Joelle Phillips, president of AT&T Tennessee, speaks on the value of the liberal arts

By Colton Williams

Joelle Phillips, president of AT&T Tennessee, is the Babson Center’s Graham Executive-in-Residence for Easter 2020. Phillips visited campus on February 26 to discuss the value of a liberal arts education in her lecture, “Your Liberal Arts Education: Skills that Enable Us to Navigate Constant Change.”

Phillips did not imagine, when she was an undergraduate student at Birmingham-Southern College, that she would one day be a telecommunications lawyer and president of AT&T Tennessee. She graduated from Birmingham-Southern with a degree in theatre, intent on working professionally in the arts.

“I really planned a career in theatre,” Phillips said, “and worked for a couple of years after college as an actress. I toured with a children’s theatre, and I did voice over work, lots of different things like that. I always loved the part of that experience that was theatre, but I didn’t love the lifestyle.”

The constant travel and nighttime schedule drove Phillips to consider another career path, and after taking multiple standardized tests, she did well on the LSAT and wound up at Washington & Lee University School of Law. 

Phillips realized early on in law school that her background in the liberal arts as a theatre major helped her in her new career. 

“I’m really good at memorizing things,” she said, “so the workload of committing things to memory came pretty easily to me. The case method of studying law… it’s kind of like reading a little story and the theme is the point of what you’re learning and that’s a lot like reading a play, and there’s a lot of things that felt kind of familiar.”

Eventually, Phillips found her way to AT&T, working in telecommunications compliance and regulatory law as in-house counsel, before becoming president in 2013. 

Her liberal arts education helped her in other ways as well, which formed the basis of her advice for students. 

“In your lifetime, you’re going to live through change,” Philips said, “and of all of the things that you can be doing as college students, getting ready to be a person who is good at change is way more important than a particular step on a path to getting some place.”

She emphasized that students should focus on learning and growing – “read a lot” was her biggest piece of advice – instead of following one particular path in order to reach a goal. 

A liberal arts education, she said “exposes you to a broader variety of things. I think being in a community of students who are all studying different things, but still doing things together with those students, that’s really important. Learning how to work with people who see things a little differently than you is part of this world of change and new stuff that you’ll have to navigate.”

She also noted that her unconventional educational background for an AT&T president helped her to think outside of the box and approach problems with new solutions. 

“There are a lot of things about a liberal arts education that are better suited than a more path-driven specialized college education to help you get good at that,” she said. 

Phillips cautioned students against specializing in a particular field too soon, with too keen an idea of a particular path that they needed to follow. She instead encouraged students to take on a diverse array of experiences and educational opportunities. 

“You’ve got plenty of time to specialize,” she said, “and you live in an era where if you specialize now whatever you specialize in anticipation of doing is going to be so different by the time that you get there, that it won’t necessarily match up. So think more broadly now, and I promise there’s plenty of time to get to the specialized. 

In her parting wisdom to students, Phillips said,  “More is more. Don’t specialize too soon. More things, more ideas, try more experiences.”