How one woman advocated for fair pay and worked with billionaire founders
Laura Kiernan is an accomplished investor relations executive leading IR and managing public offerings for household brand names like Revlon, Playtex, Harry Winston, WWE (yes, the wrestling one) and Ubiquiti. Today Laura is the founder of her own consulting company, runs the podcast Raising Billions, and is an upcoming author. She also just founded Raising Millions, The Financial Literacy Course for Founders. Laura and I talk about her career transitions, how money factors into a career pivot, and her experience working for multiple billionaire founders.
You started out your career at Philip Morris. When did you know it was time to move on?
While I was at Philip Morris there was a World Health Organization report that came out that said smoking would soon be the leading cause of death in the world. That didn’t sit well with me. Though I was grateful for having the opportunity to develop my financial expertise while working for the company over the prior seven years, I just immediately thought, I have to get a move on.
I didn’t know what I wanted to do next, so I put together a list: I wanted to help women. I wanted girls to feel better about themselves. I wanted to work for a company that made the world better.
When I met with a headhunter he showed me an opportunity at Revlon. It was the perfect job for me — except at the time, Revlon didn’t make any profit. But I still decided to take the job. I went from being a little fish in a big pond to being a big fish in a little pond. I got to level up my career there. While in International Treasury and Finance, I worked on a lot of different deals from equity and debt deals to M&A, options and foreign currency trading. This was when I worked with the first (of four) billionaire founder owners in my career. It was fascinating.
You left Revlon for a brief period because you weren’t being paid fairly. How did you advocate for yourself?
When I started at Revlon I thought I was making a good salary for someone with my level of experience. But from the salary surveys I learned that, actually, I should have been making almost double my compensation. After some time, I realized the only way I would get paid more was by leaving the company.
So I left. I got a job for another company as the Head of Corporate Strategy. Revlon kept calling me and offering me roles — ”…we’ve got this job, we’ve got that job for you…” — but they still weren’t enough. Finally, after five months, they gave me an offer I couldn’t refuse. They doubled my compensation and increased my role and title by two levels to Head of Investor Relations. I said, I’ll take it.
I took on the role while Revlon was in the middle of a shareholder lawsuit and refinancing $2 billion worth of debt. It was an immense challenge as Revlon was dealing with major cash flow and investor perception issues.
Looking at the opportunity, I knew that there was nowhere to go but up. After having previously worked for the company for three years, I had no doubt that I would succeed in building the company’s reputation with investors. I also knew that if I could make it work in that kind of environment, then I would establish my reputation on Wall Street. From there, I believed I could go wherever I wanted to go.
You did have success at Revlon. And then, you made your next career move with family in mind. How did family impact your decision?
A year into my new Head of IR role at Revlon, I received a call from Playtex with an interest in hiring me. They similarly had high yield debt securities and consumer products distributed in the mass market. The analyst and investor base was essentially the same as Revlon’s. The timing wasn’t right to make a move, though, because I was in the middle of working on critical deals at Revlon. But a year later, those deals wrapped up and I called Playtex back. And yes, they were still interested.
At Revlon I was working so much and I loved it. But, I also wanted to start a family and I wasn’t getting pregnant. As I was getting into my mid-30’s, I realized I needed to change something if I wanted to have children. Playtex was perfect for me because it was a really family-oriented company with lots of supportive women. I remember walking the halls and there were pregnant women everywhere. I thought it would be a supportive career environment for me at a time when I was having my children. My husband and I also bought a “lucky house,” which we hoped would be where we would raise children. Our dreams came true after having two daughters.
After having kids, you started your consulting company as a way to increase flexibility but still stay in the game.
The goal at Playtex was to get Playtex sold. It took about five years before it was sold to Energizer (for almost $2 billion). After that deal, I decided to start my own consulting firm. Really, it was a way for me to stay in the game especially as the world was entering into a global financial crisis. I felt I could not afford a career gap. I had fought so hard to reach a certain level in my career — to take a major step back from that would have been really hard.
So I found my first consulting clients. I did work for a South African gold mining company, I worked on an IPO analysis at Tory Burch, and then on a project for Harry Winston Diamond Corporation. I wasn’t getting wealthy but I was enjoying my life as I was able to control my schedule more, get more involved in our children’s lives and even exercise daily.
After two years doing consulting, you decided to go back to corporate America, why?
Harry Winston liked the work that I did and felt I truly understood the complexity of both sides of the business — the mining side and the luxury retail side. They hired me to work for them full time and I re-entered the workforce. I felt that I would have enough flexibility and control over my life to stay involved in family life even if I didn’t quite have time to exercise!
Similar to Playtex, their end-game was to sell Harry Winston, the branded luxury retail division. The goal was to sell it for $1 billion. And after two years, the company was sold for just that — $1 billion to Swatch — and the company went from one billionaire founder to another.
I never closed down my consulting company, it just went dormant. It became a great interim step between roles for me and gave me the mental space to be more selective about who I work with and for.
And then WWE — yes, the wrestling company — came to me. They were looking for someone to work full-time. I knew from the reputation in the marketplace that full-time at WWE really meant 24/7/365. However, I knew it was another great opportunity to make an impact in the marketplace, and I really liked the team and the McMahon family who primarily owned the company.
I offered to do consulting full-time (on my terms) with them until they found the right permanent person. After four months of consulting, and after reasonable work routines were established, the company was still interested in formalizing the relationship by making me a permanent employee.
I was wary of the commitment. But at that point, I had established a routine. I had set my own schedule. I had a lot of autonomy. And at the same time I was having obvious success. So I agreed to take on the permanent role — as long as we had the same expectations about my control over my work schedule.
And it did work. The company really flourished. I was there at a very good time, they were launching a new business and there was a wonderful story to tell investors. And the management team was amazing.
Throughout your career, you’ve worked in the business of money. In my interviews with women I hear that money can be a great motivator to make a career change, or, it can be a factor that holds women back from making a jump. How did money impact your career choices?
That’s a very interesting question. I grew up not having money. I grew up with a single mother with six children. I started working at the age of 11 and I contributed to the household income. For me the topic of money is a control issue. I’m a very independent person. I like to have control over my life and my environment — and having “enough” money helps you feel in control.
So money, and helping women build wealth, is one of my passions. Because women leave so much money on the table — either by not asking for it or not taking it. But I don’t focus on money because I want to build a pile of cash. It’s because I want financial freedom. And because I want to help my daughters be financially independent and self-sufficient so they don’t have to rely on another person for their financial well being unless they want to.
So money does motivate me in some ways — but it’s not the primary driver. One of the reasons that I rebranded L. Kiernan Consulting, LLC into High Touch Investor Relations was because I felt the time was right for me to go all-in on my own business. After more than 25 years in business, I realized so much of the wealth that was being created was going primarily to the founders and owners of the businesses I was working with. I was paid very well for that, however, I saw an opportunity to enable more of the wealth to accrue to me and my family by starting my own business. This way, I could effectively charge more for my services while still enabling public companies to make transformative changes in the capital markets.
I’ve been running High Touch Investor Relations for more than three years now, and it’s a fully sustainable business. I’ve had the opportunity to become an angel investor in several of the public and private companies that I work with. And, I get to work with a lot of women and underrepresented founders who provide something much more than financial pay. You could call it psychic pay or returns that can’t be measured in dollars and cents.
What else has helped you feel confident making changes in your career and taking risks?
You talked about women having a voice inside of them guiding their career. I have that voice too. This is going to sound corny, but when I was five years old I went to my first Sunday school at church. I remember a Sunday school teacher telling me: “God loves you no matter what.” As a five year old thought, That is so cool. No matter what…God loves me. I am loved.
Because of that experience and my faith, I’ve always had an inner voice telling me that it doesn’t matter how many rocks people throw at me or how much they tell me I’m going to fail. I can’t listen to those voices expecting me to fail. Instead I have to listen to that voice from when I was five years old. It’s carried me through my career.
I was also very independent growing up — as the oldest girl among the six of us, I learned to not only help my mother care for the household at a young age but also earn money. This gave me the confidence that I could pretty much achieve whatever I set my mind to.
I rely a lot on my support networks — most of these are women but I definitely have some very supportive men in my corner too, and of course my family, who is my ROCK. I give a lot to these networks and I get a lot too, and it’s never a one for one exchange. That’s what’s so beautiful about them. I’m able to get a lot of the psychic pay I crave so much. That really fills me up and energizes me to get out of bed every morning.
I love that. Thank you so much, Laura, for sharing your career story! Connect with Laura and learn more about her financial literacy course, Raising Millions and her upcoming book, and podcast Raising Billions, here.
*Q&A has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Reclaim Your Career shares the stories of women who have made brave career pivots. They inspire and unlock what women always had the capacity to do: Break free from the traditional narrative of success to write your own story.