Seeking Challenge and Adventure: Advice on Nurturing a Diverse Career Here and Abroad
Despite a 15 year tenure with the same company, Kelly Graham’s career has presented enough challenge and adventure to go around — in her case, around the world. The Vancouver, British Columbia native has leveraged her MBA to build a global career, from launching new products in India to leading a team on disruptive innovation in London, England. Here’s how her education and experience has broadened her skill set, mindset, and her horizons.
By Hailey Eisen
When Kelly Graham was transferred five years ago by Unilever to London, England, a world of opportunities unfolded. In addition to living for a short time in Singapore, Kelly travelled to Indonesia, Russia, India, the Philippines, Mexico, Argentina, and Turkey in her role as this multinational powerhouse’s Global Marketing Director.
“My job provides a great combination of creativity and business management,” Kelly says. Her role has had her uncovering consumer insights that have led to advertising campaigns and the development of new products. For example, she was recently involved with launching a deodorant brand in India. Her role? Taking a brand that wasn’t present in that particular market, learning about consumer practices, needs, wants, and customs, and then tailoring a solution that would fit.
“Over the years, through work experience and my MBA, I’ve learned to think outside the box, to approach problems in different ways, which is extremely important in this type of work,” says the Vancouver native. Currently, Kelly is leading a team on disruptive innovation, looking at new ways to meet consumer needs through different benefits, formats, and channels.
“Through work experience and my MBA, I’ve learned to think outside the box, to approach problems in different ways”
Unlike many of her peers, Kelly has been working for the same company since completing her undergraduate degree 15 years ago. “When I started with Unilever fresh out of school, I wasn’t sure where my career would take me,” says Kelly, who is now in her 30s. “Anything longer than a few years seems like a lifetime to a young student. But, I’ve been really lucky that any time I’ve become antsy in my role, usually around the one-to-two-year mark, they’ve been able to provide me with a new challenge.”
Challenge and adventure are key words in the story of Kelly’s career to date. She’s not the kind of person who is happy to sit still for long. She’s also not afraid of trying new things. In fact, she thrives on it.
“I’ve worked across sales, local marketing, global marketing, and strategy at different points in my career, across several different brands and categories, and in four different cities. Not only did this breadth of experience give me a really solid foundation, it also helped to keep me really engaged with a new challenge every few years.”
One such challenge was her move abroad, leaving family and friends behind to start over in a new country. Another, prior to that, was going back to school, while continuing to work full-time, to complete an MBA.
With nearly eight years of work under her belt, Kelly had started to feel that her experience was somewhat limited having only worked in the consumer packaged goods sector. “I wanted to gain more exposure to thinking about things from the perspective of other industries, so I decided to enrol in the accelerated 12-month MBA with the Smith School of Business.”
For someone whose work would take her across the globe, Kelly says the MBA really helped broaden her mindset, introducing her to new perspectives which she continues to draw upon today. “I got the opportunity to meet amazing people from across Canada and gain insights from across many different industries, which proved to be very rewarding and beneficial to my career.”
She actually credits one of her favourite classes, International Business, with sparking an interest to work abroad. “I remember debating dairy tariffs in Canada versus New Zealand and starting to really think about how things played out on a global scale,” she says. “It really fueled my interest in strategy and I took on an international assignment working on Global Strategy not long after.”
The diversity of Kelly’s work experience can be attributed to her commitment to always taking the unexpected next step. It began the moment she graduated in 2002, earning a Bachelor of Commerce degree with a specialty in Management Information Systems. The tech bubble had burst and finding work directly related to her field seemed unlikely. “I decided to take a leap of faith and try something different,” she recalls. Her first job as an analyst with Unilever led to a diverse and interesting career that continues to evolve.
“You need to find the right balance between adapting to your new work culture, and not losing what has made you successful in your career to date”
For those with a similar desire for challenge and adventure, Kelly says the key is to remain open to whatever comes your way — especially travel. “Working abroad is an incredible opportunity and you really grow so much, both professionally and personally,” she says. “In order to make it work, though, you need to find the right balance between adapting to your new work culture, and not losing what has made you successful in your career to date. The balance is different for everyone.”
While she’s settled in London for now, Kelly says she remains open to new opportunities. She’d like to come back to Canada at some point, but would also go somewhere else altogether. “Living abroad is addictive,” she says. “Who knows where I could end up.”