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Inspirational Women in STEM and Tech: “Don’t wait to have the tough conversations” with Gemma Toner of Tone Networks

Don’t wait to have the tough conversations. Similar to providing honest feedback, it is important to have the tough, but necessary, conversations early, because avoiding them will let the problem fester, causing an even worse scenario down the road. As a part of my series about “Lessons From Inspirational Women in STEM and Tech”, I had […]

Don’t wait to have the tough conversations. Similar to providing honest feedback, it is important to have the tough, but necessary, conversations early, because avoiding them will let the problem fester, causing an even worse scenario down the road.


As a part of my series about “Lessons From Inspirational Women in STEM and Tech”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Gemma Toner, founder and CEO of Tone Networks. Gemma Toner is a media and telecommunications leader known for driving innovation at the intersection of big data and digital media. As a senior executive in the cable industry for more than 20 years, Gemma experienced firsthand the transformative power of executive coaching and mentoring. With an eye toward helping other women achieve their potential, Gemma created TONE Networks, an online micro-learning and coaching tool designed for working women, founded in 2017. Prior to founding TONE Networks, Toner was SVP, Business Insights and Strategy at Cablevision Systems Corporation. During her tenure, she held roles in Marketing, Business Development, and Product Management. Most notably, she created an award-winning suite of products and first-to-market industry initiatives including Optimum Online, Optimum Wifi, Optimum Rewards, Optimum Voice, and Optimum Select (interactive advertising). Before Cablevision, Toner rose through the ranks at AMC Networks to become SVP, New Media Development. There, she led the development of new media and interactive opportunities for AMC Networks, positioning the company to capitalize on emerging entertainment platforms. Toner has been a past Chairperson for the Cable and Telecommunications Association for Marketing and a past board member at WICT (Women in Cable Television), as well as a Wonder Woman and Tami recipient. She was recently awarded a patent for The System and Method for Set Top Box Viewing Data, which enables the use of set top box data to measure audience viewing patterns. She served on the Board of Directors for several companies including Sandvine, (TSX:SVC) a leading provider of intelligent broadband network solutions for fixed and mobile operators, which was recently acquired by Francisco Partners, and Engagement Labs Inc. (TSXV: EL), which provides full-service next-generation social technology solutions for marketers. A graduate of Villanova University, Gemma currently is on the Board of Concern Worldwide, an international humanitarian organization partnering with local communities to transform the lives of the world’s poorest and most vulnerable people.


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

Iretired from Corporate America and wanted to find a way to make a social impact; I saw that there was a huge gap when it came to serving women leadership, development, and executive coaching.

My “aha” moment happened at a women’s leadership conference where I was speaking on “career pivots” in a room of extremely talented women, although was surprised by the amount of fear they seemed to have. I reflected on how these women were no different than me, yet were having trouble making pivots in their careers. So I wondered, how was I able to pivot? That’s where I thought about my past sponsors, executive coach, mentors, and the access I had to people who were willing to help me along my career, and realized that the key was to democratize that access. There is an extraordinary amount of talented women out there, and I started to look at how we bridge that gap in the era of online community and technology in a scalable way — so if women want to explore this avenue, it’s available to them.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began at your company?

The most interesting thing I’ve experienced since starting Tone is the generosity of the people I have met, which is also a valuable lesson I have learned. The people who are helping, supporting, coaching, mentoring and sponsoring me are not just the usual suspects. The most generous are the people who I didn’t expect to step up, yet have been the ones to help me build this. The lesson for me is to remember that you haven’t met the people who will help you in your next endeavor, and that rings true to Tone. For me, that has been one of the most extraordinary things to see.

I think the other extraordinary thing is the amount of impact Tone has been able to make on women in such a short timeframe. 89% of women who have engaged with Tone have seen positive impact in their personal and professional development, which is unbelievable for such a young company.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

Not so much a mistake, but a pivotal experience, happened when I was just starting out in my career. I was presenting to a room full of male colleagues and dove into the meeting, keeping to my motto “on time and on budget.” Following the meeting, I was pulled aside by a woman and was told I was “too aggressive and intimidating the men.” I think in hindsight, that stuck with me and put me on this path I’m on now.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

What makes us unique is that we’re addressing women in early to mid-stage careers, who typically don’t have access to this type of dedicated career coaching. There is a surprising lack of scalable leadership development designed for women in this market, even though this is a huge addressable group. That is shocking to me, since giving these women access to coaching and accelerating them are important priorities. We answer those typical questions that everyone has, yet aren’t actually taught at entry level. We help women who are early on in their careers to understand what leadership behavior looks like, with coaching topics like how to step up and ask for feedback. Leadership behaviors are a soft skill, and the earlier in their career they learn these skills, the better.

The other thing that makes us stand out is that we are external. Women sometimes want to learn from an outside source, versus only receiving company-controlled messages from their corporate programs. One of the value attributes of Tone is that we’re independent: we’re providing advice directly from experts on topics like unconscious bias, executive presence, and working through issues with management or colleagues. The lack of filtering adds value and credibility.

Lastly, women who engage with Tone relay back to us how we are impacting them professionally and personally. The combination of easily accessible practical advice, coupled with the sense of not feeling alone really sets us apart. The bottom line is, we want to be a part of changing the trajectory of women’s lives, and the good news is — we are!

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

We are always working on new projects. I think one of the areas that we are continuing to grow and expand is our pool of experts and research areas. We’re always learning and understanding more about what type of knowledge and advice women need access to, and looking for ways to apply technology as we evolve our member experience and content.

Ok super. Thank you for all that. Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview. Are you currently satisfied with the status quo regarding women in STEM? What specific changes do you think are needed to change the status quo?

The issue with STEM is that there is such a small percentage of women going into those fields, so you have the same situation across traditionally male-dominated industries, just like in the sports industry. These are also environments where interpersonal communication skills are mission critical, and often overlooked. This further compounds the unconscious bias women experience, which is more acute with STEM, although we are seeing this issue in a variety of verticals.

In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women in STEM or Tech that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts? What would you suggest to address this?

The challenges that women face in STEM or tech jobs start much earlier on in their lives, and continue at colleges and Universities. The stereotypes that start with young girls then pervade these academic programs, even if it’s just because there are so few women and so many men — it can be intimidating and discourage women from pursuing degrees and jobs in those fields as a result. So, for those women who make it through and pursue jobs in STEM or tech, it is crucial for them to have a supportive community and mentors and sponsors, with whom they can feel comfortable and empowered by as they advance through their careers. The companies and employers need to work proactively to reduce unconscious bias against women in these roles, especially on issues of salary and plum assignments.

What are your “5 Leadership Lessons I Learned From My Experience as a Woman in STEM or Tech” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)

  1. Support allyship for men and women. I believe that this is a large part of what helped me to succeed. If I did not have the support and mentorship from both women and men that I did as I was rising in my career, I don’t think I would have had the courage to create Tone.
  2. Lead with empathy. Empathy is often a trait minimized by society, but it’s part of what makes leaders I want to follow. Listen, make the extra effort to walk in the shoes of your team members. To get down to the crux of it, life and work are hard. When leaders and managers can face that head on and empathize with their staff, the unit becomes so much more cohesive, respectufl and inspired. Afterall, it’s easier to put in the hard work for someone you respect, versus someone who has given you no reason for loyalty.
  3. Provide honest feedback. Although sometimes it can be hard to give honest feedback, most people appreciate understanding on how they can improve rather than believing they are “great” when that may not be the case. Addressing those issues from the start also has the added benefit of mitigating many roadblocks or bad habits later down the road.
  4. Don’t wait to have the tough conversations. Similar to providing honest feedback, it is important to have the tough, but necessary, conversations early, because avoiding them will let the problem fester, causing an even worse scenario down the road.
  5. Be a mentor and sponsor. Being a mentor and sponsor to up-and-coming women is incredibly satisfying. Being able to help someone else is just as much a gift to oneself as it is for the other person.

What advice would you give to other female leaders to help their team to thrive?

I would say for female leaders, to acknowledge and recognize different types of people in the room and lead with empathy. When you’re in a meeting and a woman is talked over or her idea has been confiscated, help her out. Find ways to help other women at your company, as nothing is more powerful than helping someone rise, whether it’s teaching them something new, giving honest feedback, or having a difficult conversation.

What advice would you give to other female leaders about the best way to manage a large team?

Whether you’re managing a large team or small team, the basic tenets of leadership all still come into play. My advice would be to build and foster the soft skills alongside the work skills. Often, we focus so much on “nailing the basics,” that we forget skills like leadership are more effective when taught from the beginning.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

Mentors come in all different shapes and forms; these relationships don’t always have to be formal or even defined as “mentor/mentee.” Additionally, half the battle is understanding what a sponsor is versus a mentor.

I will forever be grateful to James (Jim) Dolan (executive chairman and CEO of The Madison Square Garden Company; executive chairman of MSG Networks). He tapped me to make the biggest career shift I have ever made. He saw more potential in me than what I saw in myself: allyship at its best. It was probably the hardest job I ever had, but also probably the most impactful when it came to pushing my career forward.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world? If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

If I could start a movement, it would be one that has global impact regarding women’s rights and empowerment. We can be so isolated when it comes to women’s rights in the rest of the world — in particular, developing countries.

Currently, I’m a board member of Concern Worldwide, which addresses poverty and helping the most vulnerable people in the world, which tend to be women and children, by first helping them to meet their basic needs like arranging for affordable living and providing food. Then, we teach women how to make money, so our focus becomes education — how to apply their learnings to the workforce and financial literacy.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“Let’s make history and have fun doing it.” I like to do things that people haven’t done before, and that is very much a part of my history. That’s what excites me: doing stuff that makes people say “why would you need to do that?” then making it happen.

We are very blessed that very prominent leaders read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂

I would absolutely love to have a private breakfast or lunch with Melinda Gates. She has a global view — between her organization and her initiatives, she will make measurable impact and I’d like to be a part of that.

Thank you for all of these great insights!

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