Photo of Carla Dunham
Photograph by Stephanie Diani

This is Working for Me: Carla Dunham, AM ’98, MBA ’03

The vice president of global brand strategy at Kate Spade New York talks leadership, loving art, and the value of being the same person at work and in life.

Carla Dunham first arrived in Hyde Park not to study business but with the intention to graduate from the University of Chicago art history department with a PhD and become a professor. After completing a master’s degree in art history, Dunham switched gears and applied to Booth. “I was intrigued by the opportunity to take my career out of the library and into the larger world,” recalled Dunham, vice president of global brand strategy at Kate Spade New York. After Booth, Dunham tackled successively bigger roles at Target, Henri Bendel, Saks Fifth Avenue, and Amazon before moving to Kate Spade New York. Based in Manhattan with her husband and son, Dunham leads the team responsible for driving brand awareness across all marketing channels globally.

While academia suited me—I was curious, loved learning, and was highly self-directed—it was too much of a solitary sport. I get energized seeing better ideas come together through collaboration. 

I had never taken a finance class before Booth, so it was very humbling. The Booth experience certainly gave me a comfort and confidence with operational and financial data, and my liberal arts background provided me the means to explain it.

At Booth, I was assigned to figure out the market for an import-export business. Talking to consumers connected with my art history background, where you weave together social and visual phenomena, historic trends, and economic events, and come up with a story to tell. It’s the intersection of left brain and right brain.

As a mentor, I like talking real. I am not a business-book person. When people first start out, they need to make sure they like the people they are working with and the industry. Careers are long, and success doesn’t happen right away.

I believe in being the same person at work as you are in your life. Be consistent, and show up in the way you want your team to show up.

Leadership today is no longer simply about knowledge. It is about managing to the potential or to the opportunity. It’s much more relevant to ask good questions, probing to reshape what’s on the horizon, and to introduce new ideas, than it is to tell people how to do what they do.

Start with being curious and get your ego out of the way. Your ego is crippling and makes you myopic. If you are willing to say, “I don’t have the answer,” the possibilities are endless. It is the starting point for creative solutions.

Your ego is crippling. If you are willing to say, ‘I don’t have the answer,’ the possibilities are endless.

Carla Dunham

Focus on making your vision inspiring—but also clear and digestible. In driving global brand awareness, I need to set a strategy that is clear and executable, across the world. My job is not to do; my job is to unlock potential, and to lead, and to point the compass in the direction we need to go.

Making a mistake should not be something you fear. That fear just leads to organizational dishonesty and paralysis. I am very open in owning my mistakes. Having a sense of humor goes a long way.

The greatest ideas arise with the unconventional thinker. I have such an appreciation for people who are pursuing excellence in their own way, even if it is completely different from the path of my life.

An element of quirk is invaluable professionally—a unique take. If you haven’t spent time developing your own point of view, it is very difficult to stand out from the pack.

A leader should make people feel comfortable. That doesn’t mean sedate or lackadaisical; it means they should feel comfortable being vulnerable, making mistakes, failing. When a team feels they can be open and honest with each other, that’s when the real work begins. When my own team is challenging me, they are at their most engaged and passionate. I could ask for nothing better.

The art I love brings to bear a human experience, and makes you pause in it. Artists I studied, such as Paul Cézanne and Pierre Bonnard, redefined for me what it meant to depict something visually. Or Nari Ward, who can take something extremely complex—issues of race and violence, for instance—and transform it into something that is utterly transfixing.

I’m committed to unplugging and connecting to experiences that can’t be reduced to a mobile screen. As much as I love my phone and all things digital—and as a marketer, I find the power of digital and data to be really awesome—the real world is so much more stimulating, and the next big idea is going to be found in observing it.

In my marketing role I am committed to getting emotionally resonant stories out to the right customer at the right time—that perfect marriage of art and science. As a leader, you are also a storyteller, to your team and to the broader organization. The key is to tell the story in a way that everybody in the organization can absorb it, believe it, and live it, and think about how their work contributes to that goal.

—As told to Sam Jemielity