As I head to Penn’s campus for my 30-year reunion this weekend, I’m pondering my career path. It’s not the straight line I imagined as I walked through Franklin Field for graduation: I dropped out of a top medical program at UCSF, received a master’s in education, and ending up literally roaming Asia with a backpack and floating on the seven seas. However, the moments when I was sure that I was a derailed train allowed for the greatest inspiration.
As I look back on my own journey, I asked four women founders of some of the top public relations firms in the country for insight into how they got their start.
Karen Murphy O’Brien
Chairman/CEO, Murphy O’Brien
Karen was working for the legendary Jim Mahoney of the entertainment PR firm Mahoney/Wasserman as a senior vice president. While the majority of their clients were famous actors and musicians (Jack Lemmon, The Rolling Stones, and U2, to name a few), she oversaw the corporate sector, which was largely hospitality-based. Karen had an “a-ha”moment on the 18th green while working for the 1989 Pebble Beach golf tournament: “I decided I wanted to do PR differently by forging new paths and innovations.” At the same time, her future business partner and husband Brett O’Brien W88—who had recently graduated from Wharton with a dual degree in Finance and Entrepreneurial Management—suggested that Karen should quit her job and start a business with him. “It was the craziest yet most exciting thing I had ever heard,” she told me. “So I decided to take a huge leap off the cliff.” After thirty years and now with 60 employees at Murphy O’Brien, she has made her dreams to do public relations differently and to own her own business come true.
Founder/president, Quinn PR
As Florence explained to me, “I come from a family of independent operators and entrepreneurs. My father worked for himself. Three of my siblings also work for themselves. I wanted to create something that was mine.” Even with a family full of entrepreneurs, Quinn’s inspiration for launching her own firm came from a home improvement project. “I had just renovated my apartment and I was struck by how wonderful it was to call all the shots,” she said. “I thought it would be great to do that in my work life.” Florence started her own firm in 1987 and recalls going to The Yale Club of New York City with her father when it still required that she and her mother enter through the side door. Having her own business with her name on the front door meant that she would never use the side door again.
Founder/president, Hawkins International
Jennifer was working in New York City in the late 90s at Orient-Express Hotels doing in-house public relations for the brand, and promoting the iconic train and top-notch hotels around the world was her dream job. She left in preparation for a move west with her fiancée, but after breaking off the engagement and having already trained her replacement, Jennifer was suddenly unemployed and trying to survive in Greenwich Village. “There are pivotal moments in life when you realize that you can begin to do things differently,” she told me. Jennifer started consulting, then became a partner in a small agency. Then the events of 9/11 ushered in another pivotal moment, as the travel industry shifted and Jennifer saw an opportunity to strike out on her own. “Over time,” she said, “I grew the core business to focus on global luxury hospitality, which is actually a fantastic area to be in. Hotels are ultimately real estate assets and when we work on behalf of the owners, we become, as their PR agents, integral to the success of the property.” In her mind, Jennifer says, Hawkins International became truly successful when she stopped viewing at herself as simply a travel PR person and started to look at herself as an entrepreneur.
President, Victoria King Public Relations
Victoria always knew she wanted to be her own boss someday. She worked at the Biltmore Hotel in Los Angeles when she met PR maven Helen Chaplin, who’d been with the Beverly Wilshire for over 40 years and became an inspiration and supporter. Next, King worked for the Bel Air Hotel with Mary Homi, who had a small high-end boutique PR company focused on travel clients. In 1992, Victoria started her own firm and was buoyed by the encouragement of two her role models: “Mary and Helen both mentored and supported me by saying, ‘You will be the next versions of what we were.’” Homi also told her “to be selective as to who I took on as a client and to keep my hands on the wheel because in the end, clients will always want to know that they have your attention. It was good advice and something I still abide by today.”
These founders focused on their passions, built businesses that are thriving, and now mentor other women to help make their dreams come true. They embody the phrase on Penn’s 1893 gate: Inveniemus viam aut faciemus, or ““We will find a way or we shall make one.”