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Published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on February 2, 2000. All rights
Women in Business
Books and articles about leadership are loaded with
sports metaphors, everything from teamwork to tackling: batting a
thousand, hitting the mark, getting second wind, protecting your turf,
or calling the shots. If it’s not from sports, it’s from combat:
the opponent, marshal your forces, or head into battle. By reading
enough of this stuff, you might conclude that leadership is being
described in stereotypically masculine ways because men are the ones
taking the positions as leaders.
Can it be true, in our egalitarian, politically correct world, that
males continue to dominate leadership roles? The short answer: Yes.
Yet although the stereotypes linger, the whole definition of male
and female leadership is indeed changing, says Mary Hartman, of the
Rutgers Institute for Women’s Leadership (see page 6). "Women
have led for as long as men have led — in families and in
she says, but leaders can emerge in different areas. Now women leaders
are "figuring out what part of the world they want to change,
and then figuring out how they want to get it done."
Consultant and psychic John Windwalker (see page 8) asserts that women
are more likely to embrace change than their male counterparts. He
urges women to reclaim their feminine power: "Women are going
to be the half of humanity that is more powerful than the male because
things didn’t work the male way."
These are just some of the predictions you will read in this annual
Women in Business issue, which features the stories of six female
executives (see page 12). They discuss how their technical training
yielded unusual insights, whether they think their management style
is gender-based, whether they give credence to the fabled "glass
ceiling," and how they manage to fit their work into their
Many of these executives are leading technological change but are
actually implementing what is traditionally considered a woman’s job:
customer service. These women realize that, in the digital age,
have the chance to interact with their customers on a much more
basis. RCN’s Eileen Gabriel, for example, is focusing on how the
needs to be treated. Kristin Hedberg, president and chief operating
officer of Total Research’s Blinke, is setting up E-businesses to
give customers a voice. Clare Hart, CEO of Dow Jones’ and Reuters’
Factiva, is helping individual clients make better business decisions.
The Women in Business issue is known to raise some feminist eyebrows
because we ask so many gender-based questions about personal lives.
What difference does it make whether someone is married or has
How dare we ask the Mommy Track or the Glass Ceiling questions?
Actually, our reporters generally pose these same questions to
they interview, male or female, throughout the year. This week,
we probably pressed a little harder to present an array of choices
in lifestyles and business styles. We asked the questions, not just
on behalf of women, but also for all those men — fathers,
sons, brothers, or boyfriends — who have a vested interest in
Start-ups can be fun to work for, says Eileen Gabriel,
formerly the vice president of information services at Toys ‘R Us, now
the new chief information officer at RCN. A workplace with high
energy, camaraderie, and a breathless exhilarating pace — it can
arouse one’s very best efforts.
RCN can hardly be considered a start-up. With $3.8 billion in cash and
3,600 employees, it provides local and long distance phone, cable
television and its rcn.com Internet services to the area from Boston
to Washington, D.C. in the east and San Francisco to San Diego in the
West. But compared to its elders in the telecommunications industry,
the Carnegie Center-based RCN is a mere child, and indeed is often
described using the metaphor
of David against the Goliaths.
RCN’s founder, CEO David McCourt, is cast as David in the stone
hurling story. And though he has not actually felled any
telecommunications giants, he is growing his company at a breakneck
pace and maneuvering his forces to take advantage of its size. Because
RCN started from scratch, it is not stuck with outdated legacy
systems, so he hired someone outside the industry to set up a
seamless, single computer platform for all of RCN’s bundled services.
"He wanted to be sure we don’t make large decisions geared towards
today, but towards tomorrow," says Gabriel. "I think he did not want
someone who had a strong opinion already on the way telecommunications
RCN started out as a rural telephone company in Pennsylvania’s coal
country. Now it claims to
be the nation’s first and largest single-source, facilities-based
provider of bundled communications services to the residential market,
and the nation’s largest targeted Internet service provider (ISP),
with all of its customers strategically clustered. Microsoft
co-founder Paul G. Allen has agreed to invest $1.65 billion in RCN,
which will pre-fund the construction of a network to 4.5 million homes
through 2003 plus the building of 1 million-square-foot corporate
headquarters in Mercer County or Bucks County.
Gabriel’s job is deploy an integrated systems platform that supports
RCN’s bundled service offerings and manages customer relations.
"Eileen’s role in what we are doing now is key," says Valerie Haertel,
senior vice president of investor relations and corporate
communications. "We are integrating all of our systems so we have a
seamless customer care support system for billing purposes and
customer care. What we are offering is bundled service and cable TV
and high speed internet access on a cable modem. This is unique
because those are three separate businesses, and we are doing them
under one umbrella in the residential marketplace, and offering them
under one bill."
RCN now is very similar to what Toys R Us used to be, says Gabriel. "I
was at Toys R Us during its tremendous growth period and I remember
those years very fondly," Gabriel says. "As growth slowed down at Toys
‘R Us, I realized I missed the excitement and invigorating atmosphere.
As tiring as it was, and as hard as it is on you physically,
emotionally, and mentally, that is the environment I really enjoyed.
RCN was a perfect choice. Not only is this business being built on
very solid fundamentals, with a clear strategy for success, it is also
a place where motivated employees can really make a difference. Like
all businesses, RCN faces continual challenges, but they are the kind
of challenges associated with explosive growth and the strong demand
for our services."
Gabriel, of Irish descent, says that part of her success can be traced
to her ability to survive in a tough environment and her determination
to take care of herself. "My family had no money. But I had a very
very strong mother, very intelligent and successful in her own right."
Gabriel says she was influenced not by her mother’s words, but by
what she did. "There was never anything ahead of her that she didn’t
tackle and didn’t succeed at. She was responsible for us financially,
she ran the house, she painted — clearly she was a super person, a
super mom, and a super woman, a great role model."
"Failure," says Gabriel, "was not an option. To be honest, it would
have been very hard to be in front of her and not talk about success."
Gabriel shuns such gender-oriented dictums as the expectation that a
woman should get anything because she is a woman. "I need to know that
I earned it," says Gabriel. Another is the idea that women require
mentoring. "I would have liked to have had one, but I have not had a
mentor for most of my career. Maybe I react negatively to the
implication that women need a mentor more than a man."
One of four children, she grew up in Bergen County, where her father
was a department store buyer and her mother was an accountant. She
took a premed course at the University of Rhode Island, Class of 1972.
Though she was accepted at medical school, she chose not to go, and
after a stint doing accounting in a retail chain store, she enrolled
in training for Cobol computer programming sponsored by an insurance
The ability to think like a programmer, she says, is innate. "You
learn skills, but I think you are born with that approach to life — a
metered, logical approach to things." She worked as the MIS director
for several manufacturing plants owned by Digital Equipment
Corporation, and was director of business systems for National Data, a
computer service bureau in Atlanta, Georgia.
Along the way she earned an MBA in accounting and finance from Western
New England. She has two children, a son who is a sophomore and on the
football team at Siena, and a daughter who is a senior in high school.
For many of her children’s school age years, Gabriel was a single
parent. The "family friendly workplace," now so much in demand, was
not ubiquitous then. "As a woman, I am more aware that people have a
life outside the office than some men I have worked for. I was a
single parent for many years and had to work hard to keep that fact
out of my business life. People need to remember their priorities. I
think it is possible to be extremely productive and still have a
One of the ways she survived a grueling schedule was to insist that
her children eat what was put before them. If they didn’t consume it
in 15 minutes, it was taken away and nothing else was available.
Result: "My children eat everything," says Gabriel.
When she joined Toys ‘R Us in 1984 it had less than $1 billion in
sales and about 100 stores and was just about to launch Kids R Us,
Babies R Us, and international stores. She started as the director of
financial systems, but as she emphasizes. she never worked in the Web
part of the business, "except for some triage." That’s important,
because Toys R Us drew a hailstorm of criticism in the 1998 and 1999
holiday season for failing to serve its website customers. Gabriel
limits comments to a terse statement that long term planning has
always been her strong preference.
Gabriel says she used to think that she had to work for large
organizations in order to progress in her career. "At some point I
realized you still have to get up and go to work and really enjoy it,
that it was more important to do something I really enjoyed."
In her new job with RCN, she lives during the week in Princeton and
goes home on weekends to north Jersey to be with her daughter and
husband. She turns this into a plus: "I am learning a new industry,
and the fact that I am living here during the week has been a plus —
no one is waiting for dinner or needs to go shopping for prom shoes,"
says Gabriel. But during football season she manages to attend every
one of her son’s games, whether that requires a trip by car or plane.
At RCN it has been a baptism by fire to learn about the industry. Her
retail perspective, she believes, is valuable, "because we are in the
retail business. We need to focus, honestly, more than we do on how
the customer needs to be treated."
She ticks off the phases of growth of RCN: The first phase was
creating a business model, and the second was fundraising. "We are
very capital intensive because we are laying our own network." The
third is perfecting the model and scaling the processes. This is where
Gabriel comes in: she must choose and implement a full suite of
integrated operating support systems: "One by one we are going through
all the processes, figuring out the future process we want to use and
developing technology in support of that process. That is giving me
the opportunity to learn the business."
She was chosen, she believes, because she is a newcomer to the
industry but has developed systems for a large company. And she is
having fun with the opportunity to choose "the best of breed," the
best solution in each functional area. "RCN’s values are to
understand, seek, develop, build, and reward the best — to be driven
by enthusiasm. We want to develop an IT plan that is as smart and
aggressive as the RCN’s well-constructed and phased business plan."
To populate her offices on the third floor of Carnegie 214 she is
hiring "people who want to be part of a high energy entrepreneurial
type culture, who want to do something no one has done before, people
who care about the company. When you are an owner of the company you
make decisions differently."
Enthusiasm is Eileen Gabriel: "I need to get up every morning and
enjoy what I am doing. I expect a lot from people around me, but
people who work hard are rewarded."
All this hard work can sometimes turn into a tense atmosphere. "Just
time to have a light conversation with somebody can lighten the
atmosphere around you," she says. "A little levity in the air can
lighten the atmosphere around you. In an energetic, highly charged
atmosphere, if you don’t take a few minutes to disperse that, it can
— Barbara Fox
300, Princeton 08540. David C. McCourt, chairman and CEO.
609-734-3700; fax, 609-734-7551. Home page: http://www.rcn.com.
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