CEO with MBA
Heather Kernahan’s journey to being named CEO, North America of global communications agency Hotwire began about a decade ago in the Barowsky School of Business as an MBA student at Dominican, when her finance professor challenged her to think big.
“Finance was a really challenging class, and I remember one day my professor taking the time to talk me through a financial spreadsheet,” Heather recalls. “He said ‘If you were a CEO, here is what you would look for in this document.’”
“I replied ‘What do you mean if I were a CEO? Do you think I could be a CEO?’”
The professor’s reply became Heather’s ah-ha moment.
“He said `Yes, of course you can be a CEO. Why else are you here?”
“It was one of those moments in life when someone opens you up to something that is greater than any thought you had before, and that was my moment at Dominican,” Heather says. “This professor helped me set my sights on a CEO title.”
That goal became a reality in December, when Heather was promoted from her three-year role as president of Hotwire North America and Australia to CEO, North America overseeing offices in San Francisco, New York, Minneapolis, Chicago and Sydney, Australia. Current clients include some of the biggest names in the tech industry, including Pinterest, Adobe, Facebook, McAfee, Looker, Forge, project44 and NetApp.
Heather enrolled in Dominican’s MBA program in 2006, shortly after moving to Marin from Canada with her husband and young daughter, when the Toronto firm she was working for was acquired by Autodesk. Autodesk hired Heather to join its global communications team in San Rafael.
“I realized that this opportunity to move to the United States and join Autodesk was a game changer for me, but I felt inferior in terms of what was going on with U.S. business,” Heather says. “I knew that I needed to gain more marketing skills and to do that, I would need an MBA.”
Dominican was conveniently located near Heather’s Terra Linda home. However, the key selling point was an MBA curriculum focused on practical, applicable skills that would prepare her to work in more strategic business areas.
“I was looking for a program that would teach me skills that I could immediately start applying in the workplace. This was something that was very important to me and it was something that I saw Dominican’s MBA program did well.”
At Dominican, Heather not only found a program that would allow her to put learning into action, she also found a welcoming community that supported her from day one.
Heather admits that her undergraduate years were frustrating. While she excelled in student life and leadership, she did not enjoy the theory-rich coursework.
“I liked to work, but I did not feel that my classes gave me anything that I could apply to the real world,” she recalls. “So instead, I became very active with campus life – I was named Student of the Year at graduation – because I really enjoyed getting involved with hands-on work.”
Dominican gave Heather an opportunity to reset her academic trajectory. After submitting her application, she was invited to meet with the dean of the business school to discuss her academic record.
“He said that if I did well in my first class I would be admitted into the MBA program,” Heather says. “I am so grateful that Dominican took a chance on me. I took that one class, and I did well. I really enjoyed the work, and the experience gave me the confidence I needed to realize that earning an MBA was something that I could do.”
Heather’s journey through Dominican also underscores the University’s holistic approach to each and every student. That first course -- “Strategy for Business Redesign” -- encouraged students to understand their own complexity and their world views. Heather realized the time was right to complete her family.
Raising a young family, working in a demanding industry, and studying for an MBA were challenging times, she admits, but well worth the work in the long run.
“We sacrificed so much during those years. I did not have a lot of time for parties, vacations, date nights, or play dates.”
When her son was 18 months, Heather hit a wall and considered leaving the MBA program.
“I called my sister and said I’m not going back to school, it’s just too hard.”
Her sister challenged her to think long-term.
“My sister said ‘I support you, but make sure that when your daughter asks in the future why you did not finish your MBA, that you can honestly say you made the right decision by not finishing what you started.”
That was the kick she needed. Heather continued with the MBA program, progressing through the program one class at a time over six years. She earned her degree in 2013.
“It’s so tough for women when it comes to work and family,” she says. “Women often put themselves on the back burner and put others forward. I’m proud to show my kids and others that I did it – even though it was very hard.”
Daughter Madison is now 15 and son Cameron is 11. Recently Heather overheard Madison talking with a group of friends about mom’s job.
“There was a group of teens in my house and I heard my daughter telling her friends that I had just been named CEO – and that I run the whole business. They were impressed and I felt pretty proud to be a positive role model to a group of young women who can be anything they want.”
Dominican, she says, helped every step of the way.
“I always felt welcomed and very supported with my decision to take some time off and then come back at my own pace. I ended up doing one course per semester and the balance was just right and Dominican made it work for me.”
After several promotions at Autodesk, Heather changed jobs twice to align her career goals, joining Eastwick Communications in 2013 and moving to Hotwire in 2016 after it acquired Eastwick. Over the years she developed her reputation as a global marketing tech expert and business leader. She’s been featured in Fast Company, Fortune, Thrive Global, BizWomen, PR Week and AdWeek. She was named one of B2B News Network’s 2015 B2B Top Influencers. In 2015, Hotwire was named Tech Agency of Year. Just this month they were named Best Places to Work by PR Week, a coveted award in the industry.
Heather continues to draw on the skills she learned in her MBA course when leading and expanding high-performance teams and managing the complexity of global business strategy.
“Dominican taught me some great leadership skills and provided an understanding of leadership frameworks and different models to apply in different situations. I learned about the leadership quadrant – four styles of leadership to use in times of stress and crisis – and often pull that out and check in with myself to make sure that I am responding in the way I need to respond.”
Her advice for incoming MBA students?
“Be very clear about what you want to get out of your degree and understand your long-term goals,” she says. “What do you want in terms of your career 10 years from now, so you can make sure that earning a degree with help you meet your long-term career goals.”
And, be realistic.
“Whatever you think it will take in terms of time, double it. Be prepared to say no to a lot of things and to miss out on some things. But, also realize that your education will serve you the rest of your life, and that every day you will use some of the tools you learned. It’s worth it.”