Deborah Gillis, Catalyst President & CEO Is Champion of Champions

If you want to know someone who can move mountains, look no further. Meet Deborah Gillis, President & CEO of Catalyst, a global nonprofit that works with some of the world’s most powerful CEOs and leading companies to help build workplaces that work for women. Get inspired!

RSM Hall of Fame

RSM Hall of Fame

Deborah Gillis grew up in a small village in rural Nova Scotia and was motivated early on by a group of women who successfully advocated for gender equality rights to be included in the Canadian constitution.  Starting in high school she’s dedicated her life and her career to giving everyone equal opportunity to succeed.

From her work in the public sector on equal employment to her work at global professional services firms advising on strategies for aligning talent and business priorities; from her candidacy for elected office to her job as leader of Catalyst, Deborah’s passion for equality has permeated her entire life.  She joined Catalyst in 2006 as Executive Director of Catalyst Canada, became Chief Operating Officer in 2012, and then President and CEO in 2014.

In 2016 Deborah was named one of Canadian Business magazine’s 10 most influential Canadians. That same year she received the Foreign Policy Association Medal. In 2017, she accepted an honorary Doctor of Laws honoris causa from Cape Breton University for dedicating her life’s work to advocating for women’s rights and equality. She serves on the Board of Governors of St. Francis Xavier University.

For her relentless work towards a more equitable workplace for women and for being a champion of champions, today we honor Deborah Gillis on our Hall of Fame.

Deborah Gillis, President and CEO Catalyst, an honoree of 2018 Hall of Fame

Deborah Gillis, President and CEO Catalyst, an honoree of 2018 Hall of Fame

Red Shoe Movement— If you look back at all the years Catalyst has been doing research, have you seen substantial changes in the way companies deal with diversity and inclusion?

Deborah Gillis—The biggest change that I’ve seen is that companies now recognize that diversity and inclusion is not just a women’s issue, it’s a business issue. And it needs to be treated as a business issue—with formal goals and accountability for meeting them. When people see their managers, senior leaders, and the CEO talking about diversity and following up with actionable strategies, they know it’s central to the company’s values and competitiveness.

RSM—What makes women great leaders? 

DG—I firmly believe there’s no such thing as women leaders and men leaders. There are only good leaders and bad leaders.

I also believe that good leaders are inclusive leaders, who don’t simply get more women in the room—they make sure their contributions are valued and respected once they are there. In my experience, the best leaders give employees just the right amount of both freedom and support to get the job done well. They’re open to hearing and trying new ideas, and they know they don’t always have the right answer. They also don’t shy away from hard conversations—about performance and strategy, but also about “sensitive” issues like gender, race, or ethnicity. All of us can behave this way, no matter our rank, title, or gender—and we should lead inclusively whether it’s from a cubicle or a corner office.

Deborah Gillis Inspirational quote

Deborah Gillis Inspirational quote

RSM—How do you think the current conversation on sexual harassment will change the workplace in the short and long term?

DG—I’m hopeful that organizations will recognize that sexual harassment is a symptom of a culture that doesn’t treat women—especially women of color—as equals. In the short term, leaders must immediately take a firm and visible stand for fairness and gender equality. In the long term, I’d like to see more organizations taking a hard look in the mirror and then strategically building a culture where all women are welcomed, valued, developed, and advanced. This has been an incredibly difficult time for the women who are coming forward, but I hope and believe this movement will be the catalyst for real and lasting change. Collectively, we must ensure that it is. We can start by advancing more women, particularly women of color, into senior leadership positions and onto boards. Because power shared in workplaces is power much less likely to be abused.

Don't miss a great interview with 2017 Hall of Fame honoree, Sergio Kaufmann 

RSM—What are some of the best practices you’ve seen implemented in specific countries and/or specific organizations in those countries in order to accelerate the career trajectory of female talent?

DG—In my role I travel a lot, and I’ve seen that women in different parts of the world have different needs based on cultural and social norms and how businesses operate in each region. For example, in Mexico and across Latin America, traditional gender and family norms are strong, so helping women manage both their careers and family responsibilities is essential to supporting their advancement. An example I love is how PepsiCo Mexico has done this by establishing the Female Executive Council, which has helped design policies and strategies to support women returning from maternity leave and other working mothers, such as a formal structure for flexible and part-time work options, part-time job opportunities, and a condensed work week. These programs now benefit all employees—women and men—demonstrating how workplaces that work for women work for everyone.

Another critical issue in Latin America, and everywhere really, is creating champions, mentors, and sponsors for women. Avon has successfully addressed this issue by launching a program called Women in Leadership. The first class of participants came from Brazil, Chile, Colombia, and Mexico, and they were given access to formal training programs, exposure to senior leaders they otherwise would not have, help with career planning, assignments that broaden their experience, and mentorship from senior executives. The piece that I really like about this program is that participants are asked to “pay it forward” by developing a legacy project that will inspire their fellow female colleagues.

Deborah Gillis and Justin Trudeau

Deborah Gillis and Justin Trudeau

RSM—How will the Millennial generation flip the script on gender inclusion at the top?

DG—The Millennials I know at Catalyst and beyond are passionate about their community and making a difference. They want to solve problems and they are eager to contribute—to much more than just their companies’ bottom lines. For many of them, gender roles and expectations, as well as gender itself, are fluid. For those of us who have grown up with narrower conceptions of gender, it can be a new experience to embrace a more ambiguous notion of a core part of our identity. Millennials and others who are driving this conversation have challenged us to rethink what’s “normal”—and how we can get to a new normal that is more inclusive. That diverse thinking is going to be a transformational and positive force for inclusion and the way all of us work together.

RSM—What are one or two mistakes you’ve made in your career that you remember the most? And the lessons learned?

DG—In Tokyo a few years ago, I was with colleagues waiting for taxis on a busy street, when someone yelled a sexist, racist slur at a member of my team. We were all shocked, but no one said anything. I wanted to call her, but with the added element of race in the mix I was terribly afraid to say the wrong thing. So I stayed silent—for weeks. Then I read new research from Catalyst that showed how toxic silence can be. Finally, I summoned my courage, and said, “I’m deeply sorry. That was wrong. I should have said something.” She appreciated the support, even as late as it was. And I was reminded that courageous conversations are the first step toward healing wounds, opening minds, changing behaviors, and building workplaces where everyone has a fair chance to succeed. It was a difficult and profound lesson that my heart won’t forget—saying something is always better than saying nothing.

Catalyst Awards dinner, an annual gathering of the most influential leaders and organizations

Catalyst Awards dinner, an annual gathering of the most influential leaders and organizations

RSM—Who were some of the most influential men and women in your career other than family members? How exactly did they influence you?

DG—When I was a 23-year old legislative intern, one of the elected representatives I worked with ultimately became a friend, mentor, and sponsor. He took me under his wing and later used his influence to recommend me for a high-visibility project that positioned me for a great opportunity. Looking back, I can draw a straight line from his sponsorship to the opportunity I later received to run as a candidate for elected office. Beside the career support, he also showed me that great leaders are humble. He admitted he didn’t have all the answers, and he shared his mistakes openly, asking for help when he needed it. He earned our team’s trust and respect, by trusting and respecting us in turn. To this day, I think of him as a role model for the kind of leader I want to be.

Another major influence was my first boss out of university, who encouraged me to think about my career as a toolbox—and every new assignment as an opportunity to add a new “tool” that I could carry with me to the next role. If I was going to add a tool to the box, I needed to take full and complete responsibility for it—I needed to own it. Through him, I learned that people do their best when they are treated like they are capable of their best—and promised the opportunity to prove it.

Deborah Gillis at her desk

Deborah Gillis at her desk

RSM—Can you share with us the story of a person’s life or career that changed thanks to you?

DG—Before I joined Catalyst, I ran for a seat in a provincial election in Nova Scotia, where I’m from. As I was canvassing for votes, I met one young girl who listened intently when I explained that I was running to be in the Legislature. Her response? “I thought only boys did that!” She wasn’t the only one—throughout the campaign, I saw girls begin to recognize that no future is “only for boys.” I’m looking forward to the day that one of those young women becomes Premier!

Another young woman I am proud to inspire, and be inspired by, is my niece Haley. A few years ago, she went to school and declared a personal day of silence—no small feat for a thirteen-year-old! On that day, when Haley was approached by a student or a teacher, she gave them a small piece of paper that explained her actions as an expression of solidarity with Nobel Prize laureate Malala Yousafzai and girls around the world who had been denied the right to attend school. By choosing to make the injustices facing girls in another part of the world her problem, Haley’s silence echoed loudly across her school and community.

You can connect with Deborah Gillis via LinkedIn

Connect with Catalyst on Twitter

Be a Magnet for Career Opportunities. Learn from Beth Marmolejos!

Wonder no more how to attract the best career opportunities. Beth Marmolejos is an example of how when you build a reputation of integrity and commitment, the opportunities find you.

Beth Marmolejos at the Red Shoe Movement Signature Event striking a pose with RSM Principle 2

Beth Marmolejos at the Red Shoe Movement Signature Event striking a pose with RSM Principle 2

Beth Marmolejos is an Executive Advisor in the IT Account Management area at Anthem (the largest for-profit managed care company within the Blue Cross Blue Shield association,) and she serves as the Chief of Staff for the Women’s Inspire Network Associate Resource group. But that’s just her day job. She’s also the President of the New York Chapter of Prospanica (formerly NSHBMA,) and the Vice Chair of the Passaic County Workforce Investment Board, among several other volunteer positions she holds. Beth has received many awards from local, state, federal, corporate and non-profit organizations for her leadership and community work. She has crafted a professional life that fits her style, her passions and her goals. It is through these multiple commitments that Beth Marmolejos creates career opportunities for herself and for those in her network.

As president of the NY Chapter of Prospanica (Formerly NSHMBA) Beth Marmolejos creates career opportunities for others.

As president of the NY Chapter of Prospanica (Formerly NSHMBA) Beth Marmolejos creates career opportunities for others.

RSM— You’ve had quite a career trajectory. Tell us about some of the highlights and how you tapped into the various career opportunities that presented themselves along the way.

Beth Marmolejos (BM)— I started my journey in the business world without a degree at an entry level in the Accounting Department at Express Scripts (formerly known as Medco Health Solutions.) While there, I was able to get my under graduate and graduate degrees, 80% of which were paid for by my employer —as long I got a B or better in my classes.

It took me over 10 years to obtain my education. I was able to move within the Finance area to different roles that helped me prepare for the role of “Controller/Director” of Finance for a subsidiary that my company bought. A subsidiary worth two billion dollars. That propelled me to a leadership position and it opened a world of career opportunities for me.

In 2013 I took a leap of faith and left to work in New York City for Empire Blue Cross Blue Shield under the leadership of the amazing Brian Griffin, who was a colleague of mine at Medco. The highlight of this move was that I got promoted within six months because I led a project that saved the company $1M.

Then, one of the senior leaders at Empire BCBS in NYC recommended me for an Executive Advisor role in IT as the Chief Information officer for the State of New York and Wisconsin at the Enterprise level for our Parent company Anthem.

Take note of the secret to attract great career challenges to yourself.

Take note of the secret to attract great career challenges to yourself.

How to find the most attractive career opportunities

RSM— You wear several hats. From being the CIO for NY and Wisconsin at Anthem to being the President of Prospanica NY Chapter and serving in different capacities on other non-profit boards. With all that’s already on your plate, how do you constantly find career opportunities to help you continue to grow?

BM— I don’t find career opportunities…they find me through senior leaders/mentors/sponsors who know my work, my commitment to their success and integrity.

RSM— What are some of the strategies that help you stay focused with each one of your multiple responsibilities?

BM— I have three main strategies:

  • Remain calm and focus on what you are trying to achieve
  • Surround yourself with positive people that help you stay on course
  • Don’t get distracted with things that steal your peace, keep your eyes on the price

RSM— Do you find that creating career opportunities for others is a natural way of opening doors for yourself?

BM— Absolutely! When you lift others up and help them by opening doors it creates an advantage for you. What goes around, comes around!

Make sure that you spread tons of positive energy around as you build your own career.

Make sure that you spread tons of positive energy around as you build your own career.

Learning how to network strategically is another way to open up career opportunities.

RSM— What are three top pieces of advice you’d give people looking for greater career opportunities within their organizations?

BM— Here you go:

  • Treat people with respect, be kind and a team player. That builds your good reputation which you can leverage to obtain better career opportunities within your organization
  • Be a can-do type of person – that is key to getting opportunities for senior roles
  • Be happy, positive and knowledgeable – that is a magnet that attracts people who want to work with you

RSM— Any different advice for those looking for career opportunities in a different company or who are currently out of a job?

BM— Yes, get involved in organizations such as Prospanica, of which I am the NY Chapter President, and you will have access to tons of career opportunities.

RSM— What’s the next big project you’re working on right now? 

BM— I’m focused on a couple of upcoming events we are organizing with Prospanica. Celebration of Achievements – where we will give out scholarships on 11/27/17 at Oppenheimer Funds.

And in honor of the International Day of People with Disabilities we have an event with the UN Nations at S&P Global on 12/14/17

At a personal level, my next big project is to obtain my Agile SAFe Training certification.

You can connect with Beth Marmolejos on Twitter and Linkedin

 

Powerful women lead in many ways: Adrienne Arsht proves it!

Powerful women are not only the CEO’s of their organizations but also philanthropists and deal-makers who exercise their influence behind the scenes. Adrienne Arsht has led both from the front and from the back throughout her career, depending on what the situation called for. Discover how she became a great influencer!

The making of a powerful woman

Powerful women like Adrienne Arsht use their influence in local and national issues

Powerful women like Adrienne Arsht use their influence in local and national issues

Adrienne Arsht is the daughter of the Honorable Roxana Cannon Arsht, the first female judge in the State of Delaware, and Samuel Arsht, a prominent Wilmington attorney. Upon graduation from Villanova Law School in 1966, Arsht was the 11th woman admitted to the Delaware bar – her mother having been the 5th. She began her Delaware law career with Morris, Nichols, Arsht & Tunnel.

In 1969, she moved to New York City and joined the legal department of Trans World Airlines (TWA). She then became the first woman in the company’s property, cargo and government relations departments.

She moved to Washington, DC in 1979 where she initially worked with a law firm, then started her own title company before moving to Miami in 1996 to run her family-owned bank, TotalBank. From 1996 to 2007, Adrienne served as Chairman of the Board of TotalBank. Under her leadership, the company grew from four locations to 14 with over $1.4 billion in assets. In November 2007, she sold the bank to Banco Popular Español and was named Chairman Emerita of TotalBank.

Powerful women take leading roles in civic and artistic organizations

But business has not been her only passion. As it’s often the case with powerful women (and men,) over the years she has taken a leading role promoting artistic, business and civic growth in the three cities she calls home: Washington, D.C., Miami and New York.

She is Founding Chairman of the Adrienne Arsht Center Foundation in Miami, Florida where her $30 million contribution to Miami’s Performing Arts Center in 2008 secured its financial footing and ensured quality cultural programming. In her honor, the Center was renamed the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts of Miami-Dade County.

Her support of the transformation of Lincoln Center’s facilities and public spaces was recognized with the dedication of the Adrienne Arsht Stage in Alice Tully Hall. Adrienne has recently spearhead the creation of the Adrienne Arsht Center for Resilience at The Atlantic Council where she also endowed the Adrienne Arsht Latin America Center in 2013 to focus on the role of South America in the trans-Atlantic world.

Over the years, Adrienne has generously donated funds and resources to numerous organizations. In 2008 she became the first, and still is, the only woman to join the Five Million Dollar Roundtable of United Way of Miami-Dade.

Adrienne Arsht, lawyer, businesswoman, philanthropist

Adrienne Arsht, lawyer, businesswoman, philanthropist

RSM: You’re a widely recognized patron of the arts. How did art enter your life and what makes it so important?

Adrienne Arsht: My passion for art comes from my parents. There was always music in the house. My mother played the piano.  I took piano and ballet lessons.  Every Saturday we would listen on the radio to the Texaco live broadcast of the Metropolitan Opera. I was fortunate to go to theater in Wilmington, Delaware and New York City to experience Broadway. I cannot imagine a world without the arts. When giving to the arts, you are preserving the essence of civilization for now and for hundreds of years to come. It is thrilling to know that a gift to the arts will be shared by people in a future we can’t even imagine. Art is part of who we are and helps define us. It has been treasured for centuries and will continue indefinitely.

RSM: Could you share the role philanthropy plays in your life?

AA: Philanthropy is not just about giving money – it is about giving one’s time as well. It is the footprint that we leave.

RSM: Many of your signature gifts have been to large performing arts complexes. Why have you chosen those as a focus of your philanthropy?

AA: A performing arts complex offers an extraordinary value to a city. It brings the arts in their many forms  to everyone of every generation and every interest. The Arsht Center has played a key role in the resurgence and transformation of the immediate area, the city of Miami and beyond.

Another powerful woman you should read about: Lisa Lutoff-Perlo!
Adrienne Arsht, one of the most powerful women in America, meets with Mexican president Peña Nieto in the context of her work with the Atlantic Council.

Adrienne Arsht, one of the most powerful women in America, meets with Mexican president Peña Nieto in the context of her work with the Atlantic Council.

RSM: You are very involved with causes in Latin America. What’s your motivation?

AA: In 1996, I moved to Miami to run TotalBank. After selling the bank in 2007, I moved back to Washington, DC. But, it became immediately clear to me that there was a need to find a way to integrate the interests of Latin America with Europe and the United States to shape the global future and create a broad community of common values. In 2013, this became a reality with the creation of the Adrienne Arsht Latin America Center at the Atlantic Council. This Center is dedicated to forging an effective Latin America-US-Europe partnership of common values and shared interests.  I am thrilled to spearhead an initiative that will embrace Latin America as an integral part of the transatlantic world and give this vibrant region the recognition it deserves.

Two powerful women: Adrienne Arsht and Christine Lagarde, Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund

Two powerful women: Adrienne Arsht and Christine Lagarde, Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund

RSM: Negotiating is an art in itself. What were some of the key takeaways from negotiating the sale of TotalBank, your family owned-bank to Banco Popular Español in 2007?

AA: One Word – Patience!

RSM: How would you describe your leadership style?

AA:

Don’t whine.

Life is not fair.

Just deal with it.

Humor and laughter.

Raised voices and four letter words do not get you anywhere!

RSM: Would you share with us one of the worst mistakes you made in your career and what you learn from it?

AA: I decided to reinvent Casual Friday and make it more a Dressed Up Friday based on our wonderful holiday party where everyone looked simply glamorous and festive. The idea was good but I had not taken into consideration how the employees would be able to do this. Coming to work on subways and buses or dropping children off at school would not work in party clothes. So lesson learned: When wanting to implement a new idea make sure you get full buy in on the project before putting it out there!

RSM: How do you want to be remembered?

AA: I want to be remembered as a good friend and someone who had courage. Our time on earth is a gift. We pay rent for the time on earth and that rent is how we give back. Making the world a better place is the basis for all I do. I learned these values from both my parents.

My Mother was compared to Joan of Arc – someone willing to die for a cause. I hope that I would do the same.

 

Lisa Lutoff-Perlo Leads 7 Seas With Innovation & Soft Touch

She’s as comfortable navigating Twitter as she is interacting with guests from all over the world on one of her luxury ships. Lisa Lutoff-Perlo, President and CEO of Celebrity Cruises, is the kind of inclusive, forward-thinking leader needed for the 21st century.

RSM Hall of Fame

RSM Hall of Fame

We met on Twitter, Lisa Lutoff-Perlo and I. A fact that speaks volumes about today’s most effective leaders and their need to stay connected. Very naturally, our conversation about female leadership moved off line. Lisa had hired the first American woman Captain of a mega ship, Kate McCue, and we wanted to interview her, which we did.

But hiring Captain Kate was just one more way in which Lisa Lutoff-Perlo showed her role as an innovator and disruptor in the industry. At work, she’s always challenging assumptions, looking for more creative ways to open up the world through travel, to help bridge the many divides we are facing as people.

That powerful drive to break the rules of her field was behind the development and launch of next-generation cruise ships that Lisa led twice. Most recently, the just revealed Edge-Class, a completely new type of cruise ship experience.

Outside of work Lisa is constantly inspiring girls and women to dream differently. As she shares her own story of self-limiting dreams, you’ll see why she’s adamant about passing on the learnings. Lisa Lutoff-Perlo, a true role model for the Red Shoe Movement Hall of Fame.

Lisa Lutoff-Perlo talks about her job

Lisa Lutoff-Perlo, President & CEO, Celebrity Cruises

Lisa Lutoff-Perlo, President & CEO, Celebrity Cruises, is an innovative leaders who is constantly reinventing her industry.

What is the hardest part of your job and why?  

I have the best job in the world, so it is hard for me to say there is a hardest part. I think, though, it is fair to say that there are things about any job that make it particularly difficult. For me, the hardest part of my job are the things I can’t control. Geo-political events that disrupt people’s desire to vacation in the amazing parts of the world we visit and issues that can arise when something mechanical happens to one of our ships. After all, they are vessels that, like our automobiles and despite the best maintenance in the world, can have something happen. Given that I am also the head of our entire corporate Global Marine Organization as well as President and CEO of Celebrity Cruises, I do have to ensure that our $45B of assets are running smoothly, safely and efficiently. I count myself very fortunate that I work with an amazing team of professionals who make the hardest parts of my job as easy as possible.

What aspects of the job of a CEO did you not expect as you were advancing in your career?

I didn’t expect to feel the overwhelming outpouring of support that I received when I was appointed to this position – both internally and externally. Nor did I expect to feel the immense gratitude each day for the people around me, who support the vision that we share for our guests, our crew and our brand. We live every day to open the world for those who want to join us as we explore each of the seven continents in modern luxury. We open the world so that people can experience different cultures and places. We also live every day to break down barriers that divide us. When I am on our ships and either meet our guests or watch our crew from over 60 countries taking care of each other and our guests I am filled with an unspeakable pride and grateful to know that I have the ability to create experiences that truly change people’s lives. I had not anticipated the magnitude of that. The other thing I did not expect is the opportunity and platform I have as a woman in this role to “pay it forward” and give back. That is another thing I wake up every day determined to do as I take that responsibility very seriously.

Lisa Lutoff-Perlo with Captain Kate McCue and the crew take a selfie

Lisa Lutoff-Perlo with Captain Kate McCue and the crew take a selfie

What Was Lisa Lutoff-Perlo Major Career Mistake?

Tell us about one major screw up in your career and what you learned from it?     

My one major screw up in my career was in limiting my aspirations. See, my professional goal was always to be the head of sales. It’s what I dreamed of and I campaigned for each day. Then my world and dreams came crashing down when the SVP of Sales & Marketing at the time decided to move me into a marketing role. I was absolutely devastated and he knew it. I felt crushed. That I would never achieve my dream of being head of sales. But he also knew what I didn’t know. That it would be one of the best career moves of my life. He saw more in me than I saw in myself. And that’s something very hard to accept at the time when it’s happening. That perhaps this other person sees more potential in you than you see in yourself or that they can see your career trajectory much farther out than you can imagine. The rest is history as I moved from one position to another and finally as the President & CEO of Celebrity. I learned that you have to go where your career takes you, be flexible, be open for change, and never ever limit what you think you can achieve. All of the experience and knowledge I gained along the way gave me the foundation I needed for my current role and has made me a better CEO.

Lisa Lutoff Perlo inspirational quote RSM Hall of Fame

Lisa Lutoff Perlo inspirational quote RSM Hall of Fame

What is the best way to engage the executive men in an organization to support their female colleagues’ growth opportunities?

I happen to work in an organization that values diversity of all kinds. Being the only woman on the Executive Committee gives me a unique opportunity to ensure that we are always thinking about and promoting diversity. I have always said that having a woman at the table enriches and changes the conversation in a way that is powerful. I am fortunate that my male colleagues agree. And I have a VP of Marine Operations who has increased the percentage of women on our nautical team from 5% 18 months ago to almost 20% today. I am fortunate to work with people who share a common vision. And you need to hire for that.

Launching a new ship class- Lisa Lutoff-Perlo does it again!

Lisa Lutoff-Perlo led the development of the Edge Class, a ship that completely changes de travel experience.

Lisa Lutoff-Perlo led the development of the Edge Class, a ship that completely changes de travel experience.

Ten years ago you launched the Solstice Class. This March you launched the Edge Class. What does it take to bring a project like that to fruition?

Launching ANYTHING new has its own unique challenges. For the Edge launch, I had a few key objectives. This new Class of ships had to transform Celebrity and the industry. And it had to transform the financial performance of my Brand. All of the feedback and booking activity has validated that mission was accomplished. From the design to the engineering and technology, we threw away the rulebook and took away every barrier for the sake of creating the most refined ship ever built. It took vision, determination, resilience and a village of outstanding people on my team and across our organization to make Edge happen. And a Chairman (my boss) who supported us every step of the way. We did it, I can’t wait for guests to be able to enjoy the fruits of our labor, and I can’t tell you how.

Follow Lisa Lutoff-Perlo on Twitter.

 

In Historically Male Occupation, Ilya Marotta Leads Panama Canal Expansion

Her pink safety helmet and vest have become iconic in a a historically male occupation. Ilya Espino de Marotta is the Panamanian engineer who led the execution of the Panama Canal Expansion Program. Get inspired!

RSM Hall of Fame

RSM Hall of Fame

The new Panama Canal was inaugurated June 2016. An engineering feat that enables cargo ships with a capacity of more than double the current one, to pass between the Atlantic and the Pacific, which substantially reduces transportation costs of goods. Today we spoke with the leader of the project. An interview that will change your perspective on what you can or cannot achieve even when you enter a historically male occupation or field. This is why Ilya Marotta is in the Red Shoe Movement Hall of Fame.

The first Step towards a traditionally male career

RSM Hall of Fame 2017 honoree: Ilya Marotta, Executive Vice President, Panama Canal Authority

RSM Hall of Fame 2017 honoree: Ilya Marotta, Executive Vice President, Panama Canal Authority

What awoke in you an interest for engineering? How did you start your career?

I had won a Fulbright scholarship to study marine biology in the U.S. The ocean is a passion of mine. I loved to scuba dive and I loved Jacques Cousteau. A year and a half after returning to Panama, when I saw the work opportunities in Marine Biology weren’t the best, I decided to change careers. I gave up the scholarship because it was for that specialty at a specific university. So, I started to look for schools in the U.S. that had careers that would have something to do with the ocean and ships.. I was always very good at math and physics and I chose Marine Engineering because I was going to work with ships. My father told me he would only pay for four years of college and I wouldn’t have the three summers required for the sail practice. I chose a school that wouldn’t require me to sail in order to get my degree. So that’s how I applied and got accepted to Texas A&M University, which would give me the Marine Biology degree without the sailing requirement. So, I ended up studying Marine Engineering not because it was my passion but because it was close to the ocean. Once I graduated and came to Panama and started to work on the Repairing Dock of the Floating Equipment of the Panama Canal, however I fell in love with my career. It was very gratifying to design something in the office, go to the workshops where they built it, and then seeing the ship in operation with design I had made.

We could say then that you came into this career path from the sideways and you found the pleasure in it along the way.

Of course! 30 years ago we had a different mindset. Today we value choosing something that you are passionate about and that you enjoy doing. But at that time it was more like: “You have to get a job”. It was a more traditional system. So I started with what inspired me (Marine Biology), and I changed to a more practical career (Marine Engineering.)

And did you have the support of your parents, especially your father, to pursue what at that time (even more than today) was seen as a historically male occupation?

Yes, 100%. Both parents supported my choice at all times.

In a historically male occupation, Ilya Marotta inspires women in the workplace

In a historically male occupation, Ilya Marotta inspires women in the workplace

The role of sponsors in a historically male occupation

As you progressed in your career, what do you think was the role played by sponsors? Do you think they are an important factor to reach the highest levels in a male dominated profession?

It’s what paves the way, especially in a profession where there are no women. If I had not had the support of my various bosses at different stages, I would not have been able to get to where I am. The way I won the support of these sponsors is with dedication, work, ethics and transparency. Once your boss sees your professional skills, it opens opportunities.

All the people who have given me opportunities for promotion have been men. So sponsors are definitely needed, but their support is earned by the work one does.

Leading the Panama Canal Expansion, Ilya Marotta broke gender barriers in historically male occupation

Leading the Panama Canal Expansion, Ilya Marotta broke gender barriers in historically male occupation

Overcoming obstacles

What were the most important obstacles you had to overcome in your career?

I remember that when I was in the repair dam, a professional diver position for the Canal opened. I was a professional diver. I had done outside diving jobs, and I applied for the job but they did not fill it. Officially they told me that they were not going to fill the post at that time, but I knew they did not want to pick me because I was a woman. But you overcome those obstacles and learn from them. It has happened to me in other positions where I wasn’t chosen because of company politics. You have to make yourself known, because otherwise you do not move. In order to get to my current position I had to have the support of my direct boss, and my boss’ boss, because it was a position ratified by the board. One of the administrators at the time was very candid and told me that these positions are not reached by merit and professional ability. You also have to do a little lobbying. I was fortunate that my boss did the lobbying for me.

Ilya Marotta inspires you to take on challenges to prove yourself

Ilya Marotta inspires you to take on challenges to prove yourself

Advantages of women in a traditionally male profession

The expansion of the Panama Canal must have been one of the biggest challenges an engineer can face. In a male-dominated profession what do you think was your advantage as a woman to carry it out successfully?

You have to have a lot of emotional intelligence. You can’t take things personally. It is a big project, and you have to deal with many people, many contractors, and in this type of projects problems always come up. Things are not easy and simple. So when something happens, you have to look at it from both points of view: Your own and the contractor’s. I think I had the ability not to take things personally. To think that they are just situations and everyone is defending their own interests. Throughout this process of many years that we have been at work on this project, I had the ability to negotiate and be conciliatory.

In a male dominated occupation, Ilya Espino de Marotta has shattered the glass ceiling

In a male dominated occupation, Ilya Espino de Marotta has shattered the glass ceiling

What do you think is the impact of resilience, a trait that is abundant in Latin American people and particularly in women?

It is extremely important because you cannot let failures or errors discourage you. You have to always go forward, have the ability to overcome obstacles. What I always tell people is that they shouldn’t do something to prove anything to anyone. Do it because it is what you want and because you want to prove yourself that you can do it. I did not choose this career to show anyone that women can do it. I chose this career because it was something that caught my attention and I wanted to climb its ranks because I like it.

I have seen some photos in which you wear a pink helmet and vest, which highlights what is evident: that you are woman in a male occupation. What has been the effect?

It has been fantastic! Although in the beginning I did it to prove to myself that I could reach this position. In Panama women in traditionally male professions have proliferated but reaching a high rank in a male dominated career is very hard. So when I was in NY, at one of my son’s medical checkups, I told my husband, “I feel like I should buy myself a pink helmet to show that a woman can get to this position.” I saw it in a catalog and I ordered it. Now it has become an icon and fills me with pride for what that helmet represents for many other women. I get messages from women who tell me that they have sent the photo to their 9-year-old daughters saying, “Look at how women can reach leadership positions.” It was not planned, but the result has been nice. It sets you high standards, because now people expect more from me. I have to show that it’s doable, no longer just for me, but for those who see me as hope for themselves, as an example.

Ilya Marotta supports #RedShoeTuesday

Ilya Marotta supports #RedShoeTuesday

Advice for young people and women interested in entering a historically male occupation

What advice would you give to a young woman today who is deciding on her choice of career or study?

Definitely do something that you are passionate about. I had the blessing that although Marine Engineering was not my first love, over time I found in my profession something that fulfills me and I am passionate about. When you do something that you like, it brings out the best in you. Also, do not be afraid of challenges or changes. Whenever you get a chance, never think that you cannot do it. When I applied to different positions, maybe I did not know everything that they asked for, but I knew I could learn it. Finally, be a transparent person, treat everyone equally, be the same person in all environments where you work.

Any particular advice for those women who are thinking of entering historically male dominated fields?

Don’t take offense at everything in a world of men because they have their way of managing themselves and of being with each other. You cannot expect them to change for you. You have to adapt, as long as they respect you. For example, if they joke in a certain way, don’t get scandalized, unless of course, it’s something that refers to you. I learned how to deal with that, and so I earned men’s respect. It’s not about becoming a man either. I’m happy with them giving me their seat or opening the door for me. It’s about making it so you can coexist like men and women together pleasantly. And trying to be conciliatory, rather than antagonistic, that has also helped me a lot in my professional career.

Connect with Ilya Marotta via Twitter @MarottaIlya