Women in industry

Maria Rey-Marston, EY

Inspiring women from consumer products and retail

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Senior executives no longer need to be constrained by gender stereotypes

Women: keep learning

An insatiable appetite for both learning and teaching underpins Maria Rey-Marston’s vision of a more inclusive consumer products and retail industry.

The alpha male is a dying breed and the stereotype of the ruthless CEO is no longer admired or effective, according to Maria Rey-Marston, Partner Principal in EY Global Supply Chain and Operations and Performance Improvement.

She believes organizations are beginning to attract more women into senior roles by changing their definition of winning from a highly individualized and often brutal competition to a more collective model of leadership.

“Being at the top doesn’t have to equate to being ruthless,” says Maria. “You can be patient; you can be compassionate and be a successful leader. These are the words we want to use to define leadership in the 21st century.”

She believes that today’s senior executives no longer need to be constrained by gender stereotypes; men can be kinder and women can be more assertive without losing their credibility as leaders.

“Assertiveness means stating what you need and think without being aggressive,” she says. “I can say what I think without trampling you and diminishing your value.”

Who wants to be the first female president?

Assertiveness was something Maria learned early on. Growing up in Colombia, she was the eldest of four girls, and her father (a petroleum engineer) always told his daughters he wanted them to be financially independent so they could make their own decisions and never have to rely on a husband to provide for them.

“He taught us we could be anything we wanted to be,” says Maria. “He used to ask us: ‘Who wants to be the first female petroleum engineer in Colombia? Who wants to be the first female president?’ And we would shout: ‘I do!’”

Meanwhile, Maria’s mother, who had married young and didn’t work outside the home while her daughters were growing up, completed her degree and got her first job at the age of 40, eventually becoming a successful economist and market researcher.

“I saw first hand that you could enter the workforce later — your destiny was not set,” says Maria. “Life is long and you have many chances to take different turns and diversions.”

Twists and turns

Maria has certainly taken many different turns during her own career. She got her first degree in math and economics from Del Rosario University in Bogotá, after which a masters in international affairs propelled her into a job with the Colombian Government in the customs service and the Ministry of International Trade.

She then moved into logistics, working with a subsidiary of the Colombian Coffee Growers Federation (CCGF). “I fell in love with logistics,” she explains. “It’s so tangible. You could see how mastering the physical flow of goods had a tremendous impact on companies’ financial performance.”

In 1995, she made her way to Georgia Tech in the US in search of consultants to advise CCGF on third-party logistics strategy. She met professors in the School of Industrial Engineering, who spotted her potential and quickly became her mentors and sponsors. She stayed, getting a masters in logistics and operations before discovering another love: teaching and consulting.

For over 20 years, Maria taught several graduate and executive courses in supply chain strategy and finance at Georgia Tech, while also leading consulting projects in her private practice for major market leaders and regional mid-market companies. Yet another degree followed in 2013 (a PhD in performance management from Cranfield School of Management in the UK) before she took her current role with EY in 2015.

Helping other women succeed

At EY, as well as working with clients, Maria finds time to seek out and nurture talented women, particularly those from diverse backgrounds and of Latino or Hispanic heritage, since she believes diversity is the key to the future success of both EY and companies in the CPR sector.

Once a connection is established, she gives individuals the chance to perform above their current rank on a task they are not often asked to do. She stresses that this is not a test of the individual’s ability. “It’s the process of doing something together — it’s an apprenticeship. When I was starting out, I had someone sit with me till 2:00 a.m. showing me how to do PowerPoint slides for a client report. In advisory, you can’t learn everything in a classroom — you learn by watching others doing.”

However, she’s keen to point out that it isn’t a one-way street. She views education as a lifelong endeavor and is learning all she can from her EY colleagues. “I’m like a kid in a candy store, bingeing on people with tons of knowledge and incredible experience with complex projects.”

Maria’s husband, Lee, shares these values of education and apprenticeship and together they are proud to see the personal and professional development of their three daughters as successful young professionals in fields as diverse as a professional writing, accounting and biology-plus-management.

Maria Rey-Marston’s five top tips for women

  1. Travel: I went on my first solo trip at the age of 15, to Rio de Janeiro. There’s no better way to learn and get exposure to other cultures and ways of thinking. Every time I travel, I go to local grocery stores to see how people shop and what they consume in that town. I just came back with goods from a store in Nanortalik, Greenland!
  2. Study: Education is an endless journey. As Peter Drucker, educator and author, said, “you need to reinvent yourself every five years”. Don’t ever lose your love of learning. You’ll need it.
  3. Manage your time: Develop the discipline of scheduling some white space into your day, to give yourself time to think. That’s my greatest personal challenge.
  4. Teach: The best way to learn is by teaching someone else — you’ll make mental connections that are not apparent when you keep things inside. Teaching helps you achieve clarity and refine your thinking while benefiting from your audience’s feedback.
  5. Shop: If you serve CPR clients, you must shop! You can say “it’s research” and benefit from one of the most fun parts of our work.

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