Syracuse University Board of Trustees member Howard Woolley ’80 attributes much of his professional success to his ability to listen, observe, understand others’ points of view and approach issues with a strategic mindset. The former longtime telecommunications executive has traveled the world on business and pleasure, and he takes a genuine interest in interacting with people from different places, backgrounds and cultures. For instance, as a speaker at the Telecom ’99 World Conference in Geneva, Switzerland, he enjoyed hearing the perspectives of people from around the globe and learning about them individually. “I meet people in my travels who’ve had vastly different experiences than we have here in our country,” says Woolley, president and CEO of the Howard Woolley Group, a strategic business and public policy advisory firm for the telecommunications and technology industries. “I want to know what makes them happy or unhappy and understand their world view. I think being that kind of person has helped me.”
As a Syracuse University student, Woolley had a similar approach. He considered himself shy, but says, “One of the things that happens when you are shy is that you observe.” He enjoyed getting to know other students and learning about their career interests and activities. He earned a bachelor’s degree in television, radio and film from the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications and views his education as a launching pad to his successful career in the telecommunications industry. “The moment I arrived at Newhouse, I could just feel that I was in the big leagues,” he says. “I actually felt like I was already in the industry.”
Woolley appreciated Newhouse’s advanced facilities and logged time in Studio A and at WAER. Most prominently, he landed a summer internship with the MacNeil/Lehrer Report, which was PBS’s flagship news show at the time, and worked out of WNET-TV in New York. He laughs when he recalls the big, noisy fax machine that co-hosts Robin MacNeil, who was at WNET, and Jim Lehrer, who was at WETA-TV in Washington, D.C., used to exchange copy. “You couldn’t explain to anyone today how we actually went through all that,” he says. “A fax machine was cutting edge back then.”
Syracuse University is so foundational to my professional and adult life that serving on the Board of Trustees is a great opportunity to give back.—Howard Woolley ’80
At Newhouse, Woolley also met his late wife, Gail Campbell Woolley ’79, a veteran Washington, D.C., and Baltimore news reporter who passed away in 2015 after a courageous battle since childhood with sickle cell anemia. He credits her as integral to his success as well and continues to advocate for the sickle cell community and support research efforts.
Entering the Public Policy Arena
Early in his career, Woolley spent 12 years with the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB), where he first entered the world of public policy and government relations and was named vice president of regulatory affairs in 1991. Even at the start of his career with the NAB, he says Newhouse’s reputation for professionalism was well known, recalling a time he took a group of broadcasters to Capitol Hill. “I was about as green as you can get, and this one television broadcaster said, ‘Howard went to Newhouse—he understands our industry.’ I’ll never forget that,” he says.
In 1993, Woolley, who augmented his work by earning a master’s degree in administrative science from Johns Hopkins University, joined Bell Atlantic and entered the telecommunications field. Since the NAB was constantly looking for ways to evolve and compete, he says he was familiar with what the Bell companies had in mind. “They wanted to get into video and wireless,” he says.
Gearing Up for the Mobile Phone Boom
Woolley found himself in the opening chapter of the booming transformation to wireless consumer communications. “We participated in the evolution of the industry,” he says, fondly remembering that his first “mobile” phone was installed in his car. “I didn’t even have one of those brick-sized mobile phones that I could carry around.” Around that time, Bell Atlantic had an investment in an Italian wireless company, and executives recognized that cell phones in Italy weren’t the exclusive domain of businesspeople and adults—everyone in the family had one, Woolley says. With that, the move was on to offer nationwide services, create smaller, lighter phones and increase availability for all.
The moment I arrived at Newhouse, I could just feel that I was in the big leagues. I actually felt like I was already in the industry.—Howard Woolley ’80
As the leader of government relations on wireless and international issues for Bell Atlantic, Woolley worked on the landmark 1996 Telecommunications Act—a major overhaul of the 1934 Communications Act—which deregulated the communications industry and opened the market to competition among local telephone companies, long-distance providers and cable companies. “It was great to be a part of that and to help make it happen,” Woolley says. “We spent a lot of time working with government policymakers to get more radio frequencies available for cellular service.” Since then, wireless broadband communication has become ubiquitous, advancing to its fifth-generation global mobile network as companies vie for customers in a highly competitive market.
In 2000, when Bell Atlantic—which had become a market leader in wireless services—and GTE Corp. merged to create Verizon Communications, Woolley became head of federal government relations and eventually assumed the role of senior vice president of wireless policy and strategic alliances. With his leadership skills, strategic thinking, and ability to bring people together, Woolley was often recognized and honored as a top corporate lobbyist. He says he enjoyed meeting members of Congress, as well as senators and five presidents (who were either in office or on their way). In 2013, he retired from Verizon and, feeling he still had a lot to give, established his consultancy firm, the Howard Woolley Group.
A Continuous Learner
Today, Woolley consults for T-Mobile and Microsoft, focusing on strategy and strategic alliances. “In the case of T-Mobile, I help their policy leadership team with relations with some of the major civil rights organizations and other influential organizations that play a role in the public policy space,” says Woolley, who was named to Savoy magazine’s 2021 list of Most Influential Black Corporate Directors. He also serves on the corporate boards of Somos Inc., a telecommunications and registry company where he is the lead director; Allianz Life Insurance of North America; and Apple Hospitality REIT, a real estate investment trust in the hotel business. Along with his work for the University’s Board of Trustees and the Newhouse School Advisory Board, he serves on several other nonprofit boards, including Johns Hopkins Medicine, where he supports sickle cell anemia research. “I view myself as a continuous learner, and it’s great to have the opportunity to expand my mind across these industries and to think strategically about critical issues in academia and medicine,” he says. “Syracuse University is so foundational to my professional and adult life that serving on the Board of Trustees is a great opportunity to give back.”
I view myself as a continuous learner, and it’s great to have the opportunity to expand my mind across these industries and to think strategically about critical issues in academia and medicine.—Howard Woolley ’80
Woolley also emphasizes the importance of establishing long-term relationships. “It’s not about today’s business deal, it’s about the totality of the relationship,” he says. “I don’t have to win today—it’s not always about winning. And whether it’s in business or in personal life, it’s about the long-term relationship.” Naturally, Woolley encountered opposition while working with policymakers and politicians on Capitol Hill. It was never easy to report back to the CEO on those days, but he maintained his commitment to the long term. “The person who is opposing you today may be your advocate on the next issue, and you don’t want to burn that bridge,” he says.
That outlook was key to his years of building consensus with people from around the country on Capitol Hill, and it’s a perspective he values strongly. “There isn’t a state in the union where I wouldn’t be able to reach out to someone from a relationship I’ve formed on Capitol Hill or in the business world to interact and get connected with the community,” he says. “Too many Americans have not had the opportunity to know people across geographic and political perspectives, and I think it would really help if they did. I feel like every American should have a broadening experience where we can get to know each other.”