Against all odds – Cox Communications leader Jacqui Vines shares her story

Jacqui Vines met her mother when she was 5 years old. Her Aunt Hattie—6 feet tall and brimming with moxie—loaded the young Jacqui into a pink Cadillac and drove her more than 500 miles from Farmville, N.C., to Norwalk, Conn.

Hattie had raised the girl since birth. It was time for Jacqui to join her mother in Connecticut and start school.

Once in Norwalk, Hattie pulled the Cadillac up a long driveway, at the end of which a woman was waiting. Hattie introduced mother to daughter. She gave Jacqui a kiss, said “Bye, baby,” got in the car and drove back to North Carolina.

“I will never forget standing at the window of my new room and wondering when she was going to come back,” Vines says.

The story is emblematic of the chaotic childhood that preceded Jacque Vines’ wildly successful, though atypical, career trajectory.

As senior vice president of Cox Communications’ Southeast Region—its Louisiana, Georgia and Florida markets—Vines is one of the state’s highest-profile female business executives. She oversees 600 Cox employees at the Baton Rouge location and about 2,500 employees in the three states.

Vines’ telling of her arrival in Norwalk reflects a built-into-her-bones optimism that has sustained her through long odds, including later years in foster care and even through abuse.

That Vines shares her story at all is remarkable for a business leader, but it may be the way she tells it that’s still more striking. When she describes the day her 5-year-old life was upended, for instance, she does it not with anger but rather with humor and even compassion for the adults involved.

But she hasn’t always shared her story.

“I used to worry that people would judge me,” Vines says. “Now I’m too comfortable in my own skin to worry.”

Vines is wonderfully comfortable with herself and strives to make others comfortable as well. She tells her three daughters to carry a smile in their hearts, and there she sets a vivid example. She seems to smile with her whole body. She walks fast, talks with her hands and radiates energy. She has a hearty laugh that, like her smile, is expressed by her entire being, not just her eyes and mouth.

Vines appears at least a decade younger than her 53 years. On a recent Friday afternoon, she wore an animal-print sweater, linen-hued trousers and ankle boots. She is funny, frank and warm.

“She has a personality that fills up any room she’s in,” says John Davies of the Baton Rouge Area Foundation, who first worked closely with Vines during the redevelopment of the Bon Carré Business Center, where Cox is the anchor tenant. “It’s magical to watch.”

Compassion is another undercurrent in Vines’ story. Bill Geppert, her former boss in San Diego, recalls Vines’ approach in firing an employee there. The young man had made a mistake and had to be let go, but Vines used the occasion to reassure him that she believed he would go on to achieve success elsewhere. She walked the young man to the parking lot and hugged his waiting parents, Geppert recalls.

“She can deliver hard news in a way that people can accept,” he says. “She has an ability to read people and connect with them that is extraordinary.”

Vines has traveled the world and loves to golf—she is a member of the Country Club of Louisiana and hit the links during a recent vacation to Cuba—but she is equally at-home in boardrooms and among ordinary folks. When she strolls through the cavernous call center of Cox’s Florida Boulevard site, customer-service representatives wave at her and joke with her.

“This group likes to feed me when I look too skinny,” she says as heads pop over the top of cubicles. She stops when she spots a vase with a dozen red roses on a woman’s desk.

“Are you in love?” Vines asks.

“Well, yes, I am,” Chernella Janise quips. “But these are for my birthday.”

Vines’ first stop in the telecommunications industry was as a receptionist at Time-Warner Cable in Dublin, Ohio, in 1984. She says she “ran the office like Mary Tyler Moore because I thought Mary Tyler Moore was a receptionist.” (Early on she also worked as a stenographer for the FBI. She completed a year of secretarial school at 19 and still does her own typing.)

She worked her way up the ranks at Cox through human resources, taking jobs with the company in New Orleans and San Diego before landing in Baton Rouge in 2000 as Louisiana’s general manager. Her human-resources background is an unusual route to the finance side of business. Vines got there, she says, by gradually expanding her roles in operations and “studying every pot of money to understand where every penny came from.”

By her own admission, Vines has achieved life’s major milestones in reverse order.

“I’ve done things backward,” she laughs. “But here I am.”

She celebrated her first real Christmas at age 17 in the home of a white couple, the foster parents who gave her a loving and stable home and whom she still calls Mom and Dad and sees on regular trips back to Connecticut.

She drove a yellow Volkswagen Beetle from Connecticut to Ohio in 1973 to start classes at Ohio State but went back to full-time work after a year. She graduated from college at age 40 after 22 years of taking night classes while working full-time jobs from Ohio to California to Wisconsin to New Orleans. (She got her degree from the University of Redlands-San Diego.)

She adopted three foster children—biracial sisters, now ages 8, 10 and 11, all students at Dunham—at age 49 after fostering the girls for a year.

Vines says she has not tried to erase from memory the people or experiences that delivered valuable lessons from harder times. To wit: She credits the months she spent in a Connecticut group home she entered at age 13 as “the period when I really began to find my voice as a leader.” She recently reconnected with a friend she met when both were teens in the now-closed facility.

There is no typical day at the office for Vines. Outside board meetings keep her busy. She is often in the studio to record messages on behalf of the company. She already traveled weekly to New Orleans in her former position, but her recent promotion to manager of operations in three states will further crowd her schedule.

Vines balances the rapid-fire pace of her days by rising alone at 5 a.m. to contemplate daily devotions. Each night before she goes to bed she thinks about what she could have done differently.

“I ask myself: Did I insult anybody? Was I too lenient with the girls? Then I ask for guidance, say my prayers and go to sleep.”

The story of her journey to motherhood began on one of the most tumultuous days in U.S. history—the September 11 terrorist attacks. Vines was sitting in a boardroom with other employees, watching the horror unfold on television. Everyone ran out of the room to call a loved one. Vines sat alone.

“I realized I had no one to call,” she says.

She thought about what she really wanted from life, and about the meaning of family. She decided to do more for her community, including its most vulnerable women and children. She came face-to-face with some of those children in Baton Rouge during the 2004 production of a Cox program on the state’s foster-care system.

Vines began to think more about what kind of mother she would make, and whether she could make her commitment to children not just a bigger part of her life, but an intensely personal one.

Like everything else she undertakes, Vines moved forward full-throttle. She enrolled in a 10-week class to prepare herself for foster parenting. She told social workers she could take two children at most. The agency called to say they were looking for a home for three sisters. Vines tossed out her rulebook and opened her mind.

She met her three girls for the first time at the McDonald’s at the Tanger Outlet Mall off Interstate 10 in Gonzales. She felt right away they would be coming home with her for good. Vines fostered them for a year, and then adopted them in 2009. She glows when she describes them, each so different.

There is Breyaunna, the oldest, who “never meets a stranger.” Maya, the middle sister, quietly studies those around her. Then there is the baby, Raven, who “knows no boundaries,” Vines says.

Vines describes herself “a business mom.” She employs a team of former teachers to orchestrate much of the girls’ days, including after-school pickup and homework. She makes breakfast—grits are a favorite—three mornings a week.

She travels frequently, and takes the girls with her on out-of-country trips every other year. They love the color of the ocean, she says. They have seen its hues in the waters off Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, and Puerto Rico. In December the family headed to the Bahamas.

The girls get an allowance, but they are expected to set aside some of it for savings and gifts for each other. The family prays together “to do the right thing” each morning before leaving the house. Vines says she won’t put up with disrespect and expects first-rate manners, but she says her household is also “sassy, funny, loving.”

Vines look back over her life so far and is thankful for the opportunities she has had, the experiences she has endured, and the blessings she has received. She understands that her story holds value to others. Vines tells it willingly—not to emphasize her own success but to inspire other youth to overcome adversity.

A plaque on her office wall serves as a reminder to share her story. It contains a passage from Nelson Mandela’s 1994 inaugural speech, originally written by Marianne Wilson. It encapsulates the way Vines interacts with others and embraces everyday life: “There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine. … And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same.”