Challenging Stereotypes and Paving the Way Forward


Female leaders know first-hand how impactful a strong group of advisors, mentors, and champions can be in paving the way to the C-suite, and they are keenly aware of their role and responsibility in helping build a pipeline of future leaders that is diverse and inclusive.    

That’s what a ‘Women in Marketing Leadership RoundTable,’ hosted by Brand Innovators and moderated by Viacom Ad Solutions VP of New Business, Sarah McKee, concluded at SXSW.   

Invisalign Sr. Director of Consumer Marketing Kamal Bhandal, AARP EVP Chief Communications & Marketing Officer Martha Boudreau, Dell Technologies Director of Advertising & Content Rachael Henke, and Whole Foods VP of Brand Madhavi Reese joined. The Kraft Heinz Company Director of Brand Build Nicole Kulwicki, The Boston Beer Company Head of Media & Digital Kim Stokes, PepsiCo Senior Director of Shopper Marketing Esperanza Teasdale, Edible Arrangements Chief Marketing Officer Jill Thomas, and Hulu Head of Media Kendra Upham completed the incredible roster of female panelists that McKee moderated through a dynamic 90-minute discussion.   


After welcoming the panel and giving each woman two minutes to share “their story” with the room, McKee asked them to set aside the fact that they were “women” for a moment and to share some of the biggest challenges and learning curves they’ve encountered on their path to leadership.   

Every day I have to remind myself that substance is way more important than style when you’re leading a large group of people
— Jill Thomas

“Every day I have to remind myself that substance is way more important than style when you’re leading a large group of people,” responded Thomas, “it doesn’t have only to be “my way.” She added that diversity of thought was the key to success and that a leader must be able to look for the opposite of herself when building out a team. “I don’t need a bunch of “me’s.” I want people who are confident and challenge my way of thinking.” 

Such is the kind of leader likely to offer a seat at the table, a pivotal moment on the road to leadership that McKee asked her panelists to recall. Teasdale spoke of a time when, after stepping into the room to make sure senior executives had everything they needed for a meeting, someone—literally—offered her a seat at the table. 

“One of our sales leads, who ended up becoming a very good friend of mine and a great sponsor, said, ‘here’s the table and there’s a seat here if you want to take it,” she recalled. “That wouldn’t have happened had I not shown up.” 


McKee chimed in, “And don’t be afraid to talk.” “Very often, we have junior people that join meetings, sit around the table, and feel like they can’t speak,” she said. “We try to build an environment where everyone’s voice matters and good ideas can come from anywhere.”  

Your voice is the loudest when people don’t know you. So, speak up. You have a voice. Use it
— Madhavi Reese

“I have a reputation for meeting-crashing,” half-joked Reese, who also shared a fundamental lesson she learned early on from an influential supervisor: “Your voice is the loudest when people don’t know you.” “So, speak up. You have a voice. Use it.” she encouraged.

But, is it the responsibility of the company or the individual to open the dialogue, facilitate opportunity and pull people up within the organization? Asked McKee.

“I think it’s a mix,” answered Stokes. She added that both the individual and the organization should make strides towards more inclusive and empowering environments, but that things would only work if the whole company held these values. “I also think that if a program isn’t available, you should raise your hand. HR always needs champions to help them bring the outside in.” 

For Bhandal, fostering an environment of psychological safety is critical to creating an experience of diversity and inclusion for employees. “We as leaders have to showcase our commitment to diversity,” she said, and “create that psychological safety for everybody, give them experiences to shape those beliefs - only then do I feel like we are going to make some progress.”

When we think of diversity, we seldom include age in the discussion
— Martha Boudreau

And speaking of diversity, Boudreau encouraged the group to broaden their definition to include age. “When we think of diversity, we seldom include age in the discussion,” she said. “Diversity has to include that part because with age comes a kind of perspective and a richness that organizations need to tap into.”   

McKee then moved onto establishing the difference between mentors and champions. “I think there’s a difference between a mentor who will listen to you and give you advice and a champion who will advocate, open doors, and push you in ways that you may not expect,” she said.  

Boudreau, who agreed with the distinction, shared her mentoring story. “When I was early in my career, and it was all about proving yourself by being really good at what you do, I had a strong relationship with our then CEO who taught me probably the most powerful lesson of my career: the power of when someone believes in you,” she said. “When someone prominent in your career really believes in you, it pushes you to go to that next level and to really take on new things that get you where you want to go.”

Don’t forget about the idea of paying it forward
— Nicole Kulwicki

“Don’t forget about the idea of paying it forward,” said Kulwicki, adding that this is something we might tend to neglect due to our hectic schedules. “Often times we are so busy we can forget how important it is to be an advocate and recognize people in ways that are going to be impactful for them personally.” 

McKee then asked her panelists for their advice tied to a quote she had seen in celebration of International Women’s Day, “When you can’t find someone to follow, you have to lead by example.” 

Bhandal responded, “You hope you have people inside your organization to follow. But if you don’t, I’ve always found it helpful to build on the idea of an advisory board.” She explained that finding advisors outside of the company takes courage, but will help you navigate various stages of life, personally and professionally, with a unique perspective.  

There’s a lot of power in learning from your mentees
— Kim Stokes

Stokes flipped the script. “As a leader, having a champion is also critical, to inspire you and to encourage you to self-reflect,” she said, adding that a champion can come from outside of the organization and also “there’s a lot of power in learning from your mentees.” 

Upham then asked the audience, jokingly, how many of them had had a “shitty boss?” She quickly added, “think of what you’ve learned from them; the things you don’t want to do or the person you don’t want to be,” identifying an important step in becoming not only a great boss, and a mentor, but in figuring out how to become a leader.  

Switching gears, McKee then took the opportunity to explore traditional female stereotypes, when to embrace them and when to fight them. On the topic of “attention management,” Reese asked, “how many of you come home at the end of a busy day and think, ‘I didn’t get anything done? This happens all the time, and not because we’re disorganized or don’t have enough time, it’s because we don’t have enough attention.” She went on to explain that even though you cannot create more time, you can manage it better by fighting the instinct to multi-task and focusing more attention on the things that matter. 

How do you not feel guilty about saying no?
— Kendra Upham

Thomas then voiced her agreement. “I’ve learned the only way for us to be successful is to seize attention or save attention, but I always thought of attention in terms of the consumer, not in terms of how overloaded I am,” she said. “This is something I’d love to come back to a year from now and hear the progress, because we have become successful by being multi-taskers, and it’s going to kill us if we don’t figure out how to be more focused, disciplined, and get stuff done.”

Henke, a self-professed introvert with an extrovert personality, added, “I’ve had to become incredibly disciplined with understanding and embracing the introvert in myself and knowing, throughout the day and looking at my calendar, which situation will drain my energy.” She then balances those occasions with ways to re-energize herself through self-care, which has helped her be “much more effective, much more present” and allowed her to lessen her sense of guilt.   

“How do you not feel guilty about saying no?” asked Upham, who admitted that if she delegates and doesn’t attend the meetings herself she feels like she “can’t learn, if I can’t learn I can’t innovate or grow as a business as well as a person.”

After fellow panelists admitted to struggling with the same issue, Stokes offered a fresh perspective. “You got to take a moment to ask yourself, ‘if I go to all five of these meetings, am I actually going to provide value in all 5?’ Because if not, then maybe I don’t need to be there.” The Boston Beer Company executive said.

McKee then moved the panel to the topic of EQ. 

“EQ; you usually realize that you needed that skill when it’s too late,” Teasdale quipped. “And the spirit of that is to understand and be self-aware of your strengths and opportunities, so when you are in those hot moments, you respond in a way that enables productive learning.” 

“It takes self-reflection to keep yourself in control,” said Stokes. “The challenge as a leader is that if you lose on EQ, it could mark the good work you’ve been doing. Perception is the reality.” Bhandal chimed in to share one of her favorite quotes, “life is 10 percent what happens to you and 90 percent how you react to it” to drive the importance of prioritizing how to spend one’s energy. To close out this topic of EQ, Upham spoke of the topic of fear as a barrier, saying “don’t let fear disable you, let it enable you. Find ways to push through, because when you push through that fear, the world literally opens.”

McKee then concluded by asking her panelists how they are building the next generation of leaders and giving people, particularly women, permission to be great.  

“For talent to break through while they’re building capacity, they need time to think and not be completely task-oriented, so that they can breathe,” Boudreau said, adding that only with space and time can they identify what they need to accomplish for the brand. “It is only then that they too can grow,” she added.

Thompson spoke of creating a culture that supports personnel vision. “You can tell me whatever it is that you dream of. My goal is to help you get there.”

Reese rounded out the response by sharing how she asks her team to fill in a simple sentence “this year, I want to be known for ___. They just need to fill that in and stick it up in their office. It’s a very simple way to remember what matters to you. Write it down. Say it out loud, and you won’t forget it.”