She was a 23-year-old chemical engineer when she joined New York Telephone in 1984. One of her first jobs: be the first female boss for some veteran union workers testing phone circuits in Lower Manhattan.
Virginia Ruesterholz ’83 had never actually tested phone circuits herself. But one of her technicians, Walter Jarvis, had, so she worked alongside this veteran—who was old enough to be her dad and who took the time to teach her.
Ruesterholz fondly recalls Jarvis more than 25 years later, as she reflects on an extraordinary career she’s built to become one of the highest ranking women ever in the telecommunications giant that later followed New York Telephone, Verizon Communications.
“You never know who your most important mentors may be,” she says. Often, it can be someone who works for you.
Like her mentors, Ruesterholz generously shares the lessons she’s learned through her 28-year rise within one of the world’s most prestigious companies. She describes her career as a story of “so many opportunities, so many people to learn from.”
“When I look at my career, people say: What was your career plan? It really was one word: Yes,” she says. She’s always said yes to new challenges, even to jobs that required impossible commutes or just seemed out of her league.
Among the undergraduate women who have passed through the Stevens campus over the past 40 years, Virginia Ruesterholz shines as a spectacular success story. She is currently executive vice president of Verizon Communications, responsible for overseeing the company’s key strategic initiatives. She is the person who led Verizon’s recent charge to roll out FiOS, the well-regarded, high-speed fiber optic network that offers phone, internet and television services through wiring directly to people’s homes.
She is also the first woman in Stevens’ history to be named vice chair of the Stevens Board of Trustees, where she has served since 2007. In addition, she is the chair of the Board of Advisors for the Stevens School of Systems and Enterprises (SSE).
Perhaps most impressive of all is that she accomplished all of this while still raising two children with her husband, Kevin ’83.
When she speaks by phone one recent afternoon from her office in Basking Ridge, N.J., Ruesterholz is warm, gracious and instantly makes you feel comfortable. She shares memories and seems genuinely grateful to so many people for the success she has enjoyed. She seems super organized—she prefers that questions about her life start from her beginnings—and makes a half-hour conversation engaging and fulfilling as she completes the call just in time to rush off to a meeting.
When asked about her proudest accomplishments, she says that the FiOS project was certainly a highlight. So was the great team effort that she led earlier in her career to automate the dispatching of technicians, whose repair and installation visits had been tracked by mountains of paperwork, not a computer.
The successes she recalls have to do with people who came together to do amazing things, including her own family.
Shortly after her daughter, Katie, was born, in 1995, Ruesterholz was transferred from Manhattan to Garden City, N.Y. to head NYNEX’s Long Island business unit. She had two young children and was living in Holmdel, N.J.; the new job would require a 170-mile round-trip commute. But she knew it was a great opportunity and thanks to her husband and her parents, she was able to take the assignment.
Her team in Long Island saw how hard she worked, how she started work early and left late despite the long commute, and they stepped up, too. They enjoyed great success and a great relationship, she recalls.
But Ruesterholz saves her greatest praise for her family. Her parents, the late George and Virginia Mahoney, cared for her children when they were small. And Kevin, who now works as an attorney but had been a senior manager with Lucent Technologies near their home, was indispensible. She says that she wouldn’t be where she is today without them.
“You’ve got to find a support system, and he’s there for me,” she says. “There always has to be someone who carries the ball when it’s falling.”
When Ruesterholz received an honorary degree from Stevens in 2008, her husband and children were there to cheer her on. She honored them.
“Throughout my career, I relied on my parents, my husband and my children to keep me grounded and remind me what’s really important in life,” she said that day.
The only child of George, a middle school principal, and Virginia, an elementary school teacher, Ruesterholz grew up in Matawan, N.J. Her parents had a strong belief in education, and her mother was proud to have earned a college degree when few women of her generation did.
“They told me that you need to get a great education, then you need to pick a career and give back,” she says.
Ruesterholz also salutes Sister Margaret Mary, her calculus teacher at St. John Vianney Regional High School in Holmdel, who encouraged her to use her strengths in math and science to become an engineer.
She visited Stevens and fell in love with it: the “tremendous, good feeling,” the close-knit community. “I really felt a connection,” she says.
It was here that she met her husband. They started dating their senior year, getting better acquainted after she accidentally sprayed him full blast with a faucet during chemistry lab. They’ll be married 28 years this June.
“I met my husband there, and it’s been such a major influence on my life,” she says, when she explains why she does so much for Stevens, from her time as a trustee to her family’s support as major donors. Ruesterholz was very active as a student, as president of the American Institute of Chemical Engineers and a member of Tau Beta Pi and the Society of Women Engineers. For her many professional accomplishments, Ruesterholz, who earned a master’s degree in telecommunications management from Polytechnic University, received the Stevens Honor Award in 1995.
Ruesterholz’s climb through the ranks of New York Telephone, NYNEX and Bell Atlantic, companies that through mergers and acquisitions became Verizon, has been extraordinary. After starting with New York Telephone as a manager, Ruesterholz was named market area vice president and general manager for service delivery and field operations. She later rose to senior vice president of Wholesale Markets.
She was later promoted to president of Verizon Telecom, where she was responsible for sales, customer service, operations and IT for the consumer, general business and domestic wholesale markets. Before assuming her current position, she served as president of the former Verizon Services Operations, a global shared-services business group that operated Verizon’s wireline network as well as the finance operations, real estate and supply chain services that support all Verizon companies.
Stevens Professor Richard Magee ’63 serves with Ruesterholz on the Stevens Board of Trustees and praises her leadership skills, dedication and ability to connect with others.
“She’s just great to work with,” he says. “She provides wise counsel and clearly is a worker. She puts a lot of time in; it’s quality time. She makes people around her feel very comfortable.”
With her prominent position with Verizon, and the demands of her work with Stevens, Ruesterholz has limited free time. Her favorite way to unwind? Be with her family as much as she can.
Some days, she’ll just jump on the train to Washington, D.C., to catch a movie with Scott, 19, who attends Georgetown University. She attends 16-year-old Katie’s field hockey games whenever she can.
When Ruesterholz thinks back on the rewards of her long career—and the sacrifices she’s made—she always comes back to the people.
“You can have the greatest technology,” she says, but it’s the people you work with—to solve problems together, to help each other – who make the work worthwhile.
“People make it,” she says.