By Estelle Sobel Erasmus
I met Carla Stanmyre McDonald years ago when she was living and working in New York City, before she married and moved to Austin, TX. At the time, I was editor-in-chief of a magazine for forward-thinking women called W.I.T. (Women in Touch) and she was the senior managing director for the global PR powerhouse firm Hill & Knowlton.
Like BlogHer co-founder Jory Des Jardins, who I also interviewed recently for snaptwig.com, the minute I met Carla, I knew she was a woman to watch. A stirring combination of brains and beauty, Carla is defined by her strategic mind and uber strong people skills, which elicit loyalty and admiration from everyone she crosses paths with. Fast-forward a decade or so later, and Carla McDonald is a successful entrepreneur, television host, philanthropist and ambassador for education, arts and women’s issues.
Carla has been profiled in the pages of The New York Times, Town & Country, Women’s Wear Daily, Austin Woman (cover story: Carla McDonald: A Giving Spirit”), Austin Monthly (“Austin’s Eight Most Beautiful Women”), Texas Monthly (“The Most Fashionable Women in Texas”), The Austin American-Statesman (cover story: “Carla McDonald: Elegant Efficiency”), and a host of other media.
After working her way through college and graduating magna cum laude, Carla moved to Manhattan to pursue a career in marketing. She ascended the ranks of New York’s PR world rapidly, landing a client on the cover of Newsweek at the age of 24 and becoming the youngest senior managing director in the history of Hill & Knowlton, then the world’s second-largest PR firm, at the age of 28. By the age of 30, Carla was recognized as one of the country’s top consumer PR strategists and was named one of the nation’s 40 under-40 public relations stars by the industry’s leading trade magazine. She later joined GCI group as Executive Vice President and Managing Director of the North American Marketing Practice. Under Carla’s leadership, GCI’s North American Marketing Practice grew by more than 400% in 18 months, helping GCI earn its first-ever honor as the nation’s public relations agency of the year
Carla describes herself as bullish on female entrepreneurship as a way of enabling women to realize their personal and professional dreams.
Q: You were one of the youngest senior executives in the PR business in New York. What skills do you think brought you to that point?
A: I got lucky in the sense that I discovered early what I loved doing and, fortunately, I was pretty good at it.
You have to love what you do and work hard to be absolutely great at it. Authenticity is a key ingredient in success. You can’t fake passion. Also, I was always very intentional when it came to my career. Every year, I would set goals for myself. I believe that articulating goals is critical. It forces you to commit to them, which can be the most important step toward reaching them. One year, after I’d had some success, I thought, “I’m going to test this goal-setting thing since it’s been working pretty well for me so far.” So I set a really audacious goal and you know what? I reached it. You have to travel with a road map or you’ll never reach your destination.
Q: How important do you think it is to have emotional intelligence in life, and why?
A: It’s vitally important. I am always telling my daughters, Ava, 11 and Devin, 8 – both of whom are quite bright – that it’s wonderful to be smart, but it’s not enough. IQ can’t thrive in a vacuum. To succeed at whatever you choose to do in life, you have to work hard and understand, appreciate and respect yourself and others. Life is a team sport and the most successful players are those who can inspire others and build honest, lasting, meaningful and fulfilling relationships with them.
Q: How did you start your PR company, Dynabrand?
A: I had always wanted to be an entrepreneur but, like a lot of people, I was afraid to take the leap. That’s why I have such tremendous respect for people who start businesses. Leaving a comfortable job with a comfortable income to roll the dice on an idea is not for the faint of heart. I can’t really take too much credit for founding Dynabrand in 2001, because, in a way, it found me. I had just had our first child when a former client tracked me down and asked me to pitch their PR business. A week later, I was on a plane to Chicago with 10 copies of a very un-fancy, Kinkos-bound presentation under my arm. It was quite a change from the elaborate new business presentations that I had been doing in the agency world. Four hours later, I was flying home with my first client. I remember calling my husband Jack (a lawyer and technology entrepreneur) from O’Hare in a complete state of panic, saying “Now what do I do?” That was 12 years ago. Sometimes you have to push through your fears and allow yourself to succeed.
Q: What are your thoughts around the Atlantic magazine article, “Having it All”? Can women have it all? Why or why not?
A: There is a quote in the article from the political consultant Mary Matalin that sums up my position on this very well: “Having control over your schedule is the only way that women who want to have a career and a family can make it work.” I’m not sure I’d go as far as to say it’s the “only” way, but it’s certainly a very, very good way. While the situation in corporate America is certainly getting more flexible, there’s still an expectation that you have to work from a corporate location, during set hours. That rigidity is most disadvantageous to women with children and it can lead to feelings of guilt, which can be so destructive to the spirit. However, I believe so strongly in the power of female entrepreneurship. Women who run their own businesses can set the rules about when and where to work, which is incredibly empowering. I think that’s why we’re seeing women starting businesses now at twice the rate of men. I think we’re all starting to appreciate that “having it all” may just come down to being able to set the agenda rather than follow it.
Q: How do you give back to the community? What are you passionate about?
A: My husband and I share a passion for helping people get the opportunities they need to reach their potential. People shouldn’t have to give up on their dreams simply because they never had the chance to overcome a disadvantage. That’s why we tend to support organizations that promote education and entrepreneurship. I’m also personally passionate about the arts and have spent the last several years serving as the host of the “Arts Minute,” a weekly television segment that promotes the arts. I believe strongly in the role of the arts in creating dialogues among people and unlocking creativity, which, I believe, is the spark that propels our country forward. I think our 11-year-old said it best when she said, “You know, Mom, imagination is what creates our tomorrows, so there’d be no world without artists.” Creativity is what helps us see and believe in the possibilities and isn’t that what innovation is all about?
[Note: A recipient of the Austin Business Journal’s “Women of Influence Award” and the “American Youthworks Community Service Award,” Carla is very active in Austin’s non-profit community. Carla has helped raise more than $15 million for local non-profit organizations over the last 10 years.]
Q: What is the most exciting celebrity encounter you’ve had?
A: I feel so fortunate that I’ve had the opportunity to meet and, in some cases, get to know a lot of interesting people over the years. Some who stand out are Paul Newman, Norman Mailer, Prince Andrew, Princess Caroline, Elton John, Catherine Deneuve, Lauren Hutton, Donald Trump, Drew Barrymore, Jackson Browne, Barbara Walters, Susan Sontag, Annie Leibovitz , Graham Nash, and Madeline Albright. And, of course, meeting George Clooney (see lead photo) wasn’t too shabby. He’s incredibly charming.
Q: What’s important to you in raising daughters?
A: It’s funny but sometimes when people ask me what I do, I tell them I’m a life coach for two clients, my daughters, and leave out all the rest. Seriously, this is such an exciting time to be a mother to girls. Girls today are coming of age during the age of the woman. Women are starting businesses and earning degrees in higher education in record numbers. They’re also assuming top political positions around the world in increasing numbers. Women are starting to pull the levers of power like they never have before, which represents a significant cultural shift that will have important implications for women. Because of that, I feel a strong sense of responsibility when it comes to parenting our girls and giving them the tools they’ll need to achieve their dreams. My focus as a parent continues to be on helping our girls develop confidence, self-respect and a sense of integrity, three qualities that I believe will help them successfully navigate just about any situation in our complicated world. We also make a conscious effort to expose them to interesting people, places and situations to broaden their perspectives, develop their intellectual curiosity and show them that all options are on the table for them.
Q: Do you follow a credo?
A: Yes. Every day, I ask myself: who can I help and who can I thank. Like a lot of people, I didn’t have the easiest or most comfortable childhood, but I feel very fortunate in my life. I have a wonderful and loving family, amazing and supportive friends and careers that I love. But I don’t take any of it for granted. It’s important to me to always pay it forward and live a life of gratitude.