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CJ's Female Leaders Share Their Journey to the Top

Mar 8, 2021
Written by CJ Affiliate

With a 67% female executive leadership team, EVERY day is International Women’s Day at CJ. This culture of women in leadership extends beyond our executives—we're proud to have so many incredible women occupying top leadership positions across the organization, shaping the direction of our company and industry.

In honor of International Women's Day, we asked CJ's female identifying leaders across the globe to recount their journey to the top, the pivotal career advice that got them there, women who inspire them, and more! Read on to meet 15 of CJ's female leaders who inspire us every day.

Amalia Thomas, VP, Client Development, New York, NY

Amalia Thomas

Tell us about how you got into this industry and how you grew to the leadership role you're in today: Prior to CJ (over 10 years ago), I was working for a software company in Santa Barbara, where we used CJ for our affiliate channel. I was eager to get into affiliate marketing and knew that CJ was looking to hire an Associate Account Manager (today a Client Partnerships Manager), so I applied, and the rest is history! I was incredibly excited and nervous as it was my first time venturing out of the software world. My second week on the job was CJU! Talk about a crash course in affiliate :)

Since then, I have held nearly every position within the Client Development organization. I always loved being presented with a challenge and figuring out how to solve it. I truly believe in the mantra that "where there's a will, there's a way," and I ALWAYS believe there is a way! Solving a complex client or business problem makes my day! I think that what has allowed me to grow into the leadership position I’m in today is hiring and building strong teams. Without a strong team, you cannot accomplish what you need to for your clients, your business, or your culture. Investing time in people (including their leaders) and understanding the daily challenges that they experience with their clients and daily routines, is what drives better solutions for our teams so that they are equipped to deliver success to their clients. As I mentioned, I love solving problems, so throughout my career, I always jump at the opportunity to take on a new challenge or initiative. The more uncharted waters, the better because it means I am challenging myself and growing.

What does it mean to you to be a woman in the workforce today? I am thankful for all of the women who paved the way for me to be able to be where I am today. I'm an immigrant and a political refugee from Romania, which was formally a dictatorship. I am the first person in my family to become a senior leader in their career. The women in my family today (most of which are still in Romania), haven’t had the same opportunities as me to succeed in their careers because gender inequalities still permeate Romania. I often reflect on where they could have been today if they would’ve had the same equal opportunities as their counterparts.

What's a piece of advice/feedback that you received that had the biggest impact on your career? "Action combats fear." I stand by this. Whenever I’m afraid of doing something, I start putting one foot in front of the other and I start to feel better. Oftentimes, we become consumed by the unknown. As you start to take the first steps, the path forward starts to become a little clearer.

Any advice for women starting their career? Don't be afraid to state your opinion. It matters!

 

Aruna Bhagtani, Sr. Director Product Development, Westlake Village, CA

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Tell us about how you got into this industry and how you grew to the leadership role you're in today: CJ was my first career opportunity after I migrated to the United States. What drew me to the channel was just how trackable and measurable it was. Having a tech background, I was always amazed to see the kind of innovations that were happening in the space and how affiliates and brands are combining creativity and technology to build effective marketing campaigns. CJ has given me so many opportunities to grow professionally and build a strong product management team that allows us to roll-out impactful products for our clients. I've had so many mentors during my decade long career at CJ and I wanted to be a mentor myself to help guide individuals looking for a long-term career in product management. There’s nothing quite as satisfying as seeing your own experiences and advice help another excel in their own career.

Who or what inspires you? Indra Nooyi (former Pepsi CEO). She is someone who managed to rise to the top despite social, cultural, and gender challenges.

What's a piece of advice/feedback that you received that had the biggest impact on your career? Do your best. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes. You will do better when you know how. And you often only find out when you get there. This is especially pertinent as it relates to building products, where you may not have all the answers to begin with, but you have to start somewhere and then refine the plan as you learn more.

 

Linda O'Connell, VP, Client Development, UK, Dublin, IE

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Tell us about how you got into this industry and how you grew to the leadership role you're in today: After completing a post graduate MBS in Marketing, I was successful in receiving a Marketing Graduate placement in an Irish government agency called Enterprise Ireland, that helped and supported Irish businesses all over the world. I was lucky to be placed in the London office and was assigned to the ecommerce sector team which was a growing and still quite immature sector at that time. From there, my love and involvement in all things digital marketing grew. I started at CJ, over 15 years ago now, as a Business Sales Executive and over the years have taken on a number of positions which had led me to where I am today as VP, Client Development, overseeing a team of 30 fantastic employees, and part of our European leadership team. As I reflect on how I have grown to my leadership role today, I was lucky to have had a number of strong and influential managers who have helped encourage and mold my development over the years and who undoubtedly played a significant part in where I am today. In addition, some of these managers were female who were true role models and further helped my determination to succeed despite when I had moments of doubt, feelings of guilt, and struggles with work-life balance after becoming a mother. I am also blessed to have a great network of friends and family who have provided support and encouragement when most needed.  

What's the best part of leading a team or organization? Seeing the successful development and progress of each individual in my team and how this in turn, all lends to the success of our organization.

Any advice for women starting their career? 1) Be prepared to step out of your comfort zone and try new opportunities; 2) Do not doubt yourself or talk yourself out of going for a job because you don't have every single one of the skills or experience detailed on the job description—the worse you could get is a “no”, but you will learn from trying; 3) Do not shy away from difficult conversations like salary negotiations or career progression; 4) Ask questions and learn, learn, learn...

 

Nicole Ron, VP, Global Marketing, Product Marketing, & Business Systems, Santa Barbara, CA

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Tell us about how you got into this industry and how you grew to the leadership role you're in today: My software engineer boyfriend (now husband!) worked at CJ and told me about what an amazing culture the company had and how they invested in employee development. I left my job as a travel agent and joined the CJ client support team. Within my first year, I joined a new team and lead the design and launch our Pay Per Call solution—the first solution of its kind offered in affiliate. Following this, I built a team that launched and led efforts around other major solution offerings such as Site to Store, our in-app tracking solutions, partner tracking offerings, CPA display, and much more. From there, I was asked to lead our global marketing strategy, go-to-market strategies, and business systems solutions.

What's a piece of advice/feedback that you received that had the biggest impact on your career? Early in my career, I found myself speaking up more in one on ones and team planning meetings with a differing perspective from that of my boss. I distinctly recall that year's annual review where I gave myself poor marks because I was speaking up too much with counter-perspectives. Much to my surprise, my boss told me he'd given me the highest marks in this area. He shared that he relied on my perspective and wanted to see me speak up even more to share my ideas.

Coming from a family where debate was very rare and dissenting perspectives were rarely shared, receiving encouragement to speak up was a defining career moment for me. This experience has been foundational in how I lead. Now, I set the expectation with every employee that I want and need them to speak up and share their thoughts to shape our strategies. This empowerment has led to incredible accomplishments that never would have happened without active discussion.

How does identifying as a woman shape your "everyday self" at work? When I joined our executive leadership team, an associate told me that one of the reasons they joined the organization was because of women like me who were inspirational leaders. This was a moment of realization for me that shaped how I show up every day. I strive to be open, approachable, honest, and unapologetically me—from my girly dresses, floral tattoos, and (currently) blue hair. I also believe in creating opportunities, just like has been done for me. I have an open-door policy—anyone can come to me with ideas, suggestions, or questions and I'm happy to help however I’m able.

 

Heather Pilat, VP, Finance, Westborough, MA

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Tell us about how you got into this industry and how you grew to the leadership role you're in today: I “grew up” in affiliate marketing, joining Be Free (a competitor to CJ before they merged in 2004) in 1999! Having been in the industry for over 20 years, I’ve watched it grow from its infancy. My first job at Be Free was to establish metrics to measure the effectiveness of the channel and to identify which KPIs would matter. I also spent some time in Marketing and Product Marketing working closely with the sales team to package and market our products before ultimately returning back to the Analytics side. In 2007, I was asked to continue running the analytics team AND add finance to my responsibilities, focusing on financial planning and analysis (FP&A). In 2011, I was promoted to VP and in 2016 I shifted my role to focus on just FP&A. Last year, I was asked to take on responsibility for all of the global financial management for CJ. It's been a thrilling ride and I have learned so much over the years, but probably the most in the last year!

Who or what inspires you? Strong, confident women inspire me. There are many: Michelle Obama, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Christine Lagarde (former head of IMF), Angela Merkel, Maya Angelou, and Malala Yousafzai, just to name a few.

Any advice for women starting their career? If it scares you, you should probably do it. That’s probably not the advice that people who know me (cautious and considered) would think I’d give, but it's in those moments that you grow the most.

What's one of the biggest hurdles you’ve overcome? When I was initially tapped to take on FP&A back in 2007, I was nervous. I had not majored in finance and while I was good with numbers, I had to learn how to be good at financial planning. The same thing has occurred as my role has broadened significantly over the last year. Knowing that I'd conquered new territory before made me more confident that I could handle this latest challenge.

 

Nidhi Lodha, Director, Client Development, Bangalore, India

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Tell us about how you got into this industry and how you grew to the leadership role you're in today: As a child I wanted to become a doctor, however I did not clear the pre-med test and experienced my first real failure. I’m blessed with a super supportive family, and in particular, a persistent father who wanted me to do something good with my life. Thus, I changed my stream of education and pursued economics and got an MBA.

Over the course of the last 16 years of my career, I’ve held a variety of roles and interacted with diverse cultures. One thing I learned from that was how to adapt and be flexible. Every three to four years you hit a stage when you need to re-invent, learn, and do something different. In all these situations and transitions I have relied on my core strengths of dealing with people, communicating well, and above all resilience. These skills have always helped me find a way.

Any advice for women starting their career? My advice to women currently embarking on their careers is: 1) Take every opportunity to learn and build your skills; 2) Don't feel guilty in asking for what you want and deserve—be it professionally or support from family and friends; 3) Be brave enough to acknowledge your mistakes, but most importantly learn from them; 4) Lastly, embrace your true self—it’s ok to show vulnerability. One does not always need to be a pillar of strength!

What's an accomplishment you're most proud of? I get the maximum satisfaction in seeing how the people I have worked with have shaped their careers and take pride in the miniscule role that I might have had in their success. I definitely feel good about being part of their journeys and cherish the relationships I have built as a result.

 

Kelly Merkel, VP, Publisher Development, Chicago, IL

Kelly Merkel

Tell us about how you got into this industry and how you grew to the leadership role you're in today: I got into affiliate after I initially started my career in transportation. When I was finishing grad school and looking for my next role, I started interning at Cooking.com. As a part of that internship I started running the affiliate program for Cooking.com and was introduced to CJ! I loved my CJ team immediately (obviously) and felt like affiliate was a great fit for my skillset. I LOVE online shopping and had spent my entire career at that point working in some type of client management role.

Throughout my time at CJ, I felt like I was given a chance to constantly grow not only professionally but personally. I asked for and was encouraged to take on new responsibilities with an ever-evolving book of business. I was involved in several network-wide projects and learned to work closely across departments and how to manage projects at scale. On top of this, I’ve presented at CJU and been involved in Women in Leadership and Executive Development. This allowed me to build my public-speaking skills and increase my visibility in the organization and industry.

What's the best part of leading a team or organization? I am constantly inspired by my team. They’re passionate about their business and motivated to be the best they can be for both their clients and CJ. They always bring new, creative ideas to drive growth. And when I see the gratification they take in those wins and grow professionally and personally as part of that success—it makes me incredibly proud!

Any advice for women starting their career? Raise your hand! Be your own best advocate for your career. Make it known that you are interested in more and identify opportunities to showcase your value. I’ve found that it can be difficult, especially for early careerists, to draw attention to their wins. Remember, it’s not bragging to highlight the impact you are making on your client’s business or CJ!

 

Siobhan Williamson, Group Director, Business Operations, Europe, London, UK

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Tell us about how you got into this industry and how you grew to the leadership role you're in today: After studying health science at university, I quickly realized that lab life was not for me. So I decided to head off on a gap year to London to "find myself". A few months into moving to London, I went on a camping trip with my cousin and her friends and met a gent that had a digital agency start up. We got on like a house on fire and I started working for the start up the following month doing all sorts of odd jobs around the office. It was there that I fell in love with digital marketing and left the lab behind for the exciting world of ecommerce and marketing.

A few years into my career, I decided that a focus in affiliate marketing was the direction I was looking for, and given my science background, working with a company that owned the technology itself would open many doors for my experimental brain. This was when I started as a Client Development Manager at CJ Affiliate.

Roll on seven and a half years, and my role within the CJ business has evolved to capitalize on my strengths around process and problem solving while leveraging the commercial side of my Client Dev hat to facilitate the growth of our European business. I was lucky enough to work in an agile business that supported me in pulling together the common threads of my strengths with the gaps we were seeing across our European business and alongside our VP, Jules, I created a new department focused on best practice, business excellence, process efficiency, and as of 2021, business strategy.

My role has evolved with me, and it was the support of the CJ business and its leaders that allowed me to create my own path in a career and role that not only keep me engaged and motivated but also supports the business to improve and grow regardless of the challenge.

What's a piece of advice/feedback that you received that had the biggest impact on your career? You are the only one responsible for pushing your career forward. A manager can support you on the journey, but you need to outline the destination and what you plan to do to get there. That way they know when to step in or out along that journey to support you in achieving those goals.

Any advice for women starting their career? Don't be afraid to ask for what you want and deserve. Women are notorious for undervaluing their strengths. Take risks!

What's an accomplishment you're most proud of? Being listed as a PerformanceIn Top 50 Industry Player. This recognition from our industry was very humbling and confirmed that all the hard work was worth it.

 

Sommer Urias, VP, Client Development, Santa Barbara, CA

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Tell us about how you got into this industry and how you grew to the leadership role you're in today: I actually celebrate my 14th year at CJ and in the industry next week! I started at CJ as a temp receptionist after college and after learning more about the industry, I felt compelled to join the Client Development team. I then worked my way up through the org by serving in every client facing role on Client Dev. I quickly developed a reputation for driving innovative growth strategies for my clients while building a culture around passionate, high performing teams that were proud to come to work every day.

Any advice for women starting their career? "Intellectual curiosity is the building block to your professional currency." - Sommer Urias, 2021 ;)

People that invest themselves in learning are the ones that can influence the most change. Your unique perspective is indispensable. You don't need to immediately make a big splash to make an impact—take the time to learn and identify how you can drive value. If you tactfully approach each scenario, relationship, or process genuinely curious about the how and they why, you’ll be better positioned to offer game-changing strategy that only you can add. And honestly, let's face it…learning is FUN!

When do you feel like your most authentic self? In a conference room, wearing my Jordans, surrounded by my team leading a collaboration session. I’m at my happiest when I bring people together to pique their curiosity and tackle a problem. I love bouncing hypotheticals and questions around, leading the most unassuming person to contribute an innovative idea that sparks a healthy debate. Eventually, the collaboration leads to a breakthrough that creates a buzz in the room that has the potential to carry into other parts of the day. Wow, I miss being in the office! :)

What's one of the biggest hurdles you’ve overcome? I’m a nurturing person and I love having a true connection with my team. The higher up I got and the larger my team got, I found it difficult to “scale” my leadership brand—or more so, the things I love about being a leader.

After becoming an executive, I questioned my warm approach and put pressure on myself to be more “professional”. I was worried I had to be calculated in a certain way to be an executive, and with over 200 employees in my department, I didn’t even know how to begin to create those personal connections that allowed me to unlock the best in people. I quickly realized that people really value a leader that’s authentic and vulnerable. I discovered that the best way to scale my brand of leadership was to empower my team of leaders to create a culture of contributors and build their teams to thrive in this environment—to essentially lead through my leaders.

 

Camy Gehrke, Sr. Group Director, Client Development, San Francisco, CA

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Tell us about how you got into this industry and how you grew to the leadership role you're in today: I got into marketing in my early twenties after doing a variety of different jobs, including coaching tennis, working as a film production assistant, and working as a manager/legal aid at two different law firms, where I received my first exposure to direct marketing.

Marketing really spiked my interest in 2008/09, when it was very clear to me that during the recession many struggling companies needed to invest in marketing in order to survive and drive more customers to their business. I was hooked and started geeking out on data and statistics—including understanding consumer psychology, marketing trends, and shifts in purchasing behavior.

I learned how to code and work with Boolean logic, and ended up joining an email marketing company, which was my first real marketing gig. Email marketing was extremely hot back then, and little things such as adding an Instagram or Facebook like button to an email, were exciting. Obviously, we've gotten much more advanced in the way we approach marketing and advertising today, and it has been exhilarating to watch the industry evolve, and to be a part of it.

Affiliate marketing is by far my favorite form of marketing. I started at CJ Affiliate in 2015, as a Client Development Director, and have served as a Group Director for our San Francisco office for the past four years. I believe where I'm at today is a result of being passionate about what I do, working with teams to drive growth and solutions for our clients, collaborating with different teams on innovative initiatives, and forming strong relationships with people. Resilience and grit are two qualities that I think every leader should have, along with a strong team that's engaged and motivated to face challenges head on. I wouldn't be where I'm at today without the San Francisco team and my office leaders, and the strength that they have shown and continue to show, especially during this global pandemic.

What's a piece of advice/feedback that you received that had the biggest impact on your career? Don't sweat the stuff you can't control. Focus on what's within your control and where you can really influence something. There will be many situations where you have zero control over a decision or outcome, and that's called life—it's how you approach those situations that matter!

When do you feel like your most authentic self? When I'm with my family and friends, or when I'm on the tennis court. Family, friends, and health should be equally important to your career, if not more important. Make sure to find that balance in life so you have time for all.

 

Clara Holm, VP, Support Operations & Compliance, Santa Barbara, CA

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Tell us about how you got into this industry and how you grew to the leadership role you're in today: I started my career at a telecommunications company focused on offline marketing tactics. I knew I wanted to get into the digital space, so I took courses in digital marketing and went back to school to get my MBA. When a role on the Support and Compliance team at CJ opened up, I jumped at the opportunity and I’m so glad I did! I have had great leaders and talented colleagues with multiple leadership styles that helped me refine my leadership style as I took on various roles. Their advocacy and support and the talented people on my team inspire me to do the same.

What's a piece of advice/feedback that you received that had the biggest impact on your career? The best advice I received was not just to present problems that needed to be solved, but to think about how I would handle the issue if I were in charge and come prepared with recommendations.

Any advice for women starting their career? Being competent, confident, and doing excellent work is key, but it is also extremely important to take time to network with team members in your organization, even if you don’t work with them on a day-to-day basis. Not only is it enjoyable, but you can also learn things about the business that will make you more effective in your role.

 

Anna Marecka, Group Director, Global Client Success, Munich, Germany

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Tell us about how you got into this industry and how you grew to the leadership role you're in today: My journey within the affiliate industry started eight years ago. I was recruited by a Publisher (the founder being a former CJ'er himself) in the final years of my master's studies for my language skills and intercultural background to help expand their international partnerships, in close cooperation with—you guessed it—CJ Affiliate. I hadn't thought of a career in digital marketing previously, but I got hooked once I joined CJ's Client Development team after graduation. Given the opportunity to work with a multitude of international brands from day one and experience the collaborative spirit of CJ globally as well as the entire industry, the diversity of the business, and its dynamic development—I quickly realized how CJ is the perfect environment for me to learn, grow my expertise, and thrive. Global strategies and growth became the focus of my work throughout the years and paved the path to my role today.

What's the best part of leading a team or organization? Collaborating with a myriad of passionate, smart, talented, and diverse people across our business globally. It motivates me to put my best foot forward for our joined success and inspires my personal growth. I feel very fortunate to be in a position where I can contribute and shape our organization and have an impact on its future.

Who or what inspires you? Gloria Steinem, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Jane Fonda, Michelle Obama, and Serena Williams.

Any advice for women starting their career? Don't be afraid of challenges (seek them out!) and don't let the fear of making mistakes get in your way. Aspire to learn, grow, and get better at what you're doing. Doing something you're genuinely passionate about that brings you joy helps a great deal with this—especially when facing challenges or adversity. How you master and overcome them will fuel your personal and professional growth. Success is a result, not a goal.

When do you feel like your most authentic self? In the Alps—enjoying the peace of mountain top views and the feeling of happy exhaustion after getting there by bike. (9/10 chances I'm also laughing about a joke my partner just made.)

 

Desiree Toto, Sr. VP, Product Development & Global Operations, Westborough, MA

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Tell us about how you got into this industry and how you grew to the leadership role you're in today: My vision for my career was working at a large ad agency (think Mad Men), but when I graduated, the .com boom was just beginning and I organically gravitated toward digital media. I always loved creative problem solving and designing concepts that impact people and businesses—I thank my father’s insistence that I go to computer camp, which sparked my desire in understanding technology and how it can produce remarkable things.

Working at CJ, I was given the rare opportunity to really blend these passions that drove my career. This started with delivering strategic expertise to our clients, to overseeing the remarkable teams that drive the delivery and adoption of remarkable products that our clients love, and most importantly—drive results for their business.

What's the best part of leading a team or organization? I have a passion for growing teams and people. I love seeing a spark, a glimmer in someone and figuring out how to ignite it. I measure my success by those around me that go on to have amazing careers, knowing I played a role in mentoring them.

What's a piece of advice/feedback that you received that had the biggest impact on your career? I suffered from imposter syndrome, where I was constantly doubting my success. I had an amazing female mentor who asked me to reflect on my career. She had me call out every time I challenged myself, every time I took on a new initiative that provided me with more knowledge, and to highlight success that I drove. After I provided the summary, she asked, “who did that?” My response was that I did! It made me realize that every step I took up to this point, I drove. I took the initiative! I was driving my career and no one else was! My advice for others: do this. Realize you have always been in the driver’s seat—you are in control of where you’re going.

 

Paloma Lumbreras, Country Manager, Spain

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Tell us about how you got into this industry and how you grew to the leadership role you're in today: I come from a very different world. My professional career started in media agencies managing on and off media strategies and budgets for a huge variety of companies such as Coca-Cola, Disney, Hermes, Telefonica, Santander, and GSK. I was there over 15 years and I was educated working for large international and well-structured companies. I learned everything about client management, team leadership, and recruitment while I polished my skills on branding and creative media strategies.

I joined CJ Affiliate as Sales Director and my former experience participating on RFPs—which I usually participated in with media agencies—was extremely useful for me (I had a very positive history winning over the J&J account, Glamour magazine, AXA, etc.). It was very challenging for me moving from the branding ecosystem to the performance world, but my later experience managing Dell and Genesis Group helped me to understand the basics of the industry.

Aside from learning everything about a new sector, I had another difficult task, which was to move CJ ES portfolio of clients—100% reliant on the lead generation model—to CPA accounts.

I would say that hard work, passion to succeed and team excellence were key to overcome all the obstacles I found in my way. I am a sociologist, a book lover too, and I was so lucky to grow up in a family who always motivated me to progress as an individual and never considered me to have "less potential" for being a woman, or making differences between my brother, sister, and me. I always considered myself a feminist. Honestly, at work, deep down I never think about myself as a woman, but as a person and I believe that it has unconsciously helped me in my professional development.

Who or what inspires you? Women who are strong but are not afraid to show their weaknesses, like my mother and my sister.

What's a piece of advice/feedback that you received that had the biggest impact on your career? When I was a very young girl my mother told me: "you have to study, you have to have your own professional career, be independent and never depend on a man."

What's one of the biggest hurdles you’ve overcome? Moving from the branding media agencies world to the performance ecosystem was hard, I had to transform myself a little. But the evolution has been positive, I have learned a lot and now there is a better me.

What's an accomplishment you're most proud of? Fortunately, there are many accomplishments in my life and my career, first in the list is my son, but I am also proud of my skills to build very talented teams around me.

 

Alex Aquilon, Lead, Client Activation, Austin, TX

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Tell us about how you got into this industry and how you grew to the leadership role you're in today: After college, I started working at Santa Barbara Magazine in print advertising sales. After about four years, things were shifting and moving rapidly into the online marketing world. It fascinated me and I had to be a part of it. Starting at CJ (10 years ago this August!) was the best eye opener into that world I could have received. I had amazing leadership along the way. I listened to their advice, was motivated to grow, and continue to want to help other peers grow today!            

What's the best part of leading a team or organization? To me, the best part of leading a team is listening to what they have to say and what they want to contribute to the company and team and working with them to achieve those goals. Additionally, being a mentor and watching them grow within the team or company! Leading a team and seeing them succeed is one of the most amazing parts of being a leader.

Who or what inspires you? Hands down, my mom. My mom was a single mother who worked full time and commuted at least two hours a day. Her work ethic, attitude, and drive were unbelievable. I aspire to be half the woman she is!

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Here's to the powerful women shaping our work lives. You inspire us every day!

Topics: CJ Life,

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