focus on addressing and supporting efforts around the country that are trying to close disparities. Disparities, as you mentioned, in technology access and digital divide gaps, but also in issues around interactions with police, for example, addressing some of the policing re-imagining efforts that are going on across the country, or speaking to suspension and expulsion rates in schools across the country. And we try to come up with ways to reduce violence in communities across the country. And those are all diversity and inclusion–related issues as well; they’re really about how to try to do everything we possibly can to make sure that people in this country, no matter where they grow up, the color of their skin, or their gender have the same opportunities as other. And this has been a quest this country has been on for so long, of course. And, you know, it takes the work of government, but also the private sector. And so, Comcast, like many other corporations, has been engaged in supporting those kinds of efforts as well.

Julian Ha: Thanks Broderick. I imagine there's a bit of a transition from government to corporate work environments and cultures. And you've done that before, having worked in top-flight law firms. But which leadership skills and experiences have been most helpful as you've made this most recent transition?

Broderick Johnson: Good judgment. I like to believe that I’ve exercised good judgment throughout my career. And not looking over your shoulder for the next thing you want to do. Something wrong with being ambitious and having various roles is—I've had incredible roles and responsibilities throughout my career, but always think you should be focused on the job that you're in when you're in it, right? And be focused on being a great leader in that job when you're in it so that people can say, no matter what, that you have the right commitment to the organization, to the leaders that you work with, to the corporation you work for. So, focus on being successful where you are.

And integrity, absolutely. I mean, it may seem trite, but we all know there are people who, unfortunately, think that succeeding, especially in a competitive place like Washington, D.C., means that they can sort of sell short their integrity from time to time, sort of a means to an end. I have found throughout my career that that's incredibly important. And then, finally—and this transcends the public and private sector leadership roles that I've had—is helping to identify young people, especially young people of color and women, to make sure that they get the mentorship and the opportunities to succeed that are important to their long-term advancement.

So, in a law firm, that can mean making sure that young lawyers have the opportunity to service clients early in their careers, as early as they possibly can, to help generate business, to showcase the kind of talent that they have. It’s also important to help them navigate, especially in places like Washington, D.C., the public-private sector balances. Does it make sense for me to leave the private sector and to go into public sector and when, or vice versa? How long should you stay? So, being a mentor has always been important to me, helping people navigate those kinds of considerations as well, Julian.

Julian Ha: Well, Broderick, as we bring this conversation to close, I want to ask one final question. From a leadership perspective, what are some of the most important ways you are building on the lessons of the past year, which included a global pandemic, social justice movements, and shifting work environments?

Broderick Johnson: Well, it's been, of course, quite a year—almost two years, really, when you think back over this global pandemic, for example, and the impact of it all and how it's disrupted our lives. Whether in my own individual and family life or as a leader, I’ve realized that there are unforeseen events—really unforeseen events—that can disrupt what we have taken for granted as normal, whether it's as individuals, whether it's as families, whether it’s as leaders, or in our communities. And we’ve learned whether or not and how quickly our workplaces can adapt to incredible, changing, unforeseen circumstances.

We've all learned the importance of being able to do Zoom calls or teams calls or whatever else. And we’ve learned to do those effectively, probably even, at times, more efficiently than we did when we would sit down and get together, because the new, 30-minute meeting has become quite a staple of the way people communicate now, and it's actually served people well. But at the same time, we've missed that interaction with other people. And, as a leader, we have to be able to try to figure out how can we get back to that as quickly as possible. We also have to realize, though, that people have real fears when it comes to confronting things that are as unforeseen as a global pandemic. And we have to figure out what that means in terms of how willing they are to come back to workplaces, for instance, or what it means for them to be able to put their fears aside. And we need make sure that they are well protected physically, financially, and otherwise. So, I think that's one thing I’ve gained, certainly, over the past almost two years as a leader—an understanding of how disruptive things can be and how we need to be able to quickly adapt and help other people feel more comfortable, and that things are going to be okay if we pay attention to things like science, for example.

And the social justice movement of the past several years have been such a reminder that we can't push aside racial, ethnic, or gender differences, or other flashpoints that still very much exist in this society and in this world. They don't just go away on their own. We have to continue to work at those issues. Again, whether it's in the workplace or in our communities, neighborhoods, and interactions, being fairer and more tolerant takes work. And that if we don't do the work, then the situations will come back again. And then maybe we’ll have to deal with them as more and more tense and difficult situations.

So, we have to be in constant motion, addressing the things that are real challenges in the society and that can often divide us. That should really be at the core of our strength as a country, as a society, and also even in our corporations and in government.

Julian Ha: Well, thank you so much, Broderick, for joining us, and thank you to our listeners.

Thanks for listening to the Heidrick & Struggles Leadership Podcast. To make sure you don’t miss more future-shaping ideas and conversations, please subscribe to our channel on the podcast app. And if you’re listening via LinkedIn, Twitter, or YouTube, why not share this with your connections? Until next time.


About the interviewer

Julian Ha (jha@heidrick.com) is a partner in Heidrick & Struggles’ Washington, D.C., office and a member of the Diversity & Inclusion and CEO & Board practices; he also leads the global Government & Policy and Association practices.

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