Carla Piñeyro Sublett challenges the narrative of women in STEM.
By Kathryn Freeman, Photos by Rudy Arocha, Styled by Parke Ballantine with inspiration from Kick Pleat, Shot on location at Laguna Gloria
Carla Piñeyro Sublett is the new chief marketing officer for IBM, the 110-year-old global technology firm headquartered in upstate New York. Despite starting her new job during a global pandemic, she has approached her role with fearlessness. Learning as she leads the century-old company toward a new approach to marketing for the next generation of business and technology leaders. Despite over 20 years of experience in marketing and technology, it is her approach to authenticity and failure that makes Piñeyro Sublett such a breath of fresh air.
Piñeyro Sublett admits to having felt like a bit of an outsider for some of her childhood. As the child of Uruguayan immigrants, first in Montreal, Canada, and then Dallas, Texas, she was the weird French Canadian and the nondescript Texan kid all at once. “I do not think I quite fit in anywhere to be honest. And I felt a little weird at times,” says Piñeyro Sublett.
Traditions & Identity
As a child, Piñeyro Sublett and her family experienced discrimination, but her parents did not let it dampen their dreams or their pride in their culture. “[My parents] still insisted that we only speak Spanish in the house. They still insisted that we preserve our culture. They insisted we hold on to a very strong sense of identity and individuality.”
Her mother instilled in her daughters a fierce sense of independence and a belief in the strength of women. “There were no Barbies, only Wonder Woman among my childhood dolls!” she exclaims.
While her mother taught her independence, her father instilled in her the importance of being a lifelong learner and adventurer. “My dad was a real Renaissance man. He exposed my sister and I to photography, fashion and race driving,” she recalls. All of these values are apparent in Piñeyro Sublett’s unusual ascension from bartender to CMO at IBM.
She paid her way through college by tending bar and running restaurants. Those experiences taught her more than how to make a great margarita. She explains, “I was learning design, thinking [about]how to manage cash flow and people, how to lead a large organization and how to turn a failing business around.” She laughs, “I’ll tell you, nothing will teach you about cash flow until you have to call people on a Friday and tell them not to cash their paychecks because they won’t clear until you make it through the weekend.”
Piñeyro Sublett has taken an unconventional path to becoming a leading woman in the field of marketing. She studied architecture at the University of Texas. She was waitressing and bartending to pay her way through school, when she met a gentleman: Ro Parra. Impressed by her Spanish skills, Mr. Parra hired her on the spot to work in Dell’s Latin American division. Piñeyro Sublett worked her way through every sales position at Dell. Before being recruited into marketing by Dell’s CMO at the time. After 15 years at Dell, she became the chief marketing officer at Rackspace, a San Antonio-based cloud computing company.
Her time in the bars and restaurants makes her extremely grateful for all that she has accomplished. “I did not think I would ever get to this point in my life. I feel so fortunate to be able to get to do what I do every day.”
Carla Piñeyro Sublett, Humility & Work Ethic
Her humble beginnings have stuck with her and provided useful skills to fall back on should she ever need them. She adds wryly, “If things go wrong, I know I can make a great margarita. And I am not too proud to tend the bar.”
Piñeyro Sublett got her humility and work ethic from her parents, who left family and friends twice over to ensure that she and her sister had the best chance at success in life. Their sacrifices instilled an enormous sense of responsibility for the privilege to grow up in the United States and have a career and life here. Her parents also taught her that failure is a necessary part of life. “My parents were entrepreneurs,” she says. “I got a front-row seat to all of the ups and downs that go along with that. I watched them build businesses, some that were able to thrive and others that did not.”
Watching her parents succeed and fall short taught her that you can recover from failure. A lesson that has served her well as she has climbed to the pinnacle of her career.
Setbacks & Come Ups
Piñeyro Sublett suffered one of her biggest setbacks while attending the University of Texas. She was working full-time in addition to the rigorous coursework associated with an architecture student. She had over 220 hours of coursework and her health started failing. Her candor is refreshing, but admittedly surprising. “It took me a decade to overcome that,” she admits. “But in a weird way it served me well because I felt like I had to justify my existence and work harder than everyone else.”
Piñeyro Sublett has ascended to the top of her field. She is a living testament that no failure or drawback is final. Her story is a reminder that we get to choose how we respond to setbacks. She argues, “When you have a failure, it is okay to feel the pain of that failure and all of the anger and grief that goes along with it. But oftentimes it’s the things that we fail at that really help shape who we are in the end.”
For Piñeyro Sublett the harrowing experience made her more open-minded. As she admits, she “never felt like the smartest person in the room. I’ve always wanted to learn from others.”
She is a big proponent of learning from her peers and cites connecting with others as one of the greatest joys of her work. “After a year and a half on screens, connecting with people brings me joy on a level I have never experienced before.”
Her enthusiasm permeates over the phone even as she makes her way to the airport.
Carla Piñeyro Sublett Embraces Emotion
Women are often accused of being overly emotional. But Piñeyro Sublett thinks our emotions make us better friends, leaders and people. She shares a quote one of her friends passed along: “Joy is the matriarch of fear, grief and anger; in order for her to live in her house, she has to live with all of her children.”
Women are often trained out of their emotions especially in the workplace. And particularly in male-dominated STEM industries. But she insists that emotions are not bad things. “They are actually information,” she says. “It is important for [women]to be okay with what we feel and recognize that [our emotions]lead us to our ability to feel joy and love too.”
Authenticity is a Game Changer
If Piñeyro Sublett sounds like the Brené Brown for women in the tech industry, it is because she believes in the power of authenticity. Owning her story has made her a better leader and put her on a path to success. “Accepting that I can be myself, my whole self, has enabled me to operate at the best I ever have,” she says.
She wants other women to recognize the power of authenticity even in a field like STEM where uniform processes and routine formulas are more likely to win the day. “You do not have to suffer to make progress,” she advises. “Women often seek out harder tasks because they feel like that is the path that will lead to success. But real joy and flow comes when you release yourself to the ease of things.”
She insists that authenticity is a game changer and women do not need to hide themselves to succeed.
Piñeyro Sublett is married and the mother of two teenagers, giving her a full home life as well. But in 2018, she realized she was losing touch with the people and things that mattered most. One night she woke up and knew something needed to change. So she quit her three-hour commute and the job that went along with it. “I had lost the connection to my heart and was operating from a place of mind and gut just to survive,” she reveals. Her life was not working for her or her young family. While she had no idea what she was going to do, she knew she “had to make a big decision. I couldn’t be daunted by the magnitude of it because if I failed to make the decision, I risked losing my family and my connection to my heart.”
Piñeyro Sublett and her husband decided their circumstances created a once in a lifetime opportunity to take a global journey with their family. She blogged about their journey on Finding Ubuntu. (Ubuntu. The Zulu word for humanity as it is expressed through compassion, empathy and connection to others.) They traveled to Bhutan, Croatia, Japan and India among other countries.
“I had to figure out my identity without work. And for the first time, my work persona (bold) and home persona (risk averse) merged. I leaned into my authentic self.”
Her family ditched technology to strengthen their ability to connect with each other and the world around them. At the end of her global jaunt she relearned “the ability to form real and meaningful relationships with people from completely different backgrounds.”
“Sometimes you have to lose to find it.”
The journey was not without its costs. She quit her job with no other prospects lined up. So there was a season where she found herself “unemployed and looking for purpose,” while trying to discern what came next.
She eventually landed her role at IBM. But that two-year period of connecting with her family, herself and the wider world was transformative. In one of her final posts, she reflected on that year. “It has pushed me off of my center and given me a new, more solid foundation. I feel like I was stripped down raw and built completely anew. It was hard. Very hard. And rewarding. I am still me. But, perhaps, more so than ever before.” In her eyes, “sometimes you have to lose it to find it.”
Piñeyro Sublett’s story is inspiring. Partly because she is so honest about the work it has taken to get to this point of being her fullest and best self. She credits the lessons of the last 18 to 24 months. Knowing she does not have to suffer to accomplish great things; leaning into the power of authenticity for allowing her to operate at her best. She says a few years ago her perspective on success changed. Before it would have been solely about the physical and emotional well-being of her family and those around her. But now she realizes “success is not just the health and happiness of the people that I love. It is my own health and happiness and thriving and my own authenticity and my own joy too.”
This shift of including herself in the equation has made a huge difference in how she shows up at work and at home. “Women have a tendency to put ourselves on the back burner. But we can only be our best to all the people we love and care about if we’re taking care of ourselves and honoring our own wants and needs.”
Piñeyro Sublett is intentional about how she allocates her time for self-care. A good diet, exercise and a healthy amount of sleep are important ingredients to her corporate success.
Investing in Your Peers
Another important ingredient is investing in your peers and those around you. Piñeyro Sublett feels a strong responsibility to others and opening doors for other women and children of immigrants to follow. “I think it is important to make sure I am paying it forward. Lifting others up and being a part of the community in which I live and work.”
She knows the tech industry still has a lot of work to do in terms of diversity and inclusion. But part of the reason she chose IBM was because of its values around diversity and inclusion. “I saw myself there. IBM employed women and African Americans from its start. [It] had an equal pay policy that predated the civil rights movement.” She further touts the over 300 employee resource groups at the company that help employees feel supported.
Carla Piñeyro Sublett, the Mentor
In recent years, the public has given great attention to and acknowledgment of scientist Katherine Johnson, computer programmer Dorothy Vaughan and engineer Mary Jackson—three African American women whose story of ushering in the era of inclusion of women of color in NASA’s most important positions inspired the award-winning movie Hidden Figures. Despite this, women and particularly women of color continue to be underrepresented in STEM fields. According to the National Science Foundation, women make up half of the U.S. workforce. But only 29% of the science and engineering workforces. Women of color only make up about 5% of the STEM workforce.
Women of color face the double bind of being women in male-dominated industries and non-white in a white-dominated spaces. The reasons for the paltry representation for women of color in STEM are many. But mentorship and being able to see yourself in senior leadership is critical to not only increasing the number of women and minorities in STEM, but also their place in upper and mid-management roles at technology companies.
According to a 2017 study by Taylor & Francis entitled “Mentoring Women of Color, Particularly in STEM,” developmental mentoring relationships are crucial to helping women of color advance in their careers. Mentoring helps them cultivate the skills they need to integrate into the company culture and in career development. As the old adage goes, “It is hard to be what you cannot see.”
Piñeyro Sublett is dedicated to helping other women and underrepresented minorities see themselves in the C-suite.
Piñeyro Sublett still sees a lot of work to be done, both in the industry and at her company. “The work never stops,” she says. And she is committed to seeing it done. She has served on the board of the Texas Conference for Women and frequently speaks to young professionals who seek her out for advice. When asked about her legacy, she does not cite professional accolades, but quotes Maya Angelou. “People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel. “I want people in this world to have benefited from my having been here,” she adds.
This burning desire to make a big impact on others has followed Piñeyro Sublett from her childhood into the corporate world of computing and cloud-based technology. But it is her fearlessness and gratitude that have propelled her from the bars of Austin to the pinnacle of her field. She used to only be fearless in her career and risk averse in her private life. But she has worked over the last few years to reconcile those two versions of herself. Now she says she is fearless on both fronts. She credits her fearlessness to her childhood. “I grew up in an environment where failure was recoverable. It is super fun to operate in a fearless manner.”
Without a willingness to take risks, to say yes when it seemed slightly out of her comfort zone, Piñeyro Sublett would likely not be where she is today. She did not take the traditional path; she is blazing a trail for women and a new kind of leadership for generations to come.