The MPW Insiders Network is an online community where the biggest names in business and beyond answer timely career and leadership questions. Today’s answer for: “How do you excel in a male-dominated industry?” is written by Julie Kinch, chief legal officer at Heineken USA.
I started at Heineken USA 19 years ago, and was hired as the company’s first general counsel. I was also the first woman to join Heineken USA’s executive leadership team, and was one of a small number of female employees. It was a fabulously exciting time of growth and discovery when I started with the company, and I jumped at the chance to create an in-house legal function that I believe has been embraced by the company. This continues to be rewarding, but many of my greatest moments have come out of my experience as a “woman working in beer.”
I was fortunate to be raised by parents who instilled in me a belief that I could do anything with hard work and drive, no matter who was around me. And that’s exactly how I approached my new position at this new company: looking for creative solutions, doing what I thought needed to be done to protect and advance the company, and not worrying about other people’s perceptions.
I’ve never really paid attention to the fact that I’m in the minority. I’ve just assumed that if you were good, then people would want to include you. I am a fairly direct person; I tend to speak my mind and then move on. I don’t dwell on things I can’t change; I focus on where I can make a difference and have an impact. Being in a male-dominated environment often requires having a kind of thick skin that allows you to do just that.
Joining Heineken USA provided me with a surprising number of opportunities to connect with people—colleagues, employees, customers, and consumers—in a wonderfully informal environment. You’re able to get to know others in a much more personal and engaging way when you’re talking over a beer. As we said in a tagline used by the Heineken brand years ago, we have been “social networking since 1873.”
On the heels of spearheading a cultural revamp many years back, I had women telling me that before I had arrived, they never thought there could be a senior woman in a beer company, and that’s when it hit me: I needed to help create an environment where women could thrive just as much and rise just as high as their male counterparts. This was especially true for the women in our sales force, where the field is even more predominantly male, both within the company and amongst our distributor customers. How could I use my leadership position to support them? I decided to do something that hadn’t been done in our organization before, and used my platform to found Heineken USA’s Women’s Leadership Forum.
We started small and quiet, inviting just a few women from across our sales regions to provide insights and share ideas. I didn’t know how it would turn out or if anyone would care, but my goal was to create a forum dedicated to supporting our company objectives while empowering women to expand their influence and increase their visibility.
Today, this small group has now grown to a national membership with the full support of our CEO and management team, and participation at our events average around 90% of our employees. Over the last three years, the overall percentage of women in the company has increased by 36% and the percentage of women in sales has grown by 32%—a huge step forward for this industry. I believe that as women do better, a company does better.
My advice for pushing forward in a male-dominated industry? Listen to learn, have confidence in yourself, use whatever platform you have to help others, and most importantly, find a meaningful way to connect with others.