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Founder of BODEN Agency on Working Hard and What It Means to be a Leader

For Natalie Boden, her trajectory has always been about a compliment between hard work and

ambition. “Oftentimes ambition in women is seen as a negative. It shouldn’t be; it should be celebrated,” she says.

An understanding, yet demanding, leader, Natalie was born into a family that taught her to have a strong work ethic. Her father, whom she admired greatly, expected the same from his two daughters and son- to study, work hard and get ahead. As a young girl, Natalie recalls walking to the store with her mother, tending to clients, helping unpack inventory, putting hangers on the new clothing coming in, working at the cash register, and doing tasks that would teach her the soft skills she has today.

Not surprisingly, in her free time, she would spend hours selling lemonade at a bus stop on the corner of her house. “I was 8 years old but loved the feeling of the cash in my hands as I handed over the lemonade. My mother to this day laughs and says ‘Yes, well, it was all profit.’ (Considering she covered the cost of manpower and materials),” Natalie says.

Her ambition led her to work with companies such as Hispanic ad agency Sanchez & Levitan, multinational communications agency Burson-Marsteller and then to become CEO and founder of BODEN, a communications agency that has caught the attention of some of the world’s most iconic brands, like McDonalds, UnitedHealthcare and Target. BODEN takes pride in looking at the world through a diverse lens and the agency was recently selected to PR News’ Best Places to Work in PR list and received the 2017 Agency of the Year, bestowed by the Hispanic Association of Public Relations.

When I ask her what has surprised her, she quotes Estée Lauder: “I never dreamed of success, I worked for it.” For her, it has been about bringing others along as hard work paid off. But, as clean as this trajectory looks on paper, Natalie says it still has had its fair share of challenges. “There are highs and lows, sometimes you move up, sometimes down, sometimes to the side. It’s never been a straight, clean line for me. I don’t think it ever is.”

Describe BODEN. What makes it stand out?

At BODEN we believe in the power of culture – celebrating endless combinations of race, heritage, cultures and perspectives. In the fractured world we are currently living in, we feel celebrating culture is more crucial than ever before. We help some of the leading brands in the world build narratives that inspire cultural leadership, drive conversation, and connect communities.

More importantly, we’ve seen by both the awards we’ve won, the clients we’ve signed on and the culture we’ve built, that there is something powerful about the work that we do.

As a woman and a Latina, for example, I’ve been focused on changing the way the modern-day woman is viewed in the eyes of the companies marketing to her. In 2016 we partnered with QuestMindshare and spearheaded the launch of the Latina SmartPurse, an innovative research initiative focused on the Latina in the U.S. This progressive research takes a deep dive into the modern Latina consumer by showing brands the importance of investing in her as she continues to influence culture and purchasing decisions.

What are some of the unseen barriers or challenges, from your professional experience, that a woman faces on the path to leadership positions?

I believe it’s important to not heed the roles that are expected of us because of our gender. Push forward, be ambitious – you can still be an absolutely successful mother, for example, while succeeding in your career. It’s not either, or.

And when you find a place of work that helps you embrace that professional ambition and ambition as a parent, hold onto it and appreciate it.

What qualities must a good leader have?

An acute focus on excellence – both in the work they deliver and in the way they invest in the members of their team. At BODEN we are committed to developing a culture that empowers the next leaders of communicators. We are invested and care deeply about each individual and we make sure our managers and leaders do as well. I tell each of our team leaders that they are developing the next generation of communicators and that that is a big responsibility they must take very seriously. It’s not only about the client and the business.

What do women in leadership positions bring to the table that compliment, or complete, the leadership spectrum? In other words, why is important to have leaders who are women?

I believe it’s important to have diversity in leadership. Every person comes from his or her own place and experience. A woman can bring perspective from the point of view of being a woman, challenges she’s faced specifically because of gender, opportunities she’s identified because of her different perspective. It absolutely is about different races, perspectives and cultures. It’s nonsense when you hear “you don’t need different colors, you need different perspectives” or “it isn’t about gender, it’s about different perspectives.” Our lives have been impacted by race, culture and gender and how we experienced each element of it, so the more diverse we are, the smarter the decisions we can make as a company or organization.

From a young age, many women are told that they must choose one path- a home, a family, etc.- or the other- a successful career. What has been your experience in this regard?

First, I believe all women are entrepreneurs. It doesn’t necessarily mean you earn a paycheck. It means you’re a woman of work. And if you’d like to both raise a family and earn a paycheck, that is something you can not only do, but you should celebrate.

I cannot tell you the countless times I am teased (within the larger family) because I can’t cook. Why? Because society is basing what we should be doing on what gender we are. You are a woman = you should know how to cook. I counter with: “No, I am a woman = I know how to build a business.”

But as I said before, it’s not either/or, you can do both, or neither. It’s up to you to decide.

I bring my family along for the ride too. My youngest (Samantha, 2) knows exactly where I’m going in the morning. Here’s how the conversation goes: “Sam, where is mom going?” “To work.” “And what is mom going to do at work?” “Make money.” And then she gives me a kiss and says goodbye. There has, to date, not been one tear shed.

I talk with my eldest daughter (Sasha, 9) about work quite a bit. For her, the coolest thing is when I come in for Career Day. From the very beginning I told her I would not be volunteering on the PTA, nor coming to her class frequently, but that I would rock Career Day. And usually it’s the case. The kids love the session which sometimes is full of storytelling, sometimes it’s giving out Happy Meals to paint the picture of the work we do for McDonald’s (at that point they don’t care what I do for a living honestly, but are enchanted with the Happy Meals!). The point is, she understands that work is awesome, fun, and important to our lives, to the lives of others and to our society.

Whether you are a woman or a man, to become a leader of any sort you must have a certain level of determination and drive, something that pushes you forward. What is that something to you?

Ambition and a deep love and passion for what we do.

In your industry, specifically, what is the position of women in leadership roles?

Interestingly enough, most graduates of Communications schools are women, but leaders have been few and far between. That’s changing. The new heads of the largest PR agencies in the world are female. There is still a way to go by way of diversity, but certainly from a gender perspective we are heading in the right direction.

What will be the biggest challenge for the next generation of women leaders? What advice do you have for them?

We are lucky that we have women, from Gloria Steinem to the #MeToo movement that have paved the way and have helped raise a collective voice for all women. We do not need to be celebrities speaking up at big conferences, but in our work every day we can ensure we can continue to elevate those that are doing excellent work, no matter their gender.

My piece of advice: put in the work. It’s not going to come easy. Don’t take anything for granted. There are some incredible companies you can work for, but they also have a responsibility to meet their business objectives. Align your objectives with their's and you will continue to see the opportunities.

And if you're forming a business, the same applies. Make sure you are aligning the business objectives of the company with the ambitions of those that form a part of your team.

Who is a leader you admire? Someone that inspires you, or whose work has inspired you?

My parents.

My parents raised us not only to work hard, but to dream big. Nothing was too big. Nothing too daunting. They are great leaders in that they are amazing people to work for, but know when to draw the line when necessary. They knew how to balance work and kids. I saw in my mother the possibility of working and taking care of family, in my father someone with a global view of the world.

I wouldn’t be where I am today if it weren’t for their guidance, both in what they did and how they did it.

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