Behaving Famously

Hotwire North America’s CEO Heather Kernahan wants you to dream big

“I want to be CEO,” Heather Kernahan once told Disruption’s publisher, Joanne Fedeyko, during an interview. Worried that it might have been a risky statement to make publicly, Heather told her boss—the CEO—about it before the story was published. But her boss was “incredibly supportive,” and Heather recalls her saying, “well, you definitely should be CEO someday.” 

Now, two years later, Heather is CEO, North America of global communications agency Hotwire.

“One of my biggest life lessons has been to say out loud what I want, even if I feel like it’s impossible, so that I have the chance to make it happen,” Kernahan says.

From Canada to the Bay Area

Working in the tech hub of Silicon Valley was another goal Heather effectively spoke into existence. After attending St. Mary’s University in Nova Scotia—near her hometown of Truro—she enrolled in a public relations certificate program. The program motivated her to pursue a career in PR, starting in the late 1990s with Alias Wavefront, a tech company in Toronto.

“I was so happy to be in the tech industry,” Kernahan says. “I realized I love the pace, I love the change, I love that there’s something new every day in this industry. I felt like this was going to be the industry that I spent my entire career in.”

When Alias Wavefront was acquired by their competitor, Autodesk, in the early 2000s, Kernahan told a colleague that she would make the move to San Francisco to join the company. The message made its way to Kernahan’s future boss, he made her an offer, and she’s lived in the Bay Area with her family of four ever since.

Moving to a new country would not be the only big change Kernahan would make, as she quickly set her sights on becoming a CEO.

“When I joined Autodesk, one of the things I noticed being part of a global company was who was in the room with the CEO,” Kernahan says. “I had this thought—I want to be in the room when it happens. I want to be part of the decision making. I want to be the one who’s working with the executives at the highest level.”

Kernahan enrolled in an MBA program with dreams of becoming a CMO. When a professor pointed out that the MBA program was essentially a CEO training program, she recalls thinking “I’ve not been dreaming big enough. I don’t need to be the right hand to the person in charge, I can be the person in charge.” After completing her MBA, Heather met with Barbara Bates, the founder of Eastwick Communications. “She hired me, and she trained me how to run a company.” When Bates sold Eastwick to Hotwire in 2016, the two stayed on as CEO North America and President, respectively. In 2017, Bates was promoted to Global CEO and Kernahan moved into the role of CEO North America in 2019, achieving her CEO dreams. 

“hen it comes to communications and marketing, not enough professionals understand that, while they can have a great career there, they could also be the CEO of a business with that background. Sometimes people think, ‘this is where I’m going to play’ and don’t realize they can be a business leader within their industry. I think you should aim as high as you want.”

Recovery and reinvention 

While Kernahan’s workplace was in good shape during the pandemic—they adopted remote work policies years ago—there are still changes she knows she will have to make—and help her clients make—going forward to remain attractive to tech talent in a post-COVID, remote-first work landscape.

“The murder of George Floyd marked a big change in our business, because we had talked about diversity, equity, and inclusion in the past, but we hadn’t baked it into our strategy as a business,” Kernahan says. “And now we have. A big part of my job this past year has been about setting the long-term vision and priorities for our business and making sure we have an exciting, growing business that attracts talented people who really want to work here. There is actually a talent shortage that remains in technology, and companies have to figure out how they’re going to reinvent themselves and remain attractive in a mostly-remote world. Recovery and reinvention is going to be a big topic over the next few years for my clients in tech. And the people who lead technology businesses have to become savvier on what’s happening in the political landscape. Employees want to work for leaders who are knowledgeable about—and have an opinion on—social issues and racial justice issues, and are ready to talk about it publicly.” 

Proud to be Canadian

Even though she’s been in the Bay Area for more than 15 years, Kernahan still considers herself a proud Canadian and is keen to help other Canadians find success in the Valley. As a Connector in the Canadian Women’s Network (CWN), she’s run mentorship groups for Canadian founders in the Valley, and is currently running workshops with CWN members to help women founders develop their story and promote themselves. 

“If you’re in Canada, and you’re going to come to the Valley soon, get involved quickly and don’t hold back,” Kernahan says. “Within the CWN, you will meet people you never thought you could, and get involved with ideas and organizations and initiatives that will be good for your business and personally help you.” 

As a Canadian, it is critical that you develop your story, and get comfortable with behaving famously. When I work with Canadian professionals, there is often a discomfort with being front and center. Canadians need to understand that it’s not egotistical to know your story and be bold about communicating, it is absolutely essential if you’re going to operate in the competitive ecosystem of Silicon Valley. When I first moved to the Bay Area, I often felt embarrassed. I felt insecure, and like I really didn’t know what was happening in tech, because I was from Canada. Now when I get up to speak, I start with, ‘Hey, I’m Heather, and I’m Canadian. Who else in the audience is from Canada?’ This puts me in a power position to own my story on being Canadian. I know that I am behaving famously, and I know what I bring to the table. It also helps me have a personal connection with at least one other person in the audience, there is always at least one more of us in every room and it helps me build the Canadian network.”

Pull Quotes (Mateja Only)

“One of my biggest life lessons is to say out loud what I want, even if I feel like it’s impossible, so that I have the chance to make it happen.”

“As a Canadian, it is critical that you develop your story, and get comfortable with behaving famously. Canadians need to understand that it’s not egotistical to know your story and be bold about communicating, it is absolutely essential if you’re going to operate in the competitive ecosystem of Silicon Valley.”

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