From a young age, Renu Thomas seemed destined for a career in the humanities.
As a teen living in a rural New York, she edited her high school newspaper and a guidance counselor suggested that a liberal arts or English track might suit her best in college.
But Thomas had always thought of herself as a "process person." So when she learned that Cornell University, a school long admired by her father, was at the top in engineering, she set that as her goal instead.
“I think I knew a liberal arts degree wouldn't differentiate me from other people and wasn't going to help me long term," Thomas said.
Little did she know at the time, but she wasn't shutting the door on a job in the culture industries. She was opening it.
More than 20 years after graduating from Cornell with a master's in engineering, Thomas finds herself as one of the top technology leaders in television during a time when changing viewer habits are upending the industry.
Her promotion in December to executive vice president of media operations, engineering and IT at Disney-ABC Television makes her a key figure in this shift in the television industry given the number of channels and networks the company controls.
In her new role, Thomas is responsible for building and maintaining a vast technical infrastructure that includes high-tech control rooms to ensure content is distributed to televisions, tablets, phones and set-top boxes. The ABC Television Network, ABC News, Freeform, the Disney Channels and eight local affiliates are all within her purview.
Vince Roberts, a former executive vice president for global operations and chief technology officer at Disney-ABC, said Thomas will play a strategic role.
“She completely understands the intricacies of the media business and is constantly asking 'what if'— looking to innovate and make the business stronger," he said.
ABC was the first major network to put its own shows online and signed on early with the Hulu streaming service. Video content overall is more accessible to consumers on more devices than ever before. But behind that ease of use is a technical challenge to make sure video arrives just as clearly and reliably as it does for over-the-air television.
“I don't think people understand how important tech is to media, and as a Cornell undergraduate or graduate student, that's nothing we thought about," said Thomas, who earned a bachelor's in science from Cornell in 1990.
Thomas said the principles she learned while specializing in operations research and information engineering while earning her master's come into play almost daily.
“In every job I've had, it's about optimizing your workflow and bringing in technology to optimize that workflow," she said.
Even with her deep background in technology and engineering, Thomas equally credits her social skills — along with the ability to communicate ideas and lead others — with her success today. That means talking to both engineers and programmers, and helping them understand how to use their own voice effectively in presenting and implementing their ideas.
Thomas looks for these same skills even in her interns — students who can work alongside business leaders on projects and who possess a mix of both critical thinking and technical skills. She's focused on supporting young women in particular, helping them embrace their interest in science as they move forward in their careers.
In that endeavor, it is indeed possible that she's influenced a fellow "process person" — a girl teetering between pursuits in engineering and liberal arts.
“I think it's about little girls seeing that they can be technologists," she says. “You can be a girly girl as much as a smart person who likes math and science. I am a geek, but I am not a geek. We kind of steer people to this idea of what an engineer is. You don't have to like Star Wars. You don't have to fit that profile."