Comcast is committed to helping local communities through economic development partnerships, tech and infrastructure investments, as well as products with redundancy and advanced options to prevent business disruptions. Their RISE program, which helps small businesses affected by the pandemic, was recently expanded to Washtenaw County.
In this episode, Sonya Callahan, Comcast’s Vice President of Business, shares with guest host Phil Santer, Senior Vice President and Chief of Staff at Ann Arbor SPARK, more about the efforts Comcast is making to connect with the community.
Phil Santer: Welcome to Ann Arbor SPARK’s CEO podcast. This is Conversations on Economic Opportunity. My name is Phil Santer, and I’m the Senior Vice President and Chief of Staff at Ann Arbor SPARK, filling in for president and CEO, Paul Krutko.
Joining me today from Comcast is Sonya Callahan, who is the VP of Business Services. Sonya recently was promoted to Vice President of Comcast Business in Michigan, and with a background in telecommunications and technology, she brings a wealth of experience to her role. She’s been with Comcast for over 14 years, during which she’s held various leadership positions within the organization. In her new role, Sonya will be responsible for overseeing and driving the growth of Comcast Business Services in Michigan.
So thanks for taking time out of your day to join us, Sonya.
Sonya Callahan: Thank you for having me. It’s an honor to be here talking to our great partner at Ann Arbor SPARK, so I’m excited to be here.
Phil: So with that as background, can you tell us maybe a little bit more about yourself aside from what I shared in your bio? And then it sounds like you’re new to this role in Michigan and new to Michigan. Do you have any surprises, things that were unexpected to you since you, since you’ve moved over this way?
Sonya: So I am new to the role and new to Michigan both. So I have been in this space for quite a long time for over 20 years, and have been in the business-to-business space. So I understand the space well and actually, I’m somewhat familiar to Michigan. It was in my territories in the past. However, I’ve never lived there. So I am a native to Colorado, you know, I’ve lived most of my life in Colorado. And so like most Colorado folks, I like the outdoors, right? The skiing, the running. There are no lakes—we call them ponds in Colorado. So that’s one nice, pleasant surprise of Michigan.
But really the thing that hits home the most to me is in the Western US, things are really spread out. They’re not as tight-knit, and the further east you go, it gets a lot tighter. And within Michigan, you have towns and you have townships and cities that all butt up right next to each other. And what’s so wonderful about it is the sense of community that each one of those townships or towns or cities might have — their own identity, their own community, and they protect it, they enjoy it, and they’re proud to be part of it. So, you know, Royal Oak might not be the same as Plymouth, that might not be the same as Ann Arbor. They’re all pleasant, wonderful places to be, and everyone’s proud to be there. So I really appreciate that with Michigan.
Phil: Well, I like that. I don’t know if I’ve heard population density necessarily shared as one of the things that was a pleasant surprise. So that’s a good frame. I like that. Well, I know that we’ve had a long-term, I guess, partnership between Comcast and Ann Arbor SPARK, and you’ve been a strong supporter of our organization. So can you maybe share a little bit around how Comcast Business views the importance of economic development organizations or where that sort of fits into the worldview within Comcast?
Sonya: Yeah, so Comcast, it’s hard to believe, comes from humble roots. So 60 years ago, it was formed and it was formed in a small town and in small communities, and that’s how it was built up. And Comcast has never forgotten their small-town roots. So we align with the missions that Ann Arbor SPARK and other economic development communities have in the sense that we respect and appreciate the resources that you all give to businesses. You know, you plan for business expansion, you help attract business to your area, you drive for overall economic development in the Ann Arbor area. So, of course, we like to partner with that because we also understand that businesses play a pretty significant role in the success of a community. So, you know, we want to be a good partner, we want to continue to play a significant role within your organization. As you know, we’re a proud sponsor of your annual events and we’re going to continue to do that. Pamela Dover from our team is also part of the business development committee. And, you know, the work that Ann Arbor SPARK does is invaluable. And as I mentioned, perfectly in line with our mission to support growing businesses.
Phil: Well, thank you for that. I know that we’ve really appreciated your support and partnership over the years, so that’s really helpful to gain a little bit more understanding on that background. But I imagine there are other local investments that you guys make. Can you share maybe a bit more on other ways that you guys are involved in doing that kind of work in our backyard?
Sonya: Sure. Well, Comcast does invest in many ways locally. Just for example, in the last three years, they have invested $13.5 million of in-kind and cash charitable contributions to Michigan nonprofits. And also within that same timeframe, roughly $850 million have been spent on technology and infrastructure investments throughout Michigan. That’s a significant investment. And we also have employees that live in all of these areas alongside the businesses that we support. So roughly 3,000 employees live across the state.
Something really exciting in your area, right there in Washtenaw County, is a 37-mile fiber infrastructure build to bring internet services to the areas of Ann Arbor Township, Lodi Township, and Scio Township. So exciting. It’s going to be a total of 525 households that get one gig symmetrical Internet where they did not have Internet before at all.
Phil: That’s pretty exciting. That’s quite the investment. Thank you for outlining that.
So switching gears slightly, but related to that piece, can you share a little bit, and this is maybe more on the business side than on the residential side, but in terms of our engagement with the business community and asking them about their operations and what’s important to them at any given moment, we know that business continuity is important or imperative for businesses to think about. Can you maybe share a little bit around what business continuity means, just in case that’s a term of art for folks that they haven’t heard before, and then share a little bit around how a partner like Comcast Business can play in that space?
Sonya: Sure, yeah. It is very important that businesses do have a continuity plan. And really what it is, is a plan to keep you in business when maybe something unexpected happens. This could be, you know, manmade, it could be nature that causes your business to not operate as it normally would.
So how do you develop a plan? You must develop a plan, first of all, if that happens. And really what this plan does is it protects you. It protects your reputation because you have a plan of action to put into play: it protects your sales, it protects your revenue, and keeping your customers. It can even improve your business, because as you start to build these plans, you’re like, Oh, maybe we can do something a little bit better in one area or another. And ultimately, it can also protect your business in terms of lawsuits and liability.
So having that continuity plan is extremely important. At Comcast, we have continuity plans. So equally important is picking to do business with those that also have a plan in place. So your supply chain, if your supply chain breaks, what’s your backup plan? And that’s really important that you pick the vendors that have these plans in place.
So as I mentioned, at Comcast, we do have a continuity plan, but we also provide tools for business continuity to our business customers. So part of our continuity plan is keeping a redundant network alive. You know, when fiber might be split, we have another route, a redundant route that we can go through. And so we also encourage our business customers to consider redundancy, but our products have some of it in it. Whether you’re a small business customer and maybe your coax modem goes down, we do have a backup where we can switch you over to wireless as an option right then and there. And for larger enterprise businesses, we have that option as well, but we have far more advanced options like redundant routes into buildings to ensure that their services are not disconnected for any sort of reason.
Phil: That’s great to know more about. I think what’s been interesting, at least from my seat for the past few years, is just how much extraordinary events that used to be like, ‘oh, they happen on occasion,’ seem to be happening more frequently now in terms of potential business disruptions. So it’s great to know more about that, and that you guys have been really thoughtful in trying to think through that.
Let me switch gears again slightly differently, but can I ask you a little bit more around another term of art that might be needed to be defined, but you guys have been recognized for sort of leading innovation and leadership and certainly in a secured network perspective. So there’s this phrase, software-defined wide area network or SD-WAN, if I’m saying that correctly, and you can tell me if I’m not. So can you explain what this is? And then if not, can you just share a couple of examples of what that’s all about?
Sonya: Yes. So SD-WAN. The way I like to explain advanced technology is in very simple forms. I’m going to use the cell phone as an example of what SD-WAN is. It’s really a piece of hardware and application that is used to be able to support, you know, many different network functions. So network management, firewall, DDoS mitigation, and application prioritization. So this device has all these different apps that are loaded onto it, similar to your phone. So if you want to go in and look at your firewall and manage your firewall, you can go to that application. It’s just a single pane of glass to be able to view your entire network.
If you have one site or you have thousands of sites, you can use the same application, whether you’re at a desktop, or we even have our own mobile app that you can load and manage your network from your phone no matter where you’re at. If you have some sort of connectivity, you can manage your network. We also have managed services where we manage your network for you and you can take control of the things that you want to control as a business.
So this single platform software-defined network, at the end of the day, is used to monitor and manage your business at the leisure that you want. And the great thing about the service is we have customers that love it and use it today. But an example of such a customer is like, think of the retail business and what they need to be up and have business continuity, right? They need to have an always-on point-of-sale system. They need to have supply chain optimization, so they have products on the shelves at the right time. And this particular retail business is under cyber attack more than any other industry. So they have to make sure that they also have cybersecurity that’s out there as well. So this single pane of glass can help provide all those services and they can manage it very simply. Think of a retail store, that’s a small business typically, and or a very large enterprise customer, and they’re managing it in a similar fashion.
Phil: That’s fascinating. I want to pull on one of the threads that you mentioned there, which is around cybersecurity. I know how important that is for everyone. I’m just thinking back from a conversation I’ve had recently with a business that when they were looking at their year-over-year growth on cybersecurity attacks, it had gone out, they had they weren’t being hyperbolic. It had gone up by a thousand percent from where it was just a few years ago. So can you maybe share a little bit around what small businesses or medium size or maybe even enterprise clients need to be thinking about as it relates to cybersecurity from your perspective?
Yeah, they need to be thinking about it, first and foremost. On the regular, they need to be thinking about it. Just to put it in perspective, every 39 seconds, a business is hacked. And so it’s very important that it becomes part of the habits part of, you know, everything that you’re doing within your organization, your culture at the end of the day. And there are some things I think are pretty important for businesses to consider.
First of all, they have to make sure that their employees are educated. They need to know, you know, don’t open up suspicious emails. Don’t click on a link that looks like it’s a bit shady. Be careful about all the information that you post out on social media, and make sure that you verify the purchases that you’re making, right, as a business or as an individual. At the end of the day, this goes, you know, to protect a business, it also helps you protect yourself.
And then there are tools that you can add in, you know, for the best type of defense. You want to have the right type of tools in place, like threat monitoring, firewalls, antivirus tools that are put into play, and you’re using and keeping up to date on the regular. And then there’s, you know, device management. At the end of the day, we want to make sure that our devices are protected, that we have passwords in place, and that we’re enacting strong policies and practices around that, like dual authentication or passwords changing on the regular.
You really have to be offensive in protecting your business these days. And then the last thing, it goes full circle back to that continuity plan, but have a plan in place. If you are attacked and if you know you are hacked, what do you do? Where do you go to? How do you plan for that? Within Comcast, we have products that support and help take some of that work away, especially in the small to medium business sector. You don’t need to be an expert. And we have our security edge product that really helps with endpoint detection and response, protects against malware, protects all the computers behind that particular network. And then we also have very high end solutions for the enterprise area, as it can get quite sophisticated. We have firewalls that can go along with that sophistication, like DDoS mitigation, managed security, you know, like I mentioned, endpoint detection and response. These are things that every business has to have in place. And Comcast has great products that we can help provide that for you. But first and foremost, this needs to be at the top of any business’s mind.
Phil: Great. So maybe kind of overlapping a couple of things that we’ve already chatted about between small businesses, cybersecurity, and a couple of elements. I want to pivot the conversation a little bit around to Comcast RISE. And I note here that one of the in-kind grants that small businesses can apply to this program— and I want you to share a little bit more about that— was for cybersecurity service as well as internet service and equipment. So can you explain maybe what Comcast RISE is all about and why it was started?
Sonya: Yeah, we are very excited about our Comcast RISE program. And RISE stands for Representation, Investment, Strength, and Empowerment. And it was actually created in November of 2020 to help the small businesses in our community that were hit hardest by the COVID-19 pandemic. Think of bakeries, barbershops, childcare centers, cleaning services, and we really wanted to provide them the grants needed for them to survive and recover and stay in business. However, this program really has evolved from helping businesses survive to helping businesses thrive. And since we started this program, this is an amazing number for all of our friends here in Michigan. Since we started in 2020, we have helped 974 businesses through this program. So it’s, it is something we’re very passionate and excited about and, you know, love to share with the business community.
Phil: Yeah, it’s a really impressive amount of work that you guys have already done. So it sounds like you’re looking at trying to award, I guess, a hundred businesses. And this would be throughout Washtenaw, Wayne, Macomb, Oakland, sort of Southeast Michigan. And the grant package, it sounds like it’s pretty robust. Can you share a little bit more about what’s included as part of that opportunity?
Sonya: Yes. So our grant packages historically were portions of all of this, and we decided to bring it all together and offer them to 100 small businesses in the Detroit area, a package that includes consultation. So we sit down with the business and assess, you know, what is their tactical planning? How can we provide some mentorships on how to grow the business? Sit down and do some business-to-business coaching with them. And then, like SPARK, we also have a lot of educational resources tailored specifically to that company and where they are within their business life cycle. We have monetary grants worth $5,000 that really goes to the business to grow and create some sustainability within that business.
And then we have a marketing piece of this as well, a creative production and media piece, where we go in and do a turnkey production of a 30-second TV commercial. And then we provide some media consultation and we run a 180-day media placement schedule for the business as well to really get the business’s name out there. And then finally, in our wheelhouse definitely, is our technology makeover, where we provide computer equipment and internet voice and cybersecurity services for 12 months free for that business.
Phil: That’s a pretty amazing suite for a business. So I know just looking at what gets the most attention from some of the work we do is that anytime you say ‘grant availability,’ people want to know where they can find out more. So can you just share a little bit more where people can find out about the eligibility criteria, where they can apply all that good stuff?
Sonya: Yes. And we, this is definitely the crowd that we want to make sure that we’re talking to about this because, first of all, to be eligible, you need to be in Washtenaw, Wayne, Macomb, or Oakland County. So that’s a requirement. And then your business needs to be established for three or more years, a hundred or less full-time employees. And you can get more details on this at www.comcastrise.com. The deadline to apply for this application is June 30th. So make sure that when you go out there, you apply, you fill out all the forms, double-check, and proofread it before you hit send. Make sure you have all the pertinent information in there and then send it on to us. We’re excited to reward that to a hundred businesses in this area.
Phil: Well, thank you, Sonya. I know that we’ll have that information in that link available, not only in the show notes for this episode, but also available at our website as well.
So Sonya, I want to thank you for takingthe time to speak with us today.
And I want to thank our audience for listening and learning more about those leaders and organizations working hard to create the Ann Arbor region’s economic future. These conversations are brought to you by Ann Arbor SPARK. For more information about Ann Arbor SPARK, you can find us on the web at Ann ArborUSA.org, and also on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and LinkedIn.
So thanks, Sonya.
Sonya: Thank you for your partnership and continuing to help amplify the Comcast RISE message. Appreciate it.
Sonya Callahan’s Bio
Sonya Callahan is the vice president of Comcast Business in the Heartland Region, which includes Michigan, Indiana and Kentucky. She has 22 years of experience in the telecommunications industry, including seven with Comcast. Prior to this role she served as senior director of Business Development for Comcast’s West Division. In this role, she was responsible for overseeing all network expansion projects across 13 states. Throughout her 22-year career, she has held numerous leadership positions in business sales, operations, and engineering.
Sonya earned a Bachelor of Science in business management from Colorado State University. She is also a graduate of The WICT Network’s Rising Leaders Program, a premier professional development program for emerging women leaders in media, entertainment, and technology.