Women in Business Q&A: Kathy O'Brien, Vice President of Skin and Marketing Services, Unilever North America

Kathy O'Brien is Vice President of Skin and Marketing Services Unilever North America. She is a member of the North American Leadership Team, where she is responsible for Shopper Marketing, Marketing Communications, Digital/e-Commerce and Marketing Capabilities. Her responsibilities also include AXE, Dove, Caress, Lever 2000, Suave, Simple, Vaseline, Pond's and Q-tips.

In support of Unilever's mission to build brands with purpose and make sustainable living commonplace, Kathy has been involved with the Dove business for a number of years, responsible for building brand equity and executing brand activation plans for Dove in the United States. She has led programs that helped Dove achieve its goal of reaching five millions girls with self-esteem programming.

Kathy holds an undergraduate degree from Boston College and an MBA from Columbia University. She resides in Connecticut.

How has your previous employment experience aided your tenure at Unilever?
Unilever is the only company I have ever worked for. One of the reasons why I've loved working here is because there was no need for me to go anyplace else. Anything I wanted to do, an opportunity was afforded to me. The important lesson I've learned over the years is to keep tapping into the network and ask for roles that might not seem like the obvious next choice. For example, when I started in Sales, the team was very specific that it would be an unlikely move to break into the marketing division. Yet through persistence on my end and a supportive team around me, I was able to step into marketing roles across the Skincare, Personal Care, Food and Shopper Marketing divisions.

What have the highlights and challenges been during your tenure at Unilever?
Asking for and receiving the job as Marketing Director of Dove. Previously, I had been in a position that I didn't especially enjoy and I wasn't acting like myself. Unilever said, what do you want? I asked for the Dove job and was told that they could transition me to the position in one year. One year to the day, I got the job. So, don't be afraid to ask for the big job - and be willing to give back a little something (like waiting a year) to make sure you get it.

What advice can you offer to women who want a career in your industry?
Make sure you love what you do, because you have to do it for a very long time - longer than you've ever imagined. Specifically, working for a large international consumer packaged goods firm affords so many different opportunities; don't be afraid to try new things and be open to opportunities you hadn't previously considered. For many of the jobs I've taken, I would never have guessed they'd be top-of-my-list, but these turned out to be most career-advancing and best for my development. Don't let the size or complexity of an organization scare you because once you get in and begin working within teams, you'll feel like home.

What is the most important lesson you've learned in your career to date?
Keeping your head down and working does not get you ahead. You have to be a bit more ambitious and public about your ambition than you thought you ever had to be. Don't be afraid to ask for what you want. Women aren't as good at being their own self-advocates as men are, but there's no reason why not. You have to be your own biggest cheerleader and keep in mind that there's a level of self-advocacy and confidence you have to exude to get ahead.

How do you maintain a work/life balance?
It's important to make sure you have other things in your life that are as important as work - whether it's friends, family, hobbies, etc. Work/life balance is defined by individuals, not organizations. You have to decide what's right for you.

What do you think is the biggest issue for women in the workplace?
Women have every right to be at the table and have proven that - they just need to believe it! I really feel like that's the biggest thing. We deserve the jobs that we want and continue to deserve the ones we have.

How has mentorship made a difference in your professional and personal life?
I've had a number of mentors throughout my career. Informal mentors have worked best for me. I have been lucky enough to have many fabulous colleagues and managers, at the right times, who have pushed me to believe that I can achieve more than I thought I could. Early in my career, someone told me once that I acted like a deer in the headlights when it came to personal conversations with senior management. He told me to prepare an "elevator speech" and booked me five appearances with important stakeholders within the company - the head of Finance, HR, etc. It was a brilliant, breakthrough moment for me and it definitely made me stronger.

Which other female leaders do you admire and why?
I've been exposed to a fair amount of wonderful female leaders, but I'll pick a few who struck me in unique ways. I met Ursula Burns from Xerox at a conference. She really built her career up through the organization and I was amazed at how frank, candid and humble she was about how she made her way to the top. There are no airs about her. I also love how two female Supreme Court Justices - Sandra Day O'Connor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg - have quoted Madeleine Albright, who said that there is a special place in hell for women who don't help other women. Finally, there's Elizabeth Holmes, who dropped out of Stanford during her sophomore year to start her own multi-billion dollar company, Theranos, after having an idea that there could be a less invasive way than using needles to do medical research. She hired a stellar team - including board members George Shultz and Henry Kissinger - to develop a new technology that is now offered at Walgreens nationwide. And she's only 31! She is fearless and low-key, nothing intimidates her. Above all I admire her because she had true belief in herself and has been able to accomplish amazing things by partnering with the right people, having faith and making it happen.

What do you want Unilever - and Dove specifically - to accomplish in the next year?
Unilever is a strong leader in building brands with purpose, and Dove is one of our biggest and most successful brands. Since Dove's Campaign for Real Beauty launched in 2004, the definition of confidence has changed and I would like to think Dove helped to influence that change. Where women once gained confidence from traditional tall, slim and blonde-haired beauty, we now want to help them to shift to feeling confident from inner strength. Social media is the place we're going to start demonstrating a new era of thought leadership. With #speakbeautiful, Dove can play much bigger role in inserting itself into social conversation, making that conversation much more positive and helping to shape the role our online words play in inspiring confidence.