by Danielle Cantor
As senior vice president of strategy and account services at PineRock, Inc., and owner of her own production company, BellaRose Associates, Brenda Brody has built a career designing and producing global meetings, events, training, and media to help some of the nation’s largest and most successful companies communicate with their leadership, their shareholders, their employees, and the world. Brody is a native Washingtonian who grew up among a large extended family that remains local and tightly knit. She credits her father and uncles – who ran a wholesale retail grocery company – with cultivating her aptitude for business, and her mother and aunts – all smart, talented women – with inspiring her to pursue the educational and career opportunities not afforded to them during the Depression. After earning both her undergraduate and graduate degrees in business and theater from American University, Brody toured the world with musical theater productions before launching her career in business... with a theatrical twist. In experiential marketing, she gets to combine her talents for business and performance, along with her innate people skills, every day. Brody is also a breast cancer survivor and patient advocate; a single mother to a teenage daughter; a mentor to working mothers – and anyone else who needs her guidance – and a dedicated volunteer. Over the years she has lent her time and expertise to raise money for many organizations, including Imagination Stage, the National Society of Arts and Letters, Kids Enjoy Exercise Now (“KEEN”), the Hollywood Florida Art and Culture Center, and the American Society of Clinical Oncologists.
You initially set out to be a performer; tell me about your career evolution.
After I earned my business degree I was about to accept a job offer from Marriott when I landed the role of Sally Bowles in Cabaret, and I decided that I wanted to pursue performing professionally. My dad almost had a heart attack: I’m the only musical person in my family and my parents didn't understand theater at the time. I went on to spend two years of heaven touring in musicals and with a USO show. I admire all my friends who are still doing it, but it's such a hard life, and I knew that I wanted a family. That's when I went to the business side. That experience in theater led me to the industry that I'm in now, which is full of theater and music people. I feel like I found my place, and I’m using a balance of all my skill sets.
How does your experience as a performer inform your work?
I learned the art of impacting and transforming audiences while I was a performer, so I'm able to help my clients create an experience that's going to move their audience and their business. It's all about communicating effectively – in some cases to customers or franchisees about the products, or often to the global sales team about their leadership’s vision and responsibilities and the responsibilities of the sales team members. The industry now is called experiential marketing and corporate communications, but when I started it was called “business theater.” We are all storytellers.
Who has influenced you as a leader?
There are several leaders who have influenced and inspired me, from a college professor to a Fortune 100 CEO. I had the pleasure of working for 20 years with John Hammergren, CEO of the healthcare company McKesson. He had a strong vision, always wanted to improve his own skills, and didn’t hesitate to ask for help. He constantly led by example. It was incredible watching him mentor his successor, who went from an operations position to the current CEO. Another great leader is my theater professor and dean from American University, Gail Humphries-Mardirosian. I watched her mentor and guide college students to realize their true potential and learn to believe in themselves. The late Pam Farr, the first female on the executive leadership team of Marriott more than 20 years ago, was brought backstage to one of my shows when I was 19, and years later became a client. Though I watched her coach leaders, what stood out to me was the way she empowered women to help other women rise at a very male-dominated time. Finally, Ed Romanoff, the CEO and founder of Pinerock, has been my leader and mentor most of my career. Ed has taught me how to grow a successful and sustainable business and how to effectively lead large, diverse teams on complex projects that produce award-winning results. Ed also consistently demonstrates his commitment to his employees; I have witnessed him support them through some of their biggest personal challenges.
You work with executives at major corporations, in industries where men still occupy most of the space at the top. Have you encountered much sexism?
I have encountered some – like the executive who asked my boss, "Is she your Hollywood blonde?" Meaning, was I just there to put on a show and bring in business? My boss – who is a man – was horrified, and ordered a round of drinks to calm me down. I, on the other hand, spent the next thirty minutes feeling the need to explain in detail what an executive does in my industry. I’ve also experienced anti-Semitism. Thirty years ago, before the executive director of an association walked me in to meet her CEO, she said, "Take off your chai. He won't accept your business if he knows you're Jewish." Of course I did not take it off. And he didn't say anything. And I didn't say anything. He did take my business – maybe he didn't notice the necklace. I was pretty shocked. That only happened once. I am seeing more women rise, but women are, overall, still paid less and given lesser titles in large corporate America. My industry has embraced women, because the leaders appreciate that we're empaths and we understand how to build relationships and connect people.
Talk to me about the challenge of parenting on your own while you're fighting cancer and running your own business.
It was one of the most challenging experiences of my life. I was in bed or in the hospital for over seven months. So I created a blog and just authentically communicated to everyone – doctors, colleagues, family, friends – what I was going through. A young friend took off four months to look after my daughter, who was 11 years old at the time, every day after school until bedtime. I was shocked by how she thrived; our village just rallied around her and me. I had a team of chemo buddies. My siblings and friends took care of everything and I was lucky enough to have help, and I got through it. I'm not going to lie, it was brutal. I can't imagine what women who don't have the same support system and financial resources go through. It was important for me to share this journey – it helped me cope and it helped others. Whenever something happens to me, I feel like I need to share it because I'm an open person and it might help someone else. Today, I mentor newly-diagnosed breast cancer patients and their families.
You’ve served on the boards of numerous organizations over the years. As a busy mother and business owner, why take on the extra work?
I'm very passionate about helping raise money and positively impacting organizations that are focused on causes I feel strongly about. It's important for me to give back, so I have been involved with nonprofit boards and fundraisers since I was 19. Because I have the acumen for both theater and business, I've been able to parlay that into helping charitable organizations and their leaders communicate effectively, as well as producing fundraisers for these organizations. I always have picked children's and arts causes, including the National Society of Arts and Letters, Imagination Stage, and the Hollywood Florida Art
and Culture Center. Since cancer, I have become very involved with cancer causes. I'm excited right now to be co-chairing the American Society of Clinical Oncologists’ Women Who Conquer Cancer event for the second year. Raising money for under-funded female clinical oncologists who are working on drug discoveries is an important cause to me.
You're very passionate about mentoring other women and helping them succeed. Why is that so important to you?
I feel as passionately about making a difference for individuals as I do about helping my corporate clients. At least once a week I take time to teach women about personal connections and how they matter, help them find their voice, figure out where their interests and skill sets are, and guide them toward careers where they will not only survive, but thrive. In this day and age, with technology, people forget the human side of connecting, and I think that's where I add the most value for these young women.
Lately I've been mentoring a lot of first-time working moms, both in our company and among clients. I want these women to know that, while feeling guilty is normal, it is not a productive use of time or energy. Stay as present as you can at work and at home – there is no such thing as a perfect balance. You are setting a great example for your children. Now my daughter Bella is entering college with an incredible work ethic, and I really feel that she learned that through watching me as a single working mom, and also watching all of her working aunties and the network of mom friends I met through her school. She has been raised around a village of strong working women – and some incredible men.
What do you tell women who are trying to find their way, personally and professionally?
Seek mentors both personally and professionally. I treasure the guidance I get in all areas and continue to reach out to my mentors. Life will throw you curveballs but it's important to stay true to yourself and to follow your passions using your skills and strengths. Life isn’t about being in a race with others, it is about being the best YOU. I've been to the Women to Watch event for a few years now and I've heard people walk away saying, “I haven't done enough in my life.” But whether you impact one person or you impact millions, you're still making a difference, and that’s what matters in life.