Women In Leadership Series: Jen Gulvik, Chief Brand Executive

This post is part of a series. To read the introduction, click here.

My career began as a happy accident rather than being a purposefully paved path. I didn’t have exposure to white collar professionals growing up but had an enviable opportunity to work all through college for a major consumer packaged goods company (Oscar Mayer/Kraft Foods) due to my dad being employed as a line worker in the plant. That family-first hiring practice is what exposed me to marketing, which I came to love. I was studying anthropology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and marketing quenched my curiosity in how different people live, think and behave.

While that was sheer happenstance, I attribute much of my success to two key things: one, having leaders that took a chance on me; and two, advocating for myself and asking for what I wanted even though it felt pretty uncomfortable at times.

I was working on the agency side post-college when my colleague Whitney Bartelli, now Chief Marketing and Strategy Officer at CommunityAmerica, recommended I talk to a couple ex-Sprint guys who were starting a telecom company. I did and was quickly offered a job to develop the brand and marketing plans for the startup. I had no telecom experience and had never launched a brand before but took the job despite my self-defeatist thoughts about not being qualified. I literally cried when offered the job (out of fear, not joy). Thankfully they believed in my capabilities more than I did and took a chance on me.

Working for Birch Telecom was key to discovering my strengths and weaknesses and what I loved doing most. Because teams are lean, startups often offer the ability to shape your own job as the company grows. For example, I chose to name products and do much of the writing myself at Birch rather than having our agency do it all. Ultimately, it was an unforgettable time and learning experience to launch and grow a challenger tech brand through (i.e. until) the dot-com bubble burst.

My next role, at Houlihan’s Restaurant Group, was my path from management to executive leadership. I asked for the opportunity to lead the brand turnaround after our chief marketing officer left early on, and our CEO agreed. I was still young for such a mission-critical role, but I was given the chance because I asked. I’m certain our CEO would’ve hired a senior marketer to lead that charge otherwise. As with Birch, I was able to stretch and take on work that I loved while outsourcing or delegating work I didn’t love or excel in due to our small but growing size. I personally curated the music playlists in our restaurants because it was a passion for me. If you’re a brand manager at Unilever, for example, you’re not as likely to have the opportunity to make decisions like that for yourself and your role. At larger companies, the job framework is often more rigid.

There are a couple of themes here. I always encourage young professionals to consider work with startups and small companies because you’re exposed to so much more than at a large company, as sexy as that big brand may be. You get a jump on discovering your real strengths and passions and the opportunity to try things out.

And ladies, we have to ask for things even when we don’t think we check all the boxes. Women are especially good at self-defeatist thinking and it’s well known we don’t pursue opportunities at the same rate as equally qualified (or not) male counterparts. This fosters the disparity and lack of diversity at the top. We are our own worst enemies. Recognize when your confidence in your own capability wanes and keep pushing forward through the discomfort. The small amount of time spent in conversations that feel uncomfortable—asking for high profile projects, promotions, salary increases, equity (i.e. advocating for yourself)—is nothing relative to the fruits that come from your asking.

The last thing I’ll add for women in management roles is that not only do we have to advocate for ourselves, we have to advocate harder for other women. I didn’t always believe this, using only my own experience as the basis. I had not experienced a lack of opportunity; had asked for advancements in many forms; and projected a confident, if not bold, presence (even if I was shaking on the inside). I didn’t see disparity and in fact, disliked any notion of special treatment or acknowledgment of women being different and disadvantaged in the workplace.

That changed after becoming more self-aware and educating myself. I reviewed research that’s been done on women in the workplace and the real emotional intelligence differences that exist between men and women. We all have gender norms we place on each other as well. These truths do put women at a disadvantage professionally and no doubt affect upward mobility, contributing to the lack of gender diversity. Now I’m the biggest champion for women in business, acknowledging and advancing talent that doesn’t always come via bold self-promotion, raising one’s hand or making a business case for a well-deserved promotion. When we all start doing so consistently, we’ll make a big impact on closing that disparity and inherently create better functioning teams and companies.