Optimism correspondent Paul L. Underwood and Carla Piñeyro Sublett, marketing chief and leader at the Texas Conference for Women, share a conversation about optimism + leadership.
Carla Piñeyro Sublett has built a career out of connecting. She started her first business at 16, then climbed the corporate ranks to become Chief Marketing Officer at Rackspace—all while also helping others as board president of The Thinkery and chair of the Texas Conference for Women. Now, she’s learning to disconnect.
Paul L. Underwood: You first went into business at age 16, with Supah-Fish Swimming Lessons. I’m curious if you learned anything from that experience that you still use today.
Carla Piñeyro Sublett: I was lifeguarding at a community pool in Dallas, and they didn’t offer swim lessons. As lifeguards, we were constantly being asked if there were swim lessons available. One day I approached the manager of the pool and asked if there was any way that, if I go get my certification, that I can start providing swim lessons at the pool. And she said, “Go for it.” And little did she know what she was letting me do.
PLU: What do you mean?
CPS: By the end of that summer, I was running classes from sunup to sundown. It taught me a couple things: When you see a need, you have the opportunity to create a business around it. And once I began to recruit other people underneath me to teach swimming lessons, I was able to scale the business, which enabled me to grow [even more]. I began to tire—physically get tired of teaching all the lessons myself—and I started to get burned out. Recognizing that you can’t do it by yourself, that you need others, and the importance of building a strong team—that was a really young age to learn that lesson.
“That’s the spiritual piece—recognizing that we human beings are all connected. I think the world could use a little bit more of that right now.”
PLU: You worked in tech, a field that’s famously dominated by white males. I’m curious what challenges you faced in becoming a leader in that industry, and how your experience was shaped by that?
CPS: I think initially, if I’m being truly honest, I ignored it. I wasn’t honest with myself about it. I just said that I didn’t operate from a place of worrying about my gender, nor did I worry about anyone else’s. But as I rose up through the ranks and became an executive, it became more apparent. And as the role models began to thin out, it certainly became more apparent.
PLU: How so?
CPS: It was evident in the types of feedback I would get. Whether it was because I wore funky clothes to work, or the way I expressed myself during conflict. The one that really stands out most in my head was, relatively recently in my career, I received the feedback that I was too ambitious in an end-of-year review. And I went home and really thought about, ‘Ok, wow, am I operating from a place of blind ambition? What is it about my actions that conveys this?’ I called a couple peers that are what I refer to as my tell-you-how-it-is friends. People that would be brutally honest with me.
PLU: And what’d they say?
CPS: Both of them were men. And the first one said to me, ‘You know what, Carla, they would never say that to a dude.’ And the second one said to me, ‘You know what, Carla, no one has ever said that to me, and I’m the most ambitious person I know.’ So it just kind of validated the fact that that was not appropriate feedback. And what’s really interesting is after I cycled over it, that next week, I had the opportunity to meet with the person that gave me the feedback. And he asked me how I felt about it. And I said to him, because he had a daughter, I said to him, ‘God forbid anybody tell your daughter that she’s too ambitious.’ And I just left it at that.
PLU: How did the situation ultimately resolve?
CPS: I ended up leaving that job. Because in my heart I knew I had achieved what I was going to achieve, and that I wasn’t going to go any further if that was the opinion of me.
PLU: I think that story is unfortunately a common one for women, which brings me to the Texas Conference for Women. My wife went last year, and came away super-energized.
CPS: Oh, I love hearing that!
PLU: Obviously, a lot of conversation is happening around the issues addressed by the conference, so I wanted to ask: How can men be part of the solution?
CPS: I encourage men to come to the conference. I think it’s equally as inspiring for men as it is for women because the topics that are being discussed aren’t just uniquely female in nature, they’re universal. I think men have the ability to bring women along, and to invest in women, and to make a concerted effort—particularly men that are in leadership positions—to bring women into the fold, to elevate women, to promote them. To bring them onto their corporate boards and so on. So I think that just an awareness and a consciousness that if the room is 90% male, then perhaps there’s an issue. And then speaking up and doing something about it.
PLU: I have to ask about your immigration experience, which is obviously in the news.
CPS: You know, it’s weighing super-heavy on me, Paul. And it’s very much a part of who I am. I think that when you’re an immigrant, there’s something very inspiring about that experience. You feel so fortunate to be in this country. And I truly believe in the American dream. You can make anything out of your life here in this country. You have no limitations. The only limitation is your ability to dream.
PLU: When did you come to America?
CPS: I came as a permanent resident in 1978. I was five years old, and my family was sponsored by another family that was already here. So we came in legally. As a matter of fact, one of my earliest childhood memories is going to the office in downtown Dallas to sign the paperwork with my mom. It was the first time I had to sign my name.
PLU: What was the relationship of the family that was already here to yours?
CPS: My family’s from Uruguay. That family had lived in Uruguay as well, and they had migrated to Montreal with my parents. They started a clothing line together in Dallas.
PLU: Is that line still kicking, or…?
CPS: No, I wish. That’s a story for another interview. But my parents were very entrepreneurial, so watching them go through the challenges, and the ups and downs of being an entrepreneur, certainly shaped me. They had businesses fail, they had businesses succeed, and that was very much a part of my upbringing.
“You don’t have to go to the ends of the earth to find connection. You could do it in your very own backyard. And it doesn’t cost a dime.”
PLU: You created wellness initiatives at some of your past workplaces, so I wanted to ask how that informs what I’ll call the mental/emotional/spiritual side of your life.
CPS: Late in my career, what I realized was that while I definitely had the wellness part covered, what was completely, totally absent from my life was the spiritual. Late last year, I actually left Rackspace and made the conscious decision to take a year off to reconnect with my family and the things that matter most to me. Because what I realized is that in almost 20 years in tech, during the connected era, I was ironically becoming disconnected. I’ve been taking my kids around the world.
PLU: Oh, wow.
CPS: And in a totally unplanned way, we ended up hitting all these different cultures during their holy weeks. And so we went to India, we went to Bhutan, we went to Mexico, we went to Italy, we went to Croatia, we went to France, and throughout that we started to hit all their places of worship. Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, Catholic, and so on. It made me realize that part of my life was missing, and so that’s something that we as a family have really sought out this year. I want to be careful to say that it’s actually not religion that we are seeking—it’s spirituality, it’s connection. I’ve called this period of our lives Finding Ubuntu. And Ubuntu … are you familiar with this word, Paul?
PLU: I, uh… I’ll just say no.
CPS: Ubuntu is a philosophy that Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela adhere to. It basically means humanity, and that we are all connected and compassionate. So for me this past year is really about finding connection. That’s the spiritual piece—recognizing that we human beings are all connected. I think that this world could use a little bit more of that right now.
PLU: What have you learned from the experience so far?
CPS: That you don’t have to go to the ends of the earth to find connection. You could do it in your very own backyard. And it doesn’t cost a dime.