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When Anne Chow speaks to global audiences of business leaders, she knows some people are surprised by the sound of her voice.
Because they’ve told her so.
"'Wow, you’re really articulate -- you can really speak well!'" she says she's been told of her voice and her accent.
Chow is the CEO of AT&T Business, a $35 billion unit with more than 30,000 employees.
She’s the highest-ranking Asian American employee at AT&T, and the first woman to hold this position.
And, yet, people still make assumptions about her based on her name and appearance.
"That I’m more passive," Chow says, "or that I have to be more abiding.”
These people obviously haven’t seen her box.
Rolling with the punches
For seven years now, Chow’s been training at the Title Boxing Club in Dallas.
Chow says she was initially attracted to the concentration and intensity the boxing demanded of her both mentally and physically.
“I have my own way of demonstrating strength,” she says.
Sometimes to a fault: Chow once tore her rotator cuff from training too hard.
But she found her community in the gym, and over the years she and her boxing friends have gone to boxing matches and UFC fights together.
Where Chow is "really" from
Chow was born in Missouri, and raised in New Jersey. But when people ask where she’s “really” from, she understands the unspoken question.
"Based on what I look like, or who they think I am, they think I’m not from here," she says.
Chow’s parents emigrated from Taiwan, after they were set up to marry by a matchmaker.
"And my mom said to my dad ‘I will marry you -- but only if we move to the United States,'" Chow says. "Even back then she intuitively knew this country held so much promise."
A childhood of many interests
In her younger years, Chow studied music at the pre-college division of the Juilliard School in Manhattan.
Eventually classical piano gave way to interests in chemistry and calculus -- perhaps a natural fit for the daughter of an engineer.
"For sure, some of it had to do with my upbringing." Chow says.
English wasn’t her parents’ first language, and they spoke Chinese and Taiwanese at home.
"And so my dad could absolutely help me with my math and physics and all these things," Chow says. "But my parents frankly could not help me with reading comprehension, or writing skills, public speaking skills."
They also couldn’t help, on occasion, comparing Anne to her little brother.
"Of course he’s a doctor -- he’s the successful one, which is a true statement," she says with a laugh.
Chow can chuckle about it now, considering she’s been named to Fortune’s Most Powerful Women in Business as well as Forbes 2021 CEO Next lists.
A calculated rise
Her rise at AT&T is a testament to the intent with which she navigated the corporate path.
First, she used her engineering degree from Cornell to launch her career on the technical side: “I wanted to learn the core of the company, which for us is the network. But... I knew I didn’t want to stay there,” she says.
Then Chow expanded her portfolio to include marketing and product management.
"I wanted to go where strategy was made," she says. "So, early on, I planted seeds to move closer to the front of the business."
But several mentors told her she wouldn’t get anywhere if she didn’t get into sales, which was easier said than done.
Says Chow: “I got rejected once, got rejected twice. Over a period of three years, I got rejected five times. It hurt. Oh, absolutely, it hurt.”
Especially when one senior executive told her, "You will never, ever get into sales." Chow came out of that meeting infuriated, but she started doing a deep dive into each hire made over her.
"I really sought feedback and said, ‘OK, who got this job when I didn’t?'" she says. "I took each opportunity to understand the rejection, why they picked somebody else and worked to fill those gaps."
It took years, but Chow eventually landed a sales job within the company.
"And, ironically, I fell in love with it," Chow says. "I fell in love with the profession, I fell in love with the 'art' of it."
But she was still an Asian American woman trying to climb into the highest ranks of corporate America.
Asian women in American business
A recent USA Today study looked at the management ranks of the nation’s top 100 companies. It found that one in 45 white men were executives compared to one in every 124 Asian women.
Chow says she often faced a Catch-22 throughout her career.
"I’ve been told by various bosses that I’m too polite," she says. "And I think to myself, what does 'too polite' even mean?"
She still had to make the hard decisions required of every senior executive, and there was backlash when her actions ran contrary to preconceived notions.
"I see people who maybe consider me to be more aggressive, because they don’t expect it from somebody like me," she says. "They would expect someone like me to be extremely accommodating."
But in a stunning admission for someone so accomplished, Chow says others' perceptions of her is something she still struggles with from time to time.
"I am American through and through," she says. "But even today in this role, I will find myself in moments leaning into comfort or timidity -- being timid... when I know I shouldn't."
After 32 years, what comes next?
But that's not to say she has to be stone-faced, either.
One of Anne Chow’s core values, and the foundation of her leadership style, is the idea that vulnerability can be an important trait for a senior executive.
"I can be humble and still lead," she says.
If anything, she found that the COVID-19 pandemic has proven that.
"When we list the characteristics of great leaders, it now includes empathy and compassion," Chow says. "While it was always on my list pre-COVID, I’d actually argue it wasn’t on most [others' lists]."
This summer, Chow will retire after 32 years with the company.
"To have become CEO of AT&T Business is the greatest honor of my life," she says.
But now, she says, the real work begins.
Chow has mentored hundreds of other women over the years -- but always while in the midst of a very demanding job. As she moves into the next chapter of her life, Chow wants to devote herself to paving the way for younger women, like her daughters and her corporate successors.
"The responsibility of being first," Chow says, "is to ensure that you’re not the only, and you’re not the last."