“Sometimes You Have To Be Your Own Hero”
T-Mobile’s new Senior Vice President of the Central Regional Network Engineering & Operations shares her journey from Africa to America, overcoming adversity and seizing opportunity to pave a way for herself and blaze a trail for others.
By Shawna Ryan, T-Mobile Stories
Ask Edwige Robinson what gave her the grit to embark on a courageous career path in a field where she had no mentors and no clear path to success, and her answer may surprise you.
“I love this question because it will help many people — you see, I stumbled into the tech realm a couple of decades ago.”
As someone who says she simply “stumbled into the tech realm,” Robinson certainly turned her gate into a full stride on the way to the top over her 27-year career, having occupied leadership roles in a field dominated by men, notably in one of the few executive seats available in renowned companies like Verizon Wireless, Time Warner Cable and Comcast NBC Universal.
“For more than two decades, I have had the honor of leading diverse organizations at all levels and delivered terrific products and experiences for customers around the world,” explains Robinson, who joined T-Mobile as Senior Vice President of the Central Regional Network Engineering & Operations this past October. “I realized early on in my career that leadership is not just a job for me. Leadership is my calling and a way of moving through the world that makes others want to follow. Though authentic leadership requires sacrifice, I have found tremendous joy in igniting people to uncover their gifts and blind spots so that they can reach their highest potential and have maximum impact in their roles! It is such a privilege, and I get to do it every day.”
She is the self-described bridge between “business strategy, innovation and technology execution.” A track record of excellence with a heavy focus on superior customer experience, she’s brought drastic improvement in net promoter scores and ROI to the teams she leads. Her expertise in 5G, IoT (Internet of Things) and narrowband-IoT meant to enable a wide range of new devices and services, artificial intelligence as well as machine learning, made her a seamless fit for her latest venture at T-Mobile, where leading the nation in wireless 5G has been a laser focus for the brand.
Named by diversity research firm Aleria as one of the “Awesome Black Women Everyone Should Know” and lauded by the global women in STEM organization Million STEM as a visible role model who inspires the next generation of girls, it’s clear Robinson’s impact isn’t all data points and mechanical prowess.
A native of Ivory Coast, West Africa, who came to America in her early twenties before learning to speak English, she says being a woman, an immigrant and black meant she was a “triple minority” laying new ground for those who dreamed of careers in tech but unable to find mentors and supportive allies in such a challenging field.
Her story is one of purpose.
“I have been committed to helping me and my family have a better life since I was 14 years old,” says Robinson. “This is why I work so hard. This is why I took the leap of faith to come to the USA — sometimes you have to be your own hero. You have to be willing to fight for yourself and others. You have to trust that you have what it takes.”
Her dedication to fostering diversity and inclusion has driven her to help organizations understand and leverage equity in that representation; all while engaging, energizing and empowering employees to excel against the challenges they face.
Here Robinson opens up about how she fell in love with STEM as a young girl, the adversity she faced, her advice to women who might not have role models they identify with in their chosen fields and why she’s most grateful for her first after-school job in America, working the graveyard shift on a motherboard manufacturing assembly line.
When did you first recognize your passion for STEM, and how did you first enter into the field? How did your upbringing in Ivory Coast influence your drive to succeed?
My initial degree was in banking and finance. However, when I arrived in the U.S. I had to find a way to make some money while going to school. One of my professors shared with us a job ad for manufacturing. The job required you to work during the third shift, also known as the graveyard hours. Back then you had to complete a paper application, so when I arrived at the location to apply, the recruiter looked at me and said, “Why are you here?” When I told him I wanted to apply for the position, he argued that I had no experience. But, I told him I was ready to learn, and two weeks later I was working on the motherboard assembly line from 3pm to 2am daily.
I learned about AC/DC, resistors and transistors, different temperatures to test hardware, how to do audits, etc. I was the only female, but I did not care — I was able to take care of myself and also send money back to the Ivory Coast to take care of my family. It was hard to go to school full-time and work 10 hours after school, but it paid better than working in department stores. So, while I entered a field to help myself financially, I quickly felt in love with troubleshooting and uncovering different ways to get things to work. It turned out to be the best launchpad I could have ever asked for. This is why I always tell people to stay open to what life has to offer. You may be wonderfully surprised of the outcome.
I am known to have a relentless perseverance and tend to be an optimist. While the Ivory Coast is a beautiful country, it is not an easy place to live, to say the least. Growing up, we did not have much — so I learned to find joy in the little things, like a great meal. I remember growing up wearing one pair of shoes for several years. I learned that you always have a choice and sometimes your choice will demand a lot of sacrifice from you. You see, life is a game of decisions. Some decisions are more complicated than others, but ultimately, we must choose. When your aspirations are more significant than your worries, life has a way of putting you in a situation where you can only say yes to the opportunity. Sometimes in life you have to be your own hero. You have to be willing to fight for yourself and others. You have to trust that you have what it takes. From that point, the mentors and advocates will come.
Despite your impressive education and career accomplishments, you’ve said that you first and foremost draw from your experience as a black woman and immigrant to America to champion and advocate for others. Can you tell us a little more about this?
I see being the only one who looks like me or speaks like me in meetings as a tremendous privilege. So, the way I look at it is this, instead of saying I am the only one here, I say I have the privilege to show what I am made of and I get to be here — I am going to do so well, that they will have no choice but to look for more people like me. If not me, whom? Being a barrier-breaker takes courage and a lot of sacrifice, because everyone is watching to see how you will do. Some people are silently praying for you to succeed, while some are just waiting to see if you will fail. So, you have to learn to encourage yourself and keep going despite the obstacles. Why? Because everything worth having comes at a cost. You have to decide what you are willing to sacrifice. I sacrificed leaving everything I knew and left it behind for a country that I didn’t know, where I was unable to speak the language. Upon arrival, I embraced it and went out each day with a spirit of wonder and curiosity.
I started at the very bottom of the ladder working that graveyard shift, from that I went back to school and took advantage of the employer educational assistance to complete my bachelor’s and master’s. It was really hard to work full-time and raise our boys. My husband was a big help. I always reminded myself if you don’t fight for you first, who will? Life is what you make it. You get one hundred-fold what you put in.
You have been recognized as a visible role model by the global women in STEM organization Million STEM and by Aleria as one of the “Awesome Black Women Everyone Should Know.” What about these accolades mean the most to you?
For me, being a role model for young men and women is so important. It is difficult for people to become what they can’t see. As a triple minority, I take great pride in showing that it is possible to become what you dream of in secret. I want little young black girls and young men to see that their dreams are valid, too. I feel tremendous joy when I get an email or note via LinkedIn from women who are just entering the field. “When I see you, Edwige, I see that it’s also possible for me. If someone like you can come from another country without speaking English and reach your level, I believe that one day I too can reach and exceed it. It is not a fairytale. It can be a reality for me, too.” This is why I do what I do, this is why I can execute with excellence — there is no other way to be.