Over the course of a trailblazing 34-year career at BellSouth in Atlanta and AT&T in Dallas, Debbie Storey held so many different positions in the telecom giant’s chain of command that she has to consult her résumé to enumerate them all.
Turns out, there were 19.
“I guess you could say I was versatile,” says Debbie, who was executive vice president for mobility customer service when she retired from AT&T in 2016. “My career played out in a number of corporate sectors — manufacturing, engineering, sales and sales support, distribution, real estate, advertising, and supply chain. But my focus was always the same — to drive things forward and make things better.”
If you ask Debbie what her favorite tour of duty was, she doesn’t hesitate.
“Chief diversity officer was my dream job,” she says, “because I had the ability to affect the way 280,000 AT&T employees felt about the company — and their place in it. When I became chief diversity officer, the company had 11 employee resource groups with 12,000 members. Three years later, we had 15 employee resource groups with 100,000 members.”
Debbie Storey is an inspirational leader who was a friend and mentor to all who worked for her. At national employee resource group conferences — attended by 2,000 AT&T staff members who paid their own way to Dallas — Debbie typically functioned as both emcee and spirit leader, showing the same level of organization, strategic direction and enthusiasm she first exhibited as varsity cheerleader captain at Ridgeview High School in Atlanta. When she retired from AT&T, the Women of AT&T showed their appreciation for Debbie’s efforts on inclusion by presenting her with a testimonial, which read in part:
“Your vision transformed us all and laid the foundation for AT&T being recognized as Diversity Inc.’s Number One Company for Employee Resource Groups.”
Born in Boston while her father was getting his MBA from Harvard Business School, Debbie and her family hopscotched across the eastern half of the country — living in Pittsburgh, Philadelphia and Chicago — while her dad was a sales VP for Exxon.
Bill Gohr also had an entrepreneurial bent. He sold steel equipment, ran a Chevrolet Corvette parts distributorship and at one point served as chairman of the National Corvette Restorers Society — which is why Debbie inherited his 1963 Corvette convertible.
When Debbie was in sixth grade, her father quit the oil business and moved his family to Atlanta, where he opened an Italian restaurant.
“My father thought he knew everything there was to know about business,” says Debbie, who is the oldest of four close-knit sisters. “But it was my mother — a former Army nurse — who kept the restaurant books, built relationships with customers and suppliers, and smoothed things over when my dad caused problems. Some of the most important lessons I learned during my college years came from our family restaurant chain — where I served as vice president and general manager for six different venues in Atlanta while I was going to school full-time in Athens.”
Debbie’s introduction to the communications company that would occupy the entirety of her professional career began as an entry level customer service clerk at an Atlanta printing company whose principal client was BellSouth.
“We printed the phone book,” says Debbie, “and we did such a good job that eventually we were bought out by BellSouth.”
Over the course of those 19 different positions at BellSouth — and then at AT&T after divestiture in 2009 — Debbie was a real difference-maker for women.
“I was the only female at the senior vice president’s table . . . and the president’s table . . . and the CEO’s table,” she recalls. “And I was a single mom at the time, so there were inherent challenges there, too. But I worked with a group of male colleagues who were wonderful people!”
In 2005 when Debbie was vice president of operations for BellSouth advertising and publishing — reporting directly to the company president — she decided that, despite her successes, it was time to pursue an EMBA.
“HR recommended two EMBA programs — one at Terry and another at Harvard,” she recalls. “I explored both programs and the decision was a no-brainer. I chose Terry because its EMBA program had a leadership component.”
Not long after Debbie completed her EMBA, she was promoted to senior vice president and transferred to the company’s headquarters in Dallas.
“My EMBA made the difference,” she says. “The knowledge I acquired and what the EMBA said about my commitment to hard work and lifelong learning . . . I don’t believe I would have been given many of the opportunities that came my way were it not for my Terry MBA.”
“There’s a popular notion that Debbie Storey has never failed at anything,” says nominator Peter Vig. “But I know for a fact that she is currently failing at something . . . retirement!”
Never one to rest on her laurels, the first thing Debbie did when she left AT&T was write a book — Don’t Downsize Your Dreams: Leadership Inspiration for Women. She is affiliated with the artificial intelligence company, Afiniti, and continues to serve as a board member of the AT&T Performing Arts Center in Dallas despite moving to a new home in St. Petersburg, Fla., with her husband Jay.
A frequent keynoter at UGA events such as the Bulldog 100 banquet and Terry’s Women’s Initiative, Debbie is also a member of the Terry Dean’s Advisory Council.