Heather Kernahan | The Innovator 25 North America 2022

Heather Kernahan

Hotwire Global

San Francisco

“There is so much written about innovation that make it seem unattainable, or that only a few people can be leaders in innovation. In reality, we can all be innovators."

Global tech marketing expert and business leader Heather Kernahan is currently penning a book detailing how tech leaders have used innovation to keep moving forwards and creating the future. Entitled Unstuckable, it’ll be published in 2023 with the premise of helping business leaders who struggle with feeling stuck. Kernahan’s own career trajectory, however, has been anything but stuck. She joined global tech comms giant Hotwire in 2016 through acquisition, and became US CEO in 2019 before landing the top job of global CEO last June. On top of leading what she calls outrageously successful teams, she’s also executive sponsor of Hotwire’s DEIB strategy which includes a $1m pro-bono commitment of marketing and comms services to tech firms that are minority led, or offer benefits to minority communities.

Named SF Business Times 100 Most Influential Women, Kernahan co-founded the Say Gap, an industry programme that provides free media and speaker training to women and leaders of colour. 
How do you define innovation?
Very simply – innovation is the implementation of something new.

There is so much written about innovation that is can seem unattainable or that only a few people can be leaders in innovation. In reality, we can all be innovators.

In your opinion, which brands and/or agencies are most innovative in their approach to PR and marketing?
Dove is a brand that develops and launches new important campaigns. Their work with the National Urban League, Color of Change and the Western Center on Law and Poverty in creating the Crown Coalition to ban intolerance based on style, type and texture of hair was incredibly innovative and inspirational. It made me think about what else is possible to change because of the change they have brought forward.

Describe a moment in your career that you would consider to be innovative.
Combining different ideas and bringing trends from other industries into communications and marketing are ones that I get most excited about. When popup restaurants and stores were popular, we brought that idea into the agency and launched popup offices in multiple cities. Bringing that innovation to our business had a ripple effect and launched other new ideas across the team. The pandemic has also been a time of innovation in my career. The constructs that business believed to be true were changed so quickly that it allowed us to question every assumption we have and create new opportunities for ourselves.

Who do you admire for his/her approach to innovation?
Bozoma Saint John inspires me especially as she has transcended and blended her career across music, tech, entertainment, entrepreneurship, sports and more. She combines her experiences to create and launch new ideas, campaigns and programs, she is always innovating.

How do you get out of a creativity rut?
I am writing my first business book called Unstuckable so I’ve been spending a lot of time writing about how not to ever be stuck in a rut again. I intentionally find the magic and for me that’s seeking out content and experiences that have nothing to do with my day to day work. I seek out magazines from travel, cooking and architecture industries, head to find something to experience outdoors or read a biography from an athlete or politician or actor. All of this resets my brain and has me moving forward with new ideas.

What advice would you give to the PR industry around embracing innovation?
Don’t be intimidated by the word. Our job is to come up with new ideas, thoughts, programs, projects, messages and campaigns AND bring them to life. Some in the industry think innovation is just for technologists and others worry their ideas won’t be novel enough to be innovative. The world will continue to deliver new things to us each day and for us to lead as an industry we need to be part of bringing the newness forward.

What would you be doing if you weren't doing your current job?
A VC, investing in new businesses created by under represented leaders.

Which book/movie/TV show/podcast/playlist/other cultural source has provided inspiration over the past year?
I recently finished Ministry of the Future and it was inspirational but mixed in with a lot of fear about what could happen if we don’t take climate action seriously.

How would you like to see work culture, and the role of the office, evolve?
This is an area where we can all innovate. I’d like to see companies define the purpose for their in person time together and start to think about how their operations and systems evolve to meet that purpose. This is an evolution for the next decade as we try new ideas (such as Donut to connect virtual teams), keep ones that work and throw out those that don’t.

How can the PR and communications industry harness innovation to make more progress on diversity, equity and inclusion?
We are leaders of change and can change industries, behaviors and attitudes. We can use the tools we use for clients and our companies – insight, strategy, change management, campaigns to bring innovative ideas forward and progress DEIB – first within our own businesses and then in business overall.