Women of the Year 2003
By Carol Jenkins
Understanding that social justice makes good business sense, Pamela Thomas-Graham is leading CNBC to new heights.
The most influential African American woman in cable television, Pamela Thomas-Graham has proved that not only does she have impeccable academic credentials (three Harvard degrees), but she also has the business smarts to win in the big leagues. As president and CEO of CNBC, NBC’s business news channel, she has steered the network through a national economic downturn, the 9/11 attacks and the scandals that rattled corporate America. And she just turned 40.
She credits her success to her parents: Marian, a social worker, and Albert, in real estate, who in Detroit raised Thomas-Graham and her older brother, Vincent—now an associate law school dean—to revere the black lawyers who fought for civil rights laws. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall was a hero. In fact, Thomas-Graham planned to practice law, but majoring in economics in college led her to business and eventually to graduate degrees in both law and business. She believes “understanding how capital gets created and distributed and how the economy works”can be the new agent of change for minorities: “Having a place at the table in a major corporation is a very important way to advance the ultimate aims of the civil rights movement.”
A feminist, Thomas-Graham defines the term as “a strong woman who believes in helping other women, creating equal opportunity for everyone.” She says her parents were ahead of their time; both were feminists.
“My mother always worked, and my father had exactly the same high standards for my brother and me,” she explains. “It’s a strong heritage and a very important legacy to continue.”
Her rising-star status landed her on Fortune’s list of the 50 Most Powerful Black Executives in America, and Black Enterprise named her Corporate Executive of the Year in 2001. Thomas-Graham presides over 500 employees and a new $137 million state-of-the-art studio complex on 22 acres in Englewood Cliffs, N.J. Boasting three studios and facilities to take in 72 simultaneous feeds from around the world, CNBC is poised to gain ground in the cable wars.
Before joining CNBC, Thomas-Graham had already made business history. Spending 10 years at McKinsey & Company, she became that prestigious consulting firm’s first black woman partner when she was 32.
After a mentor at McKinsey introduced her to Jack Welch, the legendary GE chief executive, Welch highly recommended her to Bob Wright, head of NBC. In 1999 she was hired to run CNBC.com, and in 2001 took over the reins of CNBC.
It was a sensitive time for the network. Reeling from the dot-com bust, viewers avoided the channel en masse. Then came September 11, 2001, and viewers turned to the news channels, along with the networks, for information.
Thomas-Graham believed it was time to re-create CNBC, shifting its “stock market channel” focus to a broader, more analytical perspective.
Determined to reposition the network, Thomas-Graham hired talent from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and the major networks and expanded coverage of Washington. “CNBC is as profitable today as at the height of the
Internet bubble,” she says. The company returns about $300 million in profit.
Thomas-Graham gets high praise from the boss; Bob Wright says she’s done “a terrific job.” She’s now responsible for programming CNBC’s evening schedule, which had been run by NBC News.
Married to lawyer and author Lawrence Otis Graham, she shares with him the raising of Gordon, 5, and toddler twins Lindsey and Harrison in Westchester County, N.Y. “I’m very fortunate my husband is supportive of my wanting to have this balance in my life. He’s been just terrific,” she says.
They also share the writing life. Thomas-Graham has published two mysteries, and a third, Orange Crushed, will be released in 2004. The couple has struck a deal with a film company to bring her fictional characters to life. They might want to keep tabs on the developing Pamela Thomas-Graham story as well.
Photo by Heather Conley