Gretel Perera wants to show you the world.
By Jenny Hoff, Photos by Kylie Birchfield, Styling by Parke Ballantine with inspiration from Korman Fine Jewelry, The Garden Room and Nordstrom; Shot on location University of Texas at Austin Moody College of Communication
In the story of Hansel and Gretel, two children who are left in the woods embark on an uncertain adventure. They confront dangers, learn to rely on their own wit and bravery and eventually find their way home.
Gretel Perera, like her namesake, knows what it’s like to survive in unknown territories. As the daughter of a Venezuelan diplomat, Gretel started out her life far from home. Born in The Hague, Netherlands, she was given the Germanic name Gretel as an homage to her birthplace. By the time she was a teenager, she had also lived in Paraguay, Barbados and Russia, which she experienced both under the head of the Soviet Union during communist rule and in the aftermath of the fall of the Berlin Wall.
“Traveling is in my heart; it is in my soul,” says Perera, as she sits in one of the comfortable lounge areas of the expansive Expedia building in The Domain, gazing over the city that has grown exponentially since she first arrived in the mid ’90s to complete her degree in journalism at the University of Texas. “I love experiencing different cultures, embracing new cultures; I love learning the challenges and understanding other cultures.”
Perera’s unique background makes her ideal for her role as Expedia Group’s head of PR, Americas. The largest travel company in the world, Expedia Group includes the brands Expedia, Vrbo (previously HomeAway), hotels.com, hotwire.com, Orbitz, Travelocity, trivago and carrentals.com. Speaking three languages, having lived in numerous countries, traveling to dozens more and learning how to adopt cultures foreign to her own, Perera can find the commonalities that unite us all and tell stories and share experiences that would tantalize any aspiring traveler.
Within her role, one day Perera may be organizing a media trip to Madrid to experience a world-class soccer game, and the next ideating which celebrity would be the right fit for a storytelling campaign. Her work meetings take place in locales like London and Paris. It’s the kind of job most people dream of, but for Perera it was earned through years of seizing opportunities, knowing what she wanted and focusing on her strengths.
“When I first started working in PR, I didn’t know I could use my international background as an advantage,” she says. “But I quickly learned my culture and my language [were assets]to companies. Use what you have to your advantage—what you are and what you aren’t.”
Learning how to capitalize on her differences helped Perera grow quickly in her field. At her first job at Ketchum, a large agency in Washington, D.C., a manager of hers didn’t want to do work in Puerto Rico because she had young children and couldn’t speak Spanish. So, she sent Perera instead. Because of her background, Perera was put on the international council, with more exposure to clients abroad. By the time she moved on to Dell in Austin, she had formed a niche talent of working with clients in Latin America. When the opportunity came to move to Brazil for a year, she jumped at the shot. She packed up her family, including her parents, firstborn son and then-husband, and moved abroad, studying Portuguese on the way.
“I think growing up in different countries and having to learn different cultures and starting new friendships, you’re not afraid of a new start or a new beginning,” remarks one of her best friends, Leticia Schmaedecke, who is from Brazil and worked there with Perera at Dell as a field marketing director for Latin America, before she transferred to the Austin headquarters. “The other thing I always see is [that]she is clear in what she wants. She wants to succeed in her career.”
When she finally got the chance to live in her home country of Venezuela at 15 years old, Perera was shocked to find it was the first place where she couldn’t easily assimilate. “They called me ‘la rusa’ [the Russian girl]because I wasn’t into the same things as the other girls,” recalls Perera. “At that time in Venezuela, it was all about makeup and designer clothes, so different from what it had been in Russia.” To be a teenager, a budding young woman, and feel like a foreigner in your own country has its emotional lows, but it gave young Perera a chance to learn that if you’re not born into the community where you live, you build it.
It’s a lesson she put to use years later, when she was working at Evernote in Silicon Valley. She started meeting up with other Latinas in her industry to talk about personal life, professional life, goals and ambitions. As the crew of girls grew, they eventually had to move their meetups from bars to conference rooms. Finally, Prerera decided to formalize the group, and in 2014 she co-founded Latinas in Tech.
“One of the reasons I did it was the storytelling,” recalls Perera. “For Latinas, there are few stories in tech about us. At every event we went to, it was the same two Latina women featured. ‘Why is no one inviting the Mexican engineer that works at Google,’ I wondered? If they won’t tell our stories, why don’t we tell our own?”
The organization now boasts 16,000 members with chapters in 20 cities and more than 200 events around the country, where Latinas are telling their stories and helping each other rise in their companies. “It’s all about connecting and learning to embrace what you have,” explains Perera. “Don’t feel like you can’t get a job if you’re competing with a guy from Harvard; that guy probably isn’t bilingual. Focus on what you have to get in the door. Once you’re in the door, the sky is the limit. And once you have a seat at the table, pull up a chair so that others can sit too.”
Now that she has settled back in Austin—a city that has continued to lure her back with its siren call for the past 25 years—and works in a high-profile position, Perera has stepped away from Latinas in Tech after serving at its helm for five years. As she has continued to climb the corporate ladder, she’s found a new need that she wants to address: seeing more Latinas in the highest roles of companies. With that goal in mind, she created L500, a new organization whose aim is to attract the top 500 Latinas in the industry.
“We started thinking how we could take Latinas to the next level, to the executive level,” recalls Schmaedecke, who helped formulate the plan for L500 with Perera. “At a certain level, it’s hard to be open and transparent; we need that support. That’s what L500 provides.”
Perera agrees. “It makes me feel heard and okay with decisions I’ve made in my life to be so driven, to always want to focus on my career and be an executive woman,” she says. “Sometimes I feel the guilt and the judgment because I travel a lot. I feel seen with these women.”
If there is one thing Perera has learned from having a front-row seat to some of the greatest movements in history, power shifts can only happen when a group of people, with the same goal, come together and move in the same direction.
“We are focused on changing the face of leadership,” says Perera. “I want more Latinas at the table, on boards, C level, CEO. We are laser-focused on the top.”
She also wants to see more Latina-owned companies. An entrepreneur herself, in 2012 Perera and a former coworker at Dell jumped ship from their well-paid corporate jobs to start Q Communications, a 100% Latina-owned full-service public relations agency. But startups are hard, and competition is rife. Perera believes 10 years ago, the world wasn’t quite ready for a Hispanic-owned agency.
“It was the most empowering year,” she says. “But it was hard. You also learn what your strengths are. My then-husband got laid off from his job, and that’s when you make decisions. I was really the one with the career. I said, ‘If we get a good client I’ll stay here, or if I get a great job, I’ll do that.’ I got the great job.”
Had an organization like L500 existed when Perera started her business, perhaps she would have had the support network she needed to keep going and the connections required to get that great client.
Keeping Family Close
Gretel’s middle name is Alejandra, after her father Alejandro, the world-traveling diplomat whom she idolized growing up and still considers one of the greatest influences in her life. Now that he’s retired, he prefers to tend his garden rather than board planes, and he gets to see his grandchildren every day. Both he and Gretel’s mother live in a second home on her property. A tight knit family, they’ve moved with her around the country and to Brazil, helping her raise her sons and giving her the support she needs to fly in her career and to build organizations that create impact.
“She’s got the experience of being a daughter of a diplomat, but she is better than a diplomat,” Alejandro says proudly, speaking with the elegance and dignity of one who is accustomed to interacting with world leaders. “She is a professional that can engage in many languages and can conduct business anywhere.”
As a divorced mother with three sons, ages 5, 10 and 13, Gretel is aware of the balancing act she must perform to be present with her children, as well as diligent in her career aspirations. During the lockdown of 2020, her work structure changed from jet setting around the world to dealing with global clients from a computer in a house with three boisterous boys always a few feet away.
“Travel had always been my escape, so at first it was hard,” she recalls. “After a few months in, I loved it. I enjoyed and embraced that alone time with them. Now life is coming back again, but I’m trying to have a balance; I don’t want it to be what it was before.”
While Gretel acknowledges her sons are having a similar experience she did, with a parent often traveling for work, what she values the most is making the time they do have together as memorable as possible, from the first moment they see each other after being away.
“I always remembered my dad would return home with a little bag of gifts for us,” she says with a smile. “Now I do that with my sons.”
When she is home with her boys, she does her best to be present, banking on quality over quantity. That means being out on the boat exploring Austin’s lakes, making the drive down to Schlitterbahn, taking beach vacations to Port Aransas and prioritizing experiences to come together as a family.
Of course, she acknowledges her parents’ support is a vital part of her ability to do it all. Their constant presence allows her to say “yes” when opportunities arise, a necessity for career advancement. Her father says being needed in that way is also a gift for them.
“Instead of me providing for her, she is providing all the happiness for us in our golden age,” says Alejandro. “All our life we have been together, and we continue to live that way.”
Gretel’s brother, Javier, lives in Houston, where Alejandro was stationed as the consul general of Venezuela, and the families see each other on a regular basis. Though Alejandro’s own 32-year career was cut short not long after the Chavez regime took over, the whole family still shares a deep pride, both for their native country and the country they now call home.
“I’m longing to bring my boys to Venezuela; they don’t have a very strong connection with it,” says Gretel. “But with the state the country is in right now, it’s so expensive to fly there, and it isn’t really safe. Hopefully in the future, we’ll have more opportunities.
Work Hard, Play Hard
Cruising down Lake Austin, bouncing over the waves when other boats come close, Gretel cheers as one of her favorite songs comes on the playlist she curated for trips on the lake. “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” blasts through the speakers as she moves her body to the beat, waving as fellow boaters pass by. While she is a driven career woman with a high-profile position at a major company, a community organizer who created a nationwide nonprofit, a devoted mom, daughter and sister, she also demands that life be fun, both outside and inside of work.
“My favorite Gretel story is the time we needed to meet with our colleagues from Europe, but plane tickets from here to there were crazy expensive,” recalls her boss and former VRBO colleague, Melanie Fish, head of global communications for Expedia Group. “She did the math and figured out our meeting was doable within the budget if we all met in the middle. So, we met up in Iceland and rented a VRBO. We had some explaining to do when she posted photos of us in the Blue Lagoon,” she chuckles. “Luckily, she had the math to back it up. I always tell her that it was the closest I’ve ever come to getting fired.”
When Gretel’s kids are with their dad, she doesn’t hesitate to call her best girlfriends and plan a trip to Tulum, or fly to Miami to see her beloved Ricky Martin perform, or invite new friends out on the boat to experience Austin summer in breezier conditions. She rightfully doesn’t feel guilty enjoying herself, signaling to her other mom friends that it’s okay to have a life outside of work and home.
In a world of rigidly scheduled playdates, Gretel Perera is that refreshing friend who will spontaneously call you and ask, “What are you up to today?”
“Gretel will get the job done; she will work hard, but there will never not be time for fun,” says Fish. “That’s one of the reasons she’s so good at team building and why I needed her back. She brings people together in a fun way.”
Having bounced around from country to country every few years her entire life, Gretel is hard-pressed to describe one place as home. Austin comes the closest. A die-hard Longhorns fan, her family has had season tickets to the football games for seven years. She sits on the board of advisors for Global Business at the McCombs School of Business at UT, with the goal of supporting the school’s mission to connect students with international roles within global companies, such as Expedia Group. She was lucky to get into the Austin housing market at the right time and owns a home in North Austin, with a guest house on the property for her parents.
“We are a typical Latino family; we are super close,” says Gretel. “I think it’s because of that life we had growing up. It was just the four of us. Home for me has always been where my parents are.”
While Gretel admits she gets antsy once she has been in any one place for too long, she plans to stay in Austin as long as possible, so her kids will always have a place they can call home.
“The way I grew up I had a clock inside of me every two or three years. That happened a lot in my career too,” she says. “I love Austin; I want to stay here and give my kids a more stable life than I had. There are advantages to living in other countries, but [there are]disadvantages too. As a teenager it was hard. You are moving to a new language and culture. It takes a year to make friends, year two you’re feeling good and by the third year you have to leave them. As you get older it starts to affect you. It also makes you resilient. I think that’s why I always try to enjoy the moment, no matter where I am or what I’m doing.”