Heather Kernahan found herself in an MBA class in her new home of California being asked: “If you’re not here to be a CEO, then why are you here?”
It was a question that would eventually change Heather’s career path — by putting her in charge of it.
Originally from Truro, Nova Scotia, Heather was working in marketing for a tech company in Toronto when it was acquired by its biggest competitor, Autodesk. She was devastated. Heather and her husband, Mike, decided to return to the East Coast and regroup. But right before they officially settled, she got a job offer from Autodesk and decided to take the opportunity and move to the Bay Area in 2006.
Heather focused on sustainable marketing at Autodesk and decided to go for an MBA in Sustainable Enterprise. She went on to work for a cleantech company and had the opportunity to work with bankers and board members while crafting a marketing strategy that would support a successful IPO.
After that ‘aha’ moment during her MBA class, Heather set out for a CEO role. It was then that she met Barbara Bates, Founder & CEO of Eastwick, an award-winning PR agency that worked with exciting tech companies at all stages of growth in adtech, security, enterprise, cleantech, and cloud/saas.
When Barbara asked, “So what are you looking for next?” Heather remembered what her MBA professor had said to her. She decided to be bold and respond with the thought that scared her most to say out loud: “I want to run a company — either start one or find one to run.”
At the time, that felt really out there — especially to say to someone that was an accomplished CEO that she looked up to. But to Heather’s amazement, it wasn’t. Barbara ended up becoming her mentor and taught her the business side of running a company. They set up a three-year plan to grow the business, working Heather towards the role of President of the agency.
“Be a conscious leader and take advantage of your unique style.”
Over the course of those three years, Heather helped double the size of the agency, increased its brand equity, and sold it to Hotwire PR, becoming President of North America and part of the Hotwire Global Leadership Team that now oversees strategy for the global Hotwire business.
I spoke with Heather about her role as a leader in Silicon Valley, and the advice she has for others ready to voice their own goal to follow in her footsteps:
How far ahead should a CEO plan?
“I like three year plans — because I love setting goals” says Heather. After a brush with a debt collector early in her career, Heather learned how to set goals, accomplish them, and enjoy the rewarding feeling that came with crushing those goals. Everyday, Heather and her team work with exciting global technology companies whilst working towards a Hotwire 2020 three-year plan that is broad yet inspiring — exactly what is needed for the team to rally behind. And Heather does what all great leaders do: she wakes up every day with a critical sense of urgency, thinking about how she can make the company better, and how she can create the best agency a company would want to work with.
What advice would you give to an aspiring CEO?
“Be a conscious leader and take advantage of your unique style.” Heather also recommends deep 360-degree feedback to help every team member’s professional development.
What is it like working in Silicon Valley?
Working in Silicon Valley is different every day, says Heather. “I work a lot — and I love it, and it’s also exhausting. There is every opportunity here. You are limited only by your own energy and imagination.” But for all that work — and exhaustion — Heather admits that the global tech perspective you receive from sitting in Silicon Valley is well worth it.
What makes Silicon Valley work so well?
“The Bay Area is a community of people that helps each other” says Heather. “It’s this unique network where you help people you don’t know and they will do the same.” And Heather’s words ring true to those that live and experience Silicon Valley — it truly is the secret sauce of this innovation hub — super competitive yet very collaborative at the same time.
How can women elevate their own brand?
Heather can tell within five minutes of talking to a female leader or founder if they are ready and confident enough to take their business (or themselves) to the next level. Heather has helped elevate many female professionals and works with startup founders through Nasdaq Entrepreneurial Center, Women’s Startup Lab and Grand Central Tech.
“Stop thinking you don’t have anything to say. Write down what you think is interesting. It starts with the right mindset,” says Heather, when asked how one goes about elevating their brand. The worst thing we can do is over complicate it. Heather also suggests that you figure out three areas or platforms to share your voice — and then go after them.
“Stop thinking you don’t have anything to say. Write down what you think is interesting. It starts with the right mindset.”
How do you maintain balance with your family life?
Heather’s success has been supported by her stay-at-home husband, and she has brought her entire family along with her on her journey. Heather’s 13-year-old daughter Madison has joined her for a Dell Women’s Executive Network event in South Africa and had the chance to attend their “Girls Track” tech session, for example. “Everyone in my family is paying attention to Women in Tech.”
When I asked Heather what was the next scariest thing that she was thinking, she said she has something in mind, but I’ll have to wait. That’s fine — I am confident that it will be worth the wait. Until then, Heather continues to give back as an advisor to startups and women leaders while she continues to build the best communications agency you’ll ever work with.
Published as part of my Women of Silicon Valley Series on Women of Influence.