Fearless and elegant, Rose Stuckey Kirk inspires others to lean into their strengths.
By Regine Malibiran, Photos by Annie Ray, Styled by Parke Ballantine (with assistance from Noalanii Karkashian) with inspiration from The Garden Room (@gardenroomatx), Ephrance Vintage (@ephrancevintage), Be Beadiful (@bebeadiful_jewelry), Soul Rebel (@shopsoulrebel) and Nordstrom (@nordstrom). Hair and makeup by Sophia from LoLa Beauty Austin
Rose Stuckey Kirk is a risk-taker, and stopping is not an option.
Resourceful and resilient, as the senior vice president and chief corporate social responsibility officer for Verizon, she has effectively prioritized the advancement of digital equity across the United States for more than a decade. Upon meeting Stuckey Kirk, it’s clear she is a leader with vision. Someone who can both gracefully motivate and persuade others in order to get the job done.
She cultivated that well-earned poise throughout her life. In the 11th grade, she recalls feeling unsure about the direction she wanted to take her future.
“I remember thinking, ‘What am I going to do?’ I wandered into a journalism class—it was an elective—and I took it and I loved it.”
After that fateful course, Stuckey Kirk graduated with a degree in journalism from Arkansas State University. She started her career by writing for newspapers before taking one of her first big risks: transitioning to corporate America.
“I had to talk to someone about what clothes to go buy to come to my first job. But I knew that there was opportunity there, so I took it,” Stuckey Kirk recalls. “I believe that you should take risks so you can grow in your comfort level of what your capabilities are.”
Her first foray into corporate America was as an executive speech writer. She made an intentional effort to learn the operations of different functions within the corporate structure, gaining experience in marketing, advertising, sales, customer care and union management. As she progressed on this journey, Stuckey Kirk navigated learning her value, developing an understanding and instinct for how to best leverage what she brings to the table.
“You are going to fail at some things,” Stuckey Kirk shares. “There is no doubt about it. But you can’t operate from fear or failure. You have to operate from faith.”
For Stuckey Kirk, the strong-willed entrepreneurial spirit is hereditary. Her father was a self-taught barber. As a young girl she got an intimate look into what it takes to be successful as a small business owner. Driven by the pursuit to share that self-determination with others, Stuckey Kirk chose education as a pillar for the work she advances at Verizon.
Completing her higher education was never a question for Stuckey Kirk, as she grew up in rural Arkansas. For her family, education was the ladder to economic prosperity—the great equalizer.
“I come from a lineage where my great-grandfather rode his bicycle to get to college and was a prosperous farmer,” says Stuckey Kirk. “No one could take away your education, and so it was everything for my family.”
At Verizon, she pays that prosperity forward through initiatives like Verizon Innovative Learning HQ, a program that encompasses learning tools, including lesson plans designed to spark exploration and professional development. For 10 years, Verizon has been providing Title I middle and high schools with 5G access, learning tools and hardware, and training for both teachers and students, with the goal of empowering youth to explore STEM and equip them for their future. Verizon Innovative Learning has created opportunities for over 1.5 million students in the United States, including five middle schools in Austin ISD.
According to the National Digital Inclusion Alliance, digital equity is “necessary for civic and cultural participation, employment, lifelong learning and access to essential services.” It’s achieved when “all individuals and communities have the information technology capacity needed for full participation in our society, democracy and economy.”
The United States Department of Education’s Office of Educational Technology found that between 15 to 16 million K-12 students don’t have the digital access required for effective learning, with Black, Hispanic and Native American children and teenagers disproportionately disadvantaged.
The Office of Educational Technology has identified three components of access: availability, affordability and adoption, with adoption presenting a tricky final barrier that affects 6 million students. Verizon Innovative Learning takes that extra step to address adoption. As part of the program, they provide funding, training and IT implementation support.
“Our responsibility is to allow children’s dreams to be fulfilled, and not have them change their perception of what they can be,” asserts Stuckey Kirk. “How do you ensure an environment where people don’t only have access to the technology, but they can also become experts?”
Stuckey Kirk’s own experiences as a student heavily informs her thinking. Despite growing up in a state that consistently ranks at the bottom of the nation’s education system, she remembers having “teachers who were so smart, so capable, leaning in and challenging us and showing us what could be possible.”
They made her confident enough to compare next to anyone who received “elite” schooling.
“I hold [Arkansas] up as a badge of honor,” says Stuckey Kirk. “Because it helps me to dimensionalize for people that it doesn’t matter where. It matters what and who: What are the tools that you give students and teachers? Who are you willing to invest in?”
With Stuckey Kirk at the helm, Verizon Innovative Learning has invested over $1 billion into digital equity and education. Her commitment doesn’t stop there. In 2020, she led Verizon into adopting a “responsible” business plan that drives the advancement of digital inclusion, climate protection and human prosperity. They have an ambitious goal of providing 10 million youth with digital skills training by 2030 as well as supporting 1 million small businesses with digital resources.
One of the major differentiators in how Verizon approaches corporate social responsibility is as “part of a balanced scorecard.” Because Stuckey Kirk took the time to familiarize herself with various functions within the corporate structure, she’s able to see how a company as a whole can align itself for the greater good. There is a trust that fellow leaders within Verizon can place in Stuckey Kirk because she meets them where they are and understands how to integrate their strategy with hers.
Pride suffuses Stuckey Kirk when she talks about her team. She’s intentional about recruiting subject matter experts that believe in doing more than just throwing money at projects. Solution oriented and data-driven, Stuckey Kirk and her team commit to the longevity of their programs.
“[The core mission of this company] is to ‘build the networks that move the world forward,’” says Stuckey Kirk. “How are we thinking about corporate social responsibility in a way that is moving the world forward?”
Digital equity has become particularly relevant since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. Schools and businesses alike had to quickly pivot to utilizing the digital space. Some were better equipped and better supported than others.
“What the pandemic did was help society to see that we had a very unequal distribution of digital technology,” states Stuckey Kirk. “We still have generations of young people that have gotten further behind as a result of the pandemic.”
Research by Sean Reardon, professor of poverty and inequality in education at the Stanford Graduate School of Education and a senior fellow at the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research, found that the pandemic only served to widen the educational gaps between low- and high-income students.
“School districts are the first line of action to help children catch up,” says Reardon. “The better they know about the patterns of learning loss, the more they’re going to be able to target their resources effectively.”
New research has shown that though the 2020-21 school year experienced declines in math, there was an inconsistent pattern in regards to remote versus in-person learning. “Based on the discussion before these results came out, you’d think that the only thing driving achievement losses would be remote learning. Actually that does not seem to be the case,” says Thomas Kane, the faculty director of the Center for Education Policy Research and professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.
This presents an opportunity for Stuckey Kirk and her Innovative Learning team, who focus on equalizing the equalizer. With schools strategizing around students’ academic recovery, prioritizing digital inclusion can be pivotal in helping educators bridge the gap.
Stuckey Kirk permanently moved to Austin in 2020. As a senior executive in tech, she’s enthusiastic about the track record and the potential of her new hometown. Because the city is centrally located, Stuckey Kirk believes that one of Austin’s biggest opportunities is its position to bring in talent from surrounding areas and states and develop as a “shining beacon” within the infrastructure of the South.
“Austin is full of people who are so committed to community. Austin was built on that foundation,” reflects Stuckey Kirk. “I’m just delighted that the work that I get to do every day, I can center out of this community that feeds my soul and motivates me in ways that I have not had out of a community in an awfully long time.”
Though she loves that social impact work is inherently understood in an ecosystem like Austin’s, there are still developing challenges that she’s identified.
“We [can’t] create an environment where we price people out of housing,” asserts Stuckey Kirk. “People need homes, because the strength of your community is in people’s ability to have affordable housing.”
Affordability is certainly a top concern for Austinites. A recent study by researchers at Florida Atlantic University found that Austin is the second most overpriced housing market in the nation, with average home prices 65% higher than data trends predict. In 2022, the Texas Lyceum found that 50% of Texas adults believed housing costs consume too much of their income, an increase from 44% in the 2020 Texas Lyceum Poll. Looking at renters specifically, who comprise most of Austin’s residents, 66% believe they spend too much on housing.
“If someone is paying more than 30% of their income toward their housing expenses including mortgage or rent, insurance and utilities, then they are cost-burdened,” says Sherri Greenberg, professor of practice and fellow of the Max Sherman Chair in State and Local Government at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at UT Austin.
The City of Austin’s Household Affordability Program found that about 28% of Austin’s households are cost-burdened, with low-income renters taking the brunt of the impact. 53.6% of renters with a household income lower than $35,000 spend more than half of their income on rent.
Upon examining the cause and effect of affordability issues, it’s clear that the state’s priorities play a major role. According to Steven Pedigo, professor of practice at the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at UT Austin and the director of the LBJ Urban Lab, Texas dedicates less than 1% of the state budget to housing and community development, ranking 49th in the country in regards to fund allocation for affordable housing.
“What I love about the state is that it’s so welcoming to transplants,” shares Stuckey Kirk. “But I don’t want us to lose sight of what the needs are for individuals—for women, for people of color—who we can lift into great economic prosperity. We have to ensure that we’re creating an entire infrastructure that demonstrates how people can be part of helping the city continue to thrive.”
Stuckey Kirk’s work is not charity. It is far-reaching cultivation, seeds planted in every person she impacts. She recalls stories of educators who are newly energized and inspired to teach, whose pride is clear in the work they do; previously unmotivated students who discover their passion for exploration feeling confident in thriving during their next stages; as well as the reciprocal invigoration that motivates her to dig deeper and grow stronger.
“The life-changing impact that we are having, I call it legacy work,” says Stuckey Kirk. “There is no greater legacy than having created [Verizon Innovative Learning].”
For those who aspire to build their own legacy, Stuckey Kirk’s advice is straightforward. Know yourself, know the problem you’re solving and “have a mindset of building solutions with individuals, not for individuals.”
Raised in a community that often talked to their neighbors from their porches, Stuckey Kirk’s intention to build trust through close collaboration sets her apart as a leader. Over a decade into the work, she is sharper and more zealous than ever before.
“Very few people are waiting around for someone to save them,” says Stuckey Kirk. “What they want is partnership. What they want is you to understand their issues, their journey, their why, and be part of the what. What can we do to address these issues? What can we do to make it better?”