By Bob White, Staff Writer

Randall Stephenson of AT&T – Courtesy of Mike Plumb/The Current

The chief operating officer and chairman of AT&T, Randall Stephenson, visited the University of Missouri–St. Louis on Tuesday for a fireside chat between Stephenson and Business Dean Charles Hoffman in the Millennium Student Center Century Rooms hosted by the College of Business Administration.

AT&T is the telecommunications company with about $147 billion in sales and 281,000 employees, according to Forbes.com

During the one-hour public conversation, students and businesspeople listened to Stephenson’s stance on race, regulation, gender, taxes, and education. The College of Business Administration hosted the fireside chat between Stephenson and Business Dean Charles Hoffman in the Millennium Student Center Century Rooms; it was a full house.

Stephenson and Hoffman worked together at AT&T in Mexico in the early 2000s. At the time, Stephenson was the chief financial officer of investment. Stephenson’s humility fascinated Hoffman. “He was just a regular kid,” said Hoffman in a private interview.

UMSL chose Stevenson to launch the first segment of their CEO Speaker Series because of his good character and high position in a booming business.

He offers a very good lesson: You’re only as good as the team you build,” said Hoffman. True to this guiding principle, Stephenson spoke about social struggles, reliable relationships, and evolving education.

Once, Stephenson found a video of his best friend, an African American man, talking to a congregation about the Black Lives Matter movement. Stephenson said of his friend, “He’s a very accomplished individual [a doctor], but he had some concerns and caution about police.”

Stephenson relayed a moment of the video: “When he [my friend] goes out and runs in the morning, to this day, he carries his ID with him because he expects the police to stop him, and he has to prove that he lives in this neighborhood.”

Upon watching this video, Stephenson was baffled. “I never knew this about the guy,” Stephenson said.

Since that epiphany, Stephenson has been an advocate for tough conversations about race and race relations, especially in corporate America. “We don’t want to talk about that; it’s a little uncomfortable. … It can even be awkward,” he admitted. Regardless, he speaks on it.

Twice a year, the top 25 CEOs of the world meet. Each CEO has about seven minutes to speak on a subject of their choosing before the other 24 give their input. Stephenson brought this topic to the table, and the group held a discussion for an hour and a half. Many CEOs asked him to speak at their companies.

“A conversation by itself isn’t going to fix anything, but we’re not going to get anywhere if we don’t start talking about it first,” said Stephenson.

The Century Rooms were packed with UMSL students, faculty, and staff to see Randall Stephenson – Courtesy of Mike Plumb/The Current

In the last 30 years, there has been a “miracle of productivity,” according to Stephenson, but technological advances have yet to reach higher education. AT&T has been investing into this idea. Working with Udacity and Georgia Tech, AT&T helped cut the cost of the master’s program in computer science from $41,000 to $6,600.

The shift in learning was even more impressive. At the start of AT&T’s involvement, students thought the workload was too overbearing and felt they could not keep up with the program. They collaborated more, and, as time passed, their perspectives and their learning changed. Toward the end of the program, students said the coursework was more strenuous, but the workload was lighter.

The program offered a way for students to learn without depending on instructors. Through collaborative learning, students learned how to re-educate themselves, a vital skill in today’s market. “At AT&T … we want that [skill] instilled into our company,” Stephenson said. “If you get nothing out of your time at UMSL, please walk out of here with the ability to just constantly be re-training, re-educating, re-learning, re-tooling, re-skilling yourself. If you’re not, two years after this, you’ll be very, very frustrated. … You’re going to fall behind fast.”