Texas-born Tara Whitehead was a college student at Southern Methodist University in Dallas when she heard advertising guru Steve Cosmopulos speak at an awards reception. Inspired by Cosmopulos’ message, Whitehead wrote him a creative note.
Later, in 1988, armed with a double major in marketing and communications, Whitehead moved to Boston and contacted Cosmopulos. He remembered the note, which landed Whitehead an interview, and, ultimately, a position with the Cosmopulos, Crowley & Daly ad agency.
Although the job was the most obvious outcome of Whitehead’s correspondence, the bigger lesson gleaned from the experience was about the power of reaching out to meet the people who stirred her professional soul.
Call it a personal version of Open Innovation. Ever since that first contact and throughout her 18-year career, Whitehead never hesitated to initiate a handshake, write a note, or pick up the telephone to cultivate a networking relationship with a professional who possessed an expertise or leadership style that piqued her interest.
For example, Whitehead was an MBA student at Goizueta Business School at Emory University in Atlanta when she heard legendary African American leader Dr. Jeanetta Cole (the first African American woman president of Spelman College) speak. “I went up to talk to her after the speech,” Whitehead says. “She gave me her card and said ‘Call me,’ and I did. When you follow up on opportunities like this is when you really open doors for yourself because you grow up as a person and get to meet these great people.”
Of course, as a Client Industry Executive in the Global Communications Industry for Plano-based technology powerhouse EDS, Whitehead is now the kind of executive young businesspeople and students seek out.
Whitehead is a telecom specialist who provides industry thought leadership and expertise to her EDS clients. Currently, she is a lead executive for EDS’s sixth largest client, BellSouth, which was acquired by AT&T Inc. in a $67 billion deal. After the merger, Whitehead will be the Client Industry Executive for the overall AT&T account. In the past, she’s handled accounts such as Sprint, SBC and Telecom NZ. Today one of her biggest projects is bringing IPTV (Internet Protocol Television) to market so that telephone companies can compete head-to-head with the cable industry.
Whitehead made the jump from advertising to telecommunications after spending two years earning her MBA at Goizueta and one year on a scholarship at the Nyenrode Business Universiteit in the Netherlands. Straight out of Nyenrode, Whitehead worked for the U.S. Ambassador to the Netherlands as a contractor for the U.S. Embassy’s business department.
During that time, Whitehead met Neelie Kroes, the former minister of Transport and Public Works and President of Nyenrode, who now is the European Commissioner for Competition. Whitehead admired Kroes’ grace, professionalism and style and sought out her advice in several areas. “One of the things Neelie Kroes taught me is that it doesn’t matter if your mentor is male or female. If he or she believes in you personally in whatever success you’re trying to accomplish, that relationship will be absolutely fundamental to your success,” Whitehead says.
When Whitehead returned to the United States in 1995, she contacted Jeff Sonnenfeld, a former Emory professor. He put her in touch with Michael Reene, who was rolling out the Telecommunications Industry sector for IBM Consulting Group, which today is a main, driving component of Big Blue’s business. Whitehead worked for eight years at IBM, during which time she was promoted four times and performed an overseas stint, and then she followed her boss, Sumit Ray, to EDS.
Although she knows her own talent and hard work earned her those IBM promotions, she also credits the mentor relationships she had with Reene and Ray for motivating her. “It was almost unheard of to be promoted like that. I worked my tail off, but I also had great support,” Whitehead says. “Both Michael and Sumit inspired me in a way that made me push myself a little harder, and they were advocates for me within the company.”
When Ray first met Whitehead, she was focused, driven and talented in a way that didn’t require much outside help, he says. “We had these phone calls in which Tara pretty much knew what her decision was going to be in any situation, but she needed a sounding board,” Ray says.
Ray and Whitehead no longer work together, but he mentors her from his job overseas as independent consultant to private equity funds in Europe. The relationship has grown into a true friendship, and Ray often is called on for his “straightforward and blunt” advice on Whitehead’s total life balance, which now is continuously changing since Whitehead recently adopted an infant daughter from Russia.
In return for all the mentoring she received, Whitehead now offers guidance and advice for Goizueta students. She also serves as President-Emeritus of the Alumni Board of Goizueta and chairs the Marketing Committee on Emory’s Board of Governors. Her current mentee, Monaj Sonavane, says that Whitehead met with him regularly during the first year of his MBA journey and introduced him to her colleagues at EDS, where he recently completed an internship. “Tara always made a point to have dinner with me and coached me on issues like time management and networking,” Sonavane says. “I know it is a relationship that will continue throughout my career.”