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We Are the 8%: 4 Women Who Beat the Odds to Make It to CMO


A 2012 report by Grant Thornton found that women hold only one in five executive leadership positions in companies around the world. Of these top positions, Chief Marketing Officer is one of the most elusive for women to attain—a mere 8 percent of CMOs worldwide are female.

Only the position of Chief Information Officer (CIO) has a lower ratio of women, at just 5 percent. Below is a breakdown of the percent of businesses that employ women in various executive leadership positions.

Source: Grant Thornton, “Women in senior management: still not enough”

Though difficult, it’s clearly not impossible for women to make it to CMO. To shed light on how they beat the odds to become marketing executives, we interviewed four female CMOs at several prominent companies in the United States.

Here, we take a look at some of the biggest challenges they encountered—and overcame—along the way, and highlight how they’re making a name for themselves in a male-dominated marketing world.

Julie Bornstein, CMO and Chief Digital Officer at Sephora

Education:Harvard College, BA, Harvard, MBA
Years in marketing:14
Most significant marketing achievement:Sephora receiving the #1 Genuis spot in L2’s 2013 Digital IQ Index: Specialty Retail report

Julie Bornstein, chief marketing and digital officer at Sephora, has been on the ecommerce scene since its inception. “I remember the day Amazon turned its site on in 1996, and from that point on, my brain couldn’t stop thinking about all the possibilities,” she recalls.

Bornstein held several different positions in merchandising and investment banking before entering ecommerce and digital marketing. In 2000, she joined Nordstrom as their vice president of ecommerce. As the industry was was still in its infancy, Borstein found herself with an immense amount of creative freedom. “We made up everything as we went,” she says. “There was no precedent.”

This freedom was not without its challenges—Bornstein had to coax many skeptical brands to sell their products online. Other challenges included figuring out the best way to organize her department and how to scale Nordstrom’s website to accommodate events such as anniversary sales.

While there were ups and downs along the way, every step allowed Bornstein to build her knowledge, experience and confidence at a time when the industry was just getting off the ground, and ultimately landed her the job at Sephora.

While Sephora already had a reputable brick-and-mortar presence in the beauty industry when Bornstein arrived, their website had some catching up to do. She rebuilt the company’s online presence from scratch, transforming it into what L2 called “one of the best digital performers in the retail space” in 2012, and earning Sephora the #1 Genuis spot in L2’s 2013 Digital IQ Index: Specialty Retail report.

Bornstein stresses the importance of delivering results, and says marketers cannot drive sales without knowing their customers inside and out. The first step in her marketing approach, therefore, is to think of herself as a Sephora customer. She reviews surveys, focus groups, website data and customer feedback to understand their biggest needs and desires.

One of the most difficult challenges for Bornstein has been to find a way to capture the multi-sensory experience of Sephora stores—where customers are known to experiment and interact extensively with products—in an online setting. This led to the development of innovations such as Sephora’s Digital Beauty Bag, which is a virtual makeup bag customers can add products to that they want to test out in Sephora stores.

Sephora has also recently integrated their marketing efforts with Pinterest, placed iPads in stores so customers can freely browse reviews while they shop and replaced check-out lines with point of sale devices, all to help better satisfy customers and ultimately drive sales.

While Bornstein says that being a female marketer is core to her identity and advantageous in understanding her customers, she stresses that talent and results above all else are what ultimately drives marketing success. “I’ve always felt like no one could do the job I’ve done better,” she says. “Man or woman.”

Emma Carrasco, CMO at National Public Radio (NPR)

Education:Loyola Marymount University, BA Communications
Years in marketing:30
Most significant marketing achievement:Becoming the first-ever CMO for NPR

As the first-ever CMO for National Public Radio (NPR), Emma Carrasco broke new ground before her first day on the job. Her marketing career started off strong—her first position out of college was assistant to the president of what would eventually become the PR and marketing firm FleishmanHillard.

There, she quickly moved up the ranks to become assistant account executive, then account executive, where she worked on corporate responsibility and media relation campaigns. Carrasco cites her ability to understand the unique needs of each client as the driving force behind her success.

In one instance, for example, a client wanted to attract more families with children. Carrasco uncovered research that showed Hispanic families tend to be larger than non-Hispanic families, and that one-third of all Hispanics in the U.S. are under the age of 15. The client retargeted their marketing campaigns to focus on Hispanic families, and experienced substantial market growth as a result.

Carrasco’s ultimate goal was to work in media, so when her boss left FleishmanHillard for a position at Univision, she followed him. At Univision, Carrasco was instrumental in identifying the growing size and influence of the U.S. Hispanic market and increasing Spanish-language TV viewership. Carrasco also helped McDonalds broaden their market, leading several successful campaigns to grow the Hispanic and African-American consumer bases.

NPR brought Carrasco on as CMO in 2012 to help expand their audience of 26 million. In the first six months, she created and filled two new positions in her department, and helped launch a three-month-long pilot ad campaign in four cities that used billboards, TV spots, social media and print and digital ads to target adults age 25 to 54.

To further grow NPR’s audience, Carrasco is leading a rebranding effort that emphasizes intellectual curiosity and civic engagement—qualities that tend to resonate with a younger demographic. Her research uncovered that this demographic is more likely to embrace new media channels such as mobile platforms and podcasts, and so she has adjusted NPR’s strategy accordingly.

Carrasco is also effecting change when it comes to NPR’s funding sources. The organization is highly selective in who they accept donations from, and Carrasco is instrumental in evaluating sponsorship and funding opportunities to identify which donors are the best fit.

“When we partner with brands who support our mission, there is a tremendous positive ‘halo’ those brands receive,” Carrasco explains, which allows NPR to be discerning. She stresses that NPR’s audience trusts their sponsors will share the same values as their own—an essential part of of maintaining a consistent brand that attracts loyal followers.

Carrasco credits her experience as a Hispanic woman with giving her a unique perspective that allows her to ask questions and make connections other key decision makers may not. Embracing the uniqueness of your perspective, she says, is key in empowering you to help brands uncover new customers and ways of connecting with them.

Mariann McDonagh, CMO at inContact

Education:The University of Virginia, BA English Literature
Years in marketing:30
Most significant marketing achievement:Being inducted into the 2013 Direct Marketing News Hall of Femme

The CMO at inContact, a leading provider of on-demand call center solutions, Mariann McDonagh has overseen all of the company’s marketing and business development activities since she first came on board in 2010.

McDonagh’s journey into marketing was a circuitous one. It began with a job in engineering support at a large bank, where she took on the role of what she describes as “the interpreter.” She translated customer complaints about the bank’s telephone and computer services into specific tasks for engineers to complete, and explained new technology solutions to customers as they were rolled out.

McDonagh soon realized that what she was doing—identifying the needs of particular customer segments and coming up with solutions to solve them—was in fact a core marketing activity. The role taught her how to position and differentiate products across a variety of mediums, and became both the foundation and launch point of her marketing career.

McDonagh went on to hone her marketing chops in a series of marketing and business development roles for tech companies such as Xtralis LTD, Cheyenne Software, and CMP Media. In 2002, she joined Verint Systems, an analytics software and hardware provider, as their vice president of global marketing.

Over the next nine months, she piloted a successful global product launch, oversaw the development of a new website and rejuvenated the company’s PR team. She was then promoted to senior vice president of corporate marketing, where she led Verint from $150 million to $650 million in revenue in just five years, before joining inContact.

McDonagh attributes much of her marketing success to her ability to tell a product’s “story.” Rather than explaining specific product details to customers, she says, marketers must instead present a clearly-communicated vision of how that product will actually improve a business.

At a recent global user conference, for example, McDonagh and several inContact product managers enacted a 30-minute scenario of a call center at a fictitious company in front of the audience of 500. The goal of the performance, which featured individual roles and lines, was to show how inContact’s products could be used for real-world solutions, and McDonagh says the audience “loved it.”

Forging these types of emotional connections to products through stories, she says, is the best way to drive revenue growth and advance one’s marketing career—regardless if one is female or male.

Lisa Arthur

Lisa Arthur, CMO at Teradata

Education:Ohio State University, BA
Years in marketing:30
Most significant marketing achievement:“To have had the opportunity to serve as a four-time CMO, which has enabled me to work with and learn from so many talented marketers”

Lisa Arthur, CMO at Teradata (formerly Aprimo) and former CMO of Akamai Technologies and the B2B2C company Mindjet, is a prominent figure within the marketing community. She spent seven years as vice president of marketing with Oracle, is a former member of the CMO Council and a former trustee of the Marketing Sciences Institute.

Arthur is also the author of “The Marketing Revolution” blog on Forbes, and the author of “Big Data Marketing: Engage Your Customers More Effectively and Drive Value.

Similar to McDonagh, the majority of Arthur’s positions have been in IT. She believes data is the future of marketing, and cites her experience with data and taking a data-driven approach to marketing as the keys to her success.

The old, outdated “Mad Men” style of marketing—based on hunches, casting a wide net and trying to get a message to stick—just isn’t the way things are done anymore, because “technology has turned the industry on its head,” she explains. Rather than a top-down design where marketers help drive consumer brand preference, consumers are now the ones in control.

But, Arthur says, the technology available today allows marketers to uncover data to identify a customer’s preferences and buying patterns, which helps them regain some of the control they’ve lost. And she believes that harnessing this data will be important for the success of any CMO in the future.

“I think traditional CMOs have been more brand than data or technology-grounded, and that’s a transformation we need to make in business—understanding data as a valuable corporate asset to improve the customer experience and to drive real value for our companies,” Arthur explains.

Though female marketers remain scarce, Arthur believes there is huge potential for women in the field. “Marketing is a great stepping-stone for women because it is a profession that drives revenue and is now an on-ramp to CEO,” she says.

Many thanks to Mariann McDonagh, Emma Carrasco, Lisa Arthur and Julie Bornstein for their contributions. Matt Lapata contributed to this article.

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Victoria Garment

About the Author

Victoria Garment joined Software Advice in 2013. As the Publishing Manager, she works behind the scenes, overseeing the content created by the team's Market Research Associates.

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