Between the Lines

RCN’s Eileen Gabriel

Growth Outside the Box

Eileen Gabriel’s Bio

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Published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on February 2, 2000. All rights


Women in Business

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Between the Lines

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

women’s careers.

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RCN’s Eileen Gabriel

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 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

should be."

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.

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Growth Outside the Box

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."

Top Of Page
Eileen Gabriel’s Bio

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

taking the

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

RCN Corporation (RCNC), 105 Carnegie Center, Suite

300, Princeton 08540. David C. McCourt, chairman and CEO.

609-734-3700; fax, 609-734-7551. Home page:

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