Lead(H)er - Laura Bronner, Head of Central Branding North America at EF Education First

August 16, 2017

Lead(H)er - Laura Bronner, Head of Central Branding North America at EF Education First

“Back in 2002, I attended a young professionals event where one of the panelists, Po Bronson, made a point that continues to drive my career,” Laura Bronner, the Head of Branding at EF Education First reminisced.

Laura Bronner, Head of Branding at EF Education First
Laura Bronner, Head of Branding at EF Education First

“He said ‘Although most of you probably work really hard, you won’t do anything extraordinary unless you “jump the track” and take bigger career risks.’”

Growing up as a middle child sandwiched between two talented siblings, Laura was determined to be noticed. However, as the tallest girl in a relatively short, suburban Chicago community, she stood out in ways she hadn’t anticipated.

“While I love being 6 feet tall today, I was less excited about it when I was in middle and high school. As a result, I have learned to approach life with an excellent sense of humor,” Laura laughed.

After high school, Laura decided to head down south to study public policy and French at Duke University. In addition to the excellent education, Laura also fell in love with the campus culture.

“Duke has an incredibly collegial, enthusiastic culture that reminds me a lot of EF. I’m clearly drawn to fun, smart, authentic people,” she smiled.

Launching her career shortly after graduation, Laura started her career as a consultant for Ernst & Young’s real estate group. During her three years at the firm, she worked with low-income housing programs.

“My time at EY was like boot camp for the business world,” Laura explained. “Eventually, I somehow convinced Gap, Inc. that real estate planning and merchandise planning were similar skill sets and I spent a couple of years buying pants for Old Navy. While there, I learned that I loved retail because I liked making business decisions and watching the numbers move. However, I also realized I didn’t love working for a big, structured company.”

During her time at Gap, Laura incubated an idea for a teen and tween nail salon. Set on developing her business skills so she could start her own company, Laura left Gap to attend Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management to study entrepreneurship and marketing.

“A teen and tween nail salon was an unlikely concept to gain traction in a male-dominated business school world, but it was actually a sound business model. I ended up winning a business plan competition and garnering a ton of support from my classmates, which inspired me to create the company when I graduated.”

After finishing up at Northwestern, Laura applied to be a receptionist at a local nail salon while all of her friends were accepting signing bonuses at major banks and consulting firms.

“I figured it would be a good learning experience while I searched for the perfect retail location. After applying, the salon owners called me into their office and told me they weren’t going to hire me as a receptionist but they wanted my help expanding. Instead of being a receptionist, I ended up working to grow and launch a second concept, which also taught me that I was no longer interested in starting a teen and tween concept.”

Still interested in the nail salon business but looking to break away from her initial idea, Laura was later connected to the founder of MiniLuxe, Jill Kravetz. After some back and forth, Jill offered her a position at the company and Laura moved to Boston.

“I remember thinking there was no way I would move to Boston. But when I spoke to Jill, I realized that this was such a great opportunity to use the expertise I had developed in Chicago. I was an MBA with extensive nail salon experience. There aren’t very many of us out there!”

Looking to “Starbuck” the nail industry, Laura ran marketing and operations while Jill ran finance and strategy. As they worked to expand MiniLuxe, they noticed that their customers were especially interested in the niche beauty brands they couldn’t find elsewhere. To expand their business, they decided to start a digital beauty eCommerce marketplace.

“Sephora was initially built on these smaller brands, but they shifted to larger brands as they grew. Jill and I then co-founded Gloss48 to fill the gap that Sephora left in the market. It was a digital beauty eCommerce marketplace and discovery platform featuring indie brands. As you can imagine, raising money for a beauty eCommerce company in Boston was challenging but we successfully raised our first round and made it into PayPal’s Start Tank.”

Jill and Laura successfully ran Gloss48 for almost four years when they decided to merge with another company. Sadly, the merger fell apart at the last minute and they ended up closing the company.

“It was easily the hardest moment in my career. Surprisingly enough, we started receiving a deluge of emails after we closed the site. Most of them said they would really miss Gloss48—that part I expected. But many of the messages also asked what Jill and I would be doing next. Would we start another beauty company? Another eCommerce company? I wasn’t expecting that. I was navigating my biggest failure and everyone wanted to know what I would be doing next – in the same industry?!”

Although she didn’t know what her next move would be, she decided to reach out to the network of friends that she met during her startup journey to hear their career stories. Soon, these conversations with mentors and friends led to two roles: Interim Executive Director for the New England Capital Association and helping multiple Boston startups create and execute digital marketing plans.

“I have a habit of throwing myself into things and I loved both of these worlds. But at some point, I realized that I needed the stability of a single, full-time role. Within the same week, I had two brushes with EF Education First. I ended up coming into the office to meet with a few people and then coming back to meet with a few more people. Everyone I met with was engaging, smart, authentic and passionate—and they all loved EF.”

At that point in her career, Laura decided that the most important thing was working with great people who she would look forward to seeing every day.

“The EF culture did not disappoint. In fact, I continue to meet more and more fantastic people every day. There is an infectious, positive energy in this building that gets me really excited to come to work. It’s inspiring to be surrounded by people who thoroughly believe in what they do—and will do some crazy things in support of this shared mission and culture. It is a really special place.”

Although she was worried about working for a large company after over a decade without a manager, EF gave her a lot of autonomy.

“I started at EF running a business offering international tours for Girl Scouts. Weeks into my job, I got to go to Paris on a training tour for some of our troop leaders. That’s when it hit me that what we were doing was truly changing lives. If it weren’t for these brave troop leaders, most of these Girl Scouts would never leave their home state, let alone the country. We were taking girls to Europe who were 14-18 years old. They were coming home with an entirely new perspective—on the world and themselves. It was magical.”

Several months into her job as VP of Tours for Girl Scouts, Laura’s CEO presented her with the opportunity for to run brand for EF North America. She is currently the Head of Brand for EF Education First North America where she and her team bring to life campaigns that highlight the EF experience.

“My team aims to spark moments of curiosity, empathy, and open-mindedness. We’re a travel, education and language company and we’re probably the biggest company you’ve never heard of. We have over 46k staff in 500+ offices and schools across 50+ countries! You may have traveled with us on your 8th grade trip to Washington, D.C. or your history teacher’s World War II tour of Europe. We offer every imaginable way to see the world, experience another culture, learn a language or earn an academic degree.”

When I asked her to explain her current role, Laura responded with a list of highlights:

  • I spent a couple of weeks in May visiting Boston and Denver schools and working out at the Boston Common and Red Rocks with gold medalist DeeDee Trotter, our EF Olympics Ambassador.

  • EF was the official language supplier of the Rio 2016 Summer Games and offered free English lessons to over a million people from cab drivers to athletes.

  • In July, I joined our Global Student Leadership Summit to work with kids from around the world to address challenges related to the Future of Food. Oh, and Anthony Bourdain was the keynote speaker.

  • I spoke on a panel of exceptional women at EF on International Women’s Day.

  • I cheered on runners at the Boston Marathon, danced my way through the Boston Pride Parade, and ate my way through the Jimmy Fund’s ScooperBowl—surrounded by a sea of EFers in their pink, track jackets.

  • Our summer party theme this year was EF’s Got Talent, a company wide talent show at the House of Blues. My husband and I dressed as Slash and Axl.

  • We are currently planning pop-up passport stations—where people can take their passport photos and start the application process. A passport is a beautiful symbol of possibility. We are so excited to help people take the first step toward travel!

Rapid Fire Questions

BS: How do you manage stress?

LB: A sweaty Soul Cycle session with James.

BS: How many cups of coffee do you drink a day?

LB: I kicked caffeine a couple of years ago! (I know. I can’t believe it either.) I still drink decaf like a fiend.

BS: What do you like to do in your free time?

LB: Be a mom to my two dashingly handsome young men. Travel with my family and friends.  Cheer on the Duke basketball team. Indulge in peanut butter fudge cake and/or Taco Bell. And then hit Soul Cycle so I can indulge in more peanut butter fudge cake and/or Taco Bell. Anything involving costumes and/or karaoke.   

BS: Where is your favorite spot in Boston?  

LB: Sitting with EFers with a glass of Oyster Bay over tot-chos (tater tots + nachos = tot-chos) on the Lingo patio in our building overlooking North Point Park and the Charles River. It’s the best-kept secret in Boston. I did this last night!

BS: If you had to choose one thing, what is your greatest accomplishment?

LB: I don’t know if I’m allowed to call my kids an “accomplishment,” but I’m going to do it anyway—they are little balls of goofiness, blind confidence, and love. I’m smitten.

BS: Ten years ago, is this where you would have seen yourself?

LB: I don’t think I would have seen myself here a year ago, let alone ten years ago! So far, my career has taken me on an entirely unexpected path, with each step even more exciting than the last. I plan to keep taking on new challenges that scare me in just the right way. And I’m pretty sure the best is yet to come.

BS: What one piece of advice would you give to a recent college graduate?

LB: Be fearless when networking. It’s amazing what you can accomplish simply by asking. I had to make a lot of uncomfortable calls while I was running a startup, particularly when it came to fundraising. I reached out to friends I hadn’t spoken to in years and asked for introductions to potential investors. In all of my emails and calls—and there were quite a few—only one person told me that he wouldn’t make the introduction (and he was incredibly nice about it). It can be scary and awkward to send out that first request for coffee. Don’t let fear stand in the way of a potentially great relationship.

Networking has been key to my success at EF—although I don’t really think of it as networking. When I need advice, support, or a quick break for tot-chos and wine, I have a building full of friends, peers and mentors who continue to inspire me.

Brianne Shelley is a Contributor to VentureFizz and an Account Representative at BlueGrace Logistics. Follow Brianne on Twitter: @MuddleandMix.

Images courtesy of Laura Bronner.

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