As part of my series about the “How Business Leaders Plan To Rebuild In The Post COVID Economy,” I had the pleasure of interviewing Victoria Lamberth.
Victoria Lamberth co-founded ZenFi Networks in 2013 and currently serves as Chief Revenue Officer, overseeing the company’s regional sales & marketing organization. Prior to ZenFi’s merger with Cross River Fiber in 2018, Lamberth served as Chief Operating Officer for the company. She has 10+ years of experience building, managing, and selling fiber infrastructure companies in the New York metro market. She relies on her proven array of experience in the telecommunications industry to drive growth and profitability at ZenFi Networks. In addition to her role at ZenFi Networks, Lamberth is also a Founding Partner of conexcity, a network integrator focused on fiber optic and mobile network planning, engineering, and deployment solutions for mobile network operators, tower owners and telecommunications service providers throughout the New York metro market. She is also a Partner and Board Member at Hugh O’Kane Electric Co., a New York City telecommunications and electrical contracting firm dating back to 1946. Lamberth holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in International Studies from Boston College, and an MBA from the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth College.
Thank you so much for your time! I know that you are a very busy person. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
Of course, and thanks for speaking with me today. There is nothing I love more right now than having the chance to meet someone new (even if it’s virtually)!
In some ways, my backstory started in 1946 when my grandfather launched a company called Hugh O’Kane Electric. My father and my uncles took over the business, and over the years it evolved from being a glorified mechanics shop, to a premier service provider that catered to the printing press industry in NY and ultimately to one of the largest providers of telecommunications construction and maintenance in NYC. But that’s a story for another day. Fast forward to the Spring of 2008. I was working in finance and looking to be a part of something more “tangible.” I wanted to work for an organization where I could see and feel the impacts of what I was doing. I wasn’t connected to my work in finance, and I needed a change. Around that time, my father asked if I’d join the family business. I was adamant that I wouldn’t — I had no interest in construction (or so I thought). Just as his father eventually convinced him, my father eventually persuaded me to interview with Ray LaChance (one of my current business partners and ZenFi Networks CEO), who was running a company called Lexent Metro Connect. It was a sister company to the traditional family business, and Ray was looking for help building up the sales and marketing side of the company. It gave me a chance to do something entrepreneurial, to sell a product that would be built and delivered to a customer in a more tangible way than what I was currently doing. The added bonus was that I wouldn’t work for or with any family members, so I decided to give it a try. I haven’t looked back.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
Anyone familiar with the telecom industry knows we love to use acronyms for everything! Even now, as I’m learning new wireless technologies, I am constantly looking at my notes trying to remember what the latest acronym is.
I can vividly remember presenting to a room full of sales and operations folks about the benefits of leveraging our dark fiber network. This was probably around 2009, and I was trying to sound smart throwing around terms I didn’t fully understand yet. I ended up misusing DWDM (dense wavelength division multiplexing). One of the nicer people in the room came up to me after the presentation to point out my mistake. I was very embarrassed but very grateful to have been corrected, otherwise I might have continued to make the mistake in other presentations. Ultimately, it taught me an important lesson: Be authentic, and don’t try to prove yourself by using terms you think will impress people. Now, I try to listen more in meetings (try is the operative word), and if I don’t know something, I don’t pretend to know it. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the smartest people in the room tend to listen the most and say the least — and that’s a habit I’m still trying to grow into.
Is there a particular book that you read, or podcast you listened to, that really helped you in your career? Can you explain?
I’m not sure I can point to just one. I’m an avid reader, and will read just about anything, but I especially love historical fiction and memoirs. I think the reading that has helped the most in my career has been the stories, fiction and nonfiction, that center around perseverance. Not surprisingly, I love the podcast, “How I Built This.” Both my parents are successful entrepreneurs, and my current business partners and colleagues have all built, or been part of creating, extremely successful businesses. As one of the younger team members, it’s easy to look at these very successful people and think that they’ve always done everything perfectly or that they are simply exceedingly smart and that’s why they are where they are.
But, in talking to these people and listening to and reading stories of successful people, I’ve learned they all have battle scars in business and life. The world houses many intelligent and skilled individuals, but what seems to separate those who are especially successful in life from the rest is the ability to come back after a terrible loss or failure. That grit and perseverance is what makes the difference. Listening to and reading stories about failure has helped me see this, and in turn it has helped me grow as an entrepreneur. When I face a difficult situation where it feels I’m just going to be crushed, I mentally pull myself up and remember to put one foot in front of the other. I know down the road I’ll look back at that period of time and get something out of it, even if I don’t know what the “it” is in the moment.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. When you started your company what was your vision, your purpose?
I have to give credit to Ray for this — he had a vision for telecommunications infrastructure that supported mobile communications. My view was broader and less technical. I saw how all of us were using devices, and I imagined a future where nearly everything in our homes, classrooms, cities and beyond would be connected. Ray understood technically that this greater view of the world would require a massive investment in mobile networks. Though I didn’t know the wireless space as well at the time, I did understand the fiber connectivity piece. We both believed in the need for more mobile connectivity to support a more connected world, and we understood that more wireless nodes meant more fiber to those nodes. From selling legacy dark fiber networks, it became clear the legacy networks in the ground would break when trying to support this demand. So, we started ZenFi Networks with a vision of building a new type of fiber network to support mobile communications. That has since evolved to building a broader array of communications infrastructure assets in support of mobile deployment — but the vision and purpose is still the same.
Do you have a “number one principle” that guides you through the ups and downs of running a business?
From my grandfather down, we were always taught to treat people fairly and with kindness. Whether it’s your customers, vendors, employees, or yourself, at the end of the day, people are at the heart of business. This view of treating people kindly and with respect is why I believe our core family business, Hugh O’Kane Electric, has survived three generations, and it’s why I believe my current partners at ZenFi Networks have been so successful in their previous (and current) roles. Not only do I think it’s good business practice, but I also think it’s good life practice. I’ve found I’m much happier going to bed when I’ve had a day that exemplifies these traits. It’s the days I lose that perspective or can’t see the other side that I toss and turn all night.
Thank you for all that. The Covid-19 pandemic has affected nearly every aspect of our lives today. For the benefit of empowering our readers, can you share a few of the personal and family related challenges you faced during this crisis? Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?
My husband and I are both working from home full time. We have a 3 year old and an 8 month old, so like many other families, we’ve been juggling the full-time job of raising children with our other full-time jobs. It’s been a bit of a challenge, but compared to what so many other people are going through — it’s nothing. We have our health, we both have jobs, and we’re getting to spend more time with our kids than we ever thought possible. To make it work, my husband and I are both up reading the news with coffee before the kids wake up, and we’re typically sitting with our laptops on the couch once the boys are in bed. During the day we created a shift system: My husband has the kids through lunch, so I try to schedule all my calls in the morning. We switch off and I take them in the afternoon. For my calls in the afternoon, I’m usually on mute or have one of my children on a Zoom meeting with me. I’ve fed the baby, been a “crane truck”, gotten spit up on, and changed diapers all on calls…but I probably shouldn’t tell you that.
Can you share a few of the biggest work-related challenges you are facing during this pandemic? Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?
Our company builds underlying infrastructure in support of mobile networks. Currently, we’re working on 5G deployments. 5G is the newest standard (5th generation) in mobile networks and with it comes increased capacity, availability, and reliability. What this means to the average person is that we are going to have mobile networks that will transform industries. Telehealth is one we’ve been talking about for a while, and now during this crisis people can understand both the benefits, and current limitations, of this application. With a 5G network, surgeons will be able to provide remote surgery across the world. Doctors will be able to connect with patients in real time and provide diagnostic testing without having to see a patient face to face. When it comes to front line services, first responders could share real-time information about floor plans, room temperatures, and shifting environmental conditions. Homeschooling your kids today? Well, imagine if that kitchen table were converted into a virtual desk by day, and back to the dining table at night. Apart from the applications, 5G promises a tremendous amount of global economic output. Especially in today’s environment of uncertainty, 5G is a bright spot for jobs and growth, and what’s better, these are jobs across the entire wireless and telecommunications sectors. We need splicers, we need civil construction workers, we need administrative help at all levels of government, we need engineers, project managers, and we need entrepreneurs who are thinking of new applications that leverage this network. Across the board there are growth opportunities.
Okay, so then what’s the challenge? The challenge is education. 5G networks require more densely deployed, low powered cellular sites. I think when people hear “cell site” they think of these massive towers emitting tons of energy and they’re worried that these are now packed into tiny boxes that are going to be on the light pole outside their home windows. But, when you look at the facts, you learn that the power emitted from a ray of sunlight is 63,000 times more powerful than one of these cellular sites and is less than the energy wave from the site.
What we’re learning on the ground is that some people are being fed misinformation about the dangers of these deployments. So, our most challenging problem is not COVID-19, it’s that people are spreading rumors that COVID-19 is connected to 5G. It’s heartbreaking, because I look at all these kids at home who need access to affordable, reliable bandwidth. I think of all the hardworking people out of jobs, and I think of all the possibilities that could be made available through this technology. I can’t help but worry that the lack of education and spreading of misinformation is going to slow down the ability for all of us to partake in the benefits that 5G provides.
Many people have become anxious from the dramatic jolts of the news cycle. The fears related to the coronavirus pandemic have understandably heightened a sense of uncertainty, fear, and loneliness. What are a few ideas that you have used to offer support to your family and loved ones who were feeling anxious? Can you explain?
There is so much uncertainty out there today, and I am not going to pretend I have answers to any of that. What works for me, and what I share with others, is to focus on things that are in your own control. Even if it’s small, like setting up a schedule for your family, or focusing on finding ways to use every scrap of food in your house (two things I do), I think these little pieces of control are important for helping us make sense of our own world right now. We have no idea how this all is going to shake out, and the only thing we each can do individually is to try to make the best out of whatever situation we are in.
Obviously, we can’t know for certain what the Post-Covid economy will look like. But we can of course try our best to be prepared. We can reasonably assume that the Post-Covid economy will be a trying time for many people across the globe. Yet at the same time the Post-Covid growth can be a time of opportunity. Can you share a few of the opportunities that you anticipate in the Post-Covid economy?
We are in a very unique position in the telecommunications industry. Communications infrastructure in support of mobile networks is going to continue to be a huge growth area. In reading the news and talking to many friends and colleagues, there is a belief that some of our virtual connections will not go away after we have this pandemic under control. Great strides in telehealth, remote learning, and virtual offices are likely to have a very real and large place in society, and all of those applications require immense bandwidth that is reliable and resilient. We had been laying the foundation for 5G networks before COVID-19, and now these initiatives only continue to gain momentum. I can’t see a world in which my children have less connected “stuff” than I do today, and if it’s connected, it’s going to be connected through a combination of radio antennas and fiber optic networks. Sitting at the base of that are companies like ZenFi Networks, Crown Castle, and Extenet Systems. We enable a shared physical (and soon to be virtual) environment for others to provide value-added services on top of. Within our industry, we’ve been talking about being in the first couple innings when it comes to investment in 5G infrastructure. COVID-19 brought this reality to light for a broader audience, and you’re really starting to see investors understand that this sector is key to the future of our economy. It’s, in my view, one of the few bright spots during this very dark period.
When I think of opportunity on a macro level, I think of economic opportunity. As I mentioned earlier, the role that 5G and network connectivity can play in the immediate and long-term future is huge. Not only does it create jobs today (Qualcomm, a leading authority on this subject, estimates 5G’s economic output will be over 13 trillion dollars, creating over 22 million jobs), it also provides opportunity for the future. Opportunity for children to have access to education that scales beyond their physical zip code. Opportunity for new use cases in existing industries, and perhaps more exciting, the opportunity to create new industries we don’t even know about. If there is anything that COVID-19 has shown us, it’s that we need connectivity (virtual and physical). We have an opportunity to invest heavily in our infrastructure to create opportunities for ourselves and our children.
How do you think the COVID pandemic might permanently change the way we behave, act or live?
I look at my children and imagine their future. Some things are very clear — for instance, telehealth and remote learning. My 3-year-old son has virtual well visits with his pediatrician, he has school, speech, and physical therapy all over virtual platforms. His 3rd birthday was a zoom call with family all across the U.S.! There is no way you’re going to convince this child at 18 that he needs to be in a physical school building. This generation of children is going to grow up questioning the way we have traditionally conducted business (handshakes? conference centers?), interacted with healthcare providers (go into the office for a flu test? Why?), and gone to school (why would I limit myself to teachers who live in close proximity to me?). If we don’t transform some of these industries, our children certainly will. I do think we will return to life where we see and interact with people — we have to! However, I also believe there are many more interactions that will be virtual, and our physical interactions may be saved for closer community ties. To be honest, it scares me as someone who lives in a city like New York. One thing that’s so special is the spontaneous interaction between diverse people in places like the subway or public parks. We have to find a way not to lose those valuable interactions while also recognizing the value and opportunity that virtual environments provide.
Considering the potential challenges and opportunities in the Post-Covid economy, what do you personally plan to do to rebuild and grow your business or organization in the Post-Covid economy?
Right now we’re in support mode. Though our business was founded to support the mobile network operators, our network can be leveraged by any business. As a result, we have hospitals, schools, museums, small WISPs (wireless internet service providers) and more that all leverage our infrastructure. For some of these customers, they need increased bandwidth and more resilient networks. For others, their doors are closed and they’re struggling to pay bills. Whether it’s deploying temporary wireless sites, increasing connectivity to an end-user, or working with a non-profit to suspend services until their doors re-open, our mission right now is to support each customer individually in the way they need it most. This pandemic has helped us to become even closer partners with our customers, and we intend to maintain that moving forward. Our business doesn’t grow if our customers aren’t growing their networks, so we are going to continue to support all our customers’ connectivity needs in this dedicated manner.
To that point, we have set aside specific time for our core team on R&D efforts around new products and services that will allow our business to support our expanding customer demands. The investment in 5G and next-generation networks is significant, and the only way we are going to get there is through shared infrastructure. Today, the shared infrastructure is physical, tomorrow it will be virtual. My team is focusing on ways that we can build physical and virtual networks that enable our customers to deploy their networks faster and with more cost certainty than ever before.
Last, I’m currently very focused on providing access to information about the safety of 5G networks. I’ve already touched on the endless opportunities this industry can provide, but that won’t happen if we let fear and misinformation permeate our communities. As a mom of two young children, I fully understand and appreciate the care we all need to take to make sure new technologies are safe. So, I don’t blame anyone for questioning what these cell sites do. However, numerous independent scientific studies have been conducted over the past 70 years to confirm that these low powered cellular sites provide a lot more opportunity to all of us than risk. Back to your purpose question — my purpose is to make sure no one loses out on the opportunity to allow their children access to a better education, or their family the best medical care halfway around the world, or their neighbor a good paying job because of an inaccurate rumor about 5G.
Similarly, what would you encourage others to do?
The saying “it takes a village” is so cliché and often is reserved for referencing raising children, but I can’t help but think of it when contemplating a post-Covid economy. We need to invest in ourselves, our infrastructure, and our communities. We need to find a way to make broadband connectivity available to everyone, and we need public institutions to work with the private sector to encourage this investment. The way we are going to recover is through partnership. I said it in the beginning, but it’s going to come down to how we treat people. By people, I mean our employees, our customers, our vendors, our families, and our communities. If we treat people fairly and with compassion, I believe we will create partnerships and opportunities to build a strong foundation for our country.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Courage is not having the strength to go on; it is going on when you don’t have the strength.” — Theodore Roosevelt
That quote has been one I’ve always loved, and it embodies something I’ve aspired to in my life. Nothing I’ve done in my life can live up to the unbelievable courage millions of Americans are showing in the face of this pandemic. From the staggering number of people out of jobs, to the healthcare workers on the frontlines, to the countless everyday heroes that are simply still getting out of bed to do their jobs — right now in this country there is a huge amount of courage on display. It’s humbling, and it’s inspiring.
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