There’s no secret room with somebody with all of the answers.
From a career in a big bank to taking big risks with a startup venture, Kathleen Barrett, Vimeo SVP of Enterprise and Head of Creator Success, works at the world’s largest ad-free open video platform overseeing all support processes and leading strategy, growth and operations of the platform’s enterprise business across Vimeo, OTT (over-the-top) and Live Stream. But she wasn’t always on the leadership team of a big brand. After graduating from New York University, Barrett went to work at Goldman Sachs where she spent five years working in credit risk and capital markets. Despite enjoying her coworkers and appreciating her growth at the company, something was nagging at her. She wanted to work in a job where she could feel the impact of her work on a day-to-day basis and corporate life wasn’t scratching that itch.
Knowing this, she decided to take a break by leaving the financial industry and take coffee chats with friends and family members to research various career paths. This transitional period led Barrett to helping her friends (and fellow NYU alumni) launch VHX, a digital distribution platform for artists, that was eventually acquired by Vimeo and rebranded as Vimeo OTT—a product that she now oversees. Barrett chatted with Her Agenda about her winding path to a career in tech, how she stays balanced, and her distinct take on networking.
Her Agenda: Where did you grow up and how has it influenced your career?
Kathleen Barrett: I’m a New York native, which is rare! I was born in Brooklyn and grew up just outside of the city—in Rockland County. My dad’s family is actually Brooklyn natives and my mom’s side immigrated from Poland when she was a teenager. No one in my family had a college degree, but they all worked really hard to provide for their families. And the way I grew up made me prioritize higher education because my family really believed that was the gateway to better opportunities.
Her Agenda: You went to college at NYU and majored in Economic Theory, Mathematics and Pre-Medicine. Then you went to work for Goldman Sachs for a while. After that, you helped get the startup, VHX, off the ground which was acquired by Vimeo in 2016, where you now work. Do you think the Kathleen of your college days expected to be where you are now?
Kathleen Barrett: Absolutely not, as you may have gathered from my background! At the earliest stage I think everyone goes through this when they are applying for colleges—I applied for tiny colleges and huge colleges. Half of them with an economics focus, half of them with a pre-med focus. So, I clearly had no idea what I wanted. I luckily ended up at NYU where I had the choice to really study anything that I wanted. I started with a focus on pre-med and being exposed to a lot of opportunities to work with doctors in hospitals they kind of talked me out of that. I focused on economics because I was always a math nerd and folks I met along the way coached me into pursuing something in the finance world which I wasn’t really educated on.
I think Goldman Sachs is a really amazing place to start your career because they invest in the young talent that they bring on. They really valued networking, education, and cross-department mobility. I treated Goldman Sachs as my on-the-ground MBA because I knew I could be exposed to tons in that manner. I knew that I wanted to cap it at five years because I didn’t see my whole career there. I wanted to be somewhere where I could really see the impact of my work on a day to day basis, but I didn’t really know what that meant. I took a year off and had no idea which direction I wanted to go in and I wasn’t aware of all of the opportunities out there. I think that space, and all of those conversations, were really critical to help carve a new path for a new opportunity.
The best thing you can do is go to figure out what’s out there. For some people, that’s reading or going to meetups or having tons of one-on-one coffee chats with people in their city or their company and learn about what other people are doing. I always encourage people not to over-architect [their] path. It’s really hard to do that, but be open to opportunities that sound interesting or opportunities that allow you to learn something. There are so many different things going on in this world—if you can find out what motivates you and something that aligns with those motivations that’s a good place to start.
Her Agenda: Is there anyone when you were growing up who impacted you in a large way to hustle and become so successful?
Kathleen Barrett: My mom is definitely a huge driving force. When I was younger she was more of a pushing force. She was an immigrant…she had that drive…and she really wanted me to get a really specific education and pursue, what she thought, were the only career paths that led to success which was being a doctor or a lawyer. But it was a whole new world at NYU with so many people doing so many interesting things—I met Jamie there when I was a resident advisor, he was the CEO of VHX, and clearly played a critical role in my life—giving me the opportunity to work with the company. There, I’d say it was about trust and opportunity—all of us taking a chance on each other. They trusted that I would be adding value and I trusted that this would be an opportunity that would grow into something meaningful. The whole founding team at VHX taught me so much. They were all experts in different things, and patient and generous with their time. All of those people are really important—the ones that challenge you, give you real feedback, and give you real opportunities.
Her Agenda: What does any given day in your current role look like?
Kathleen Barrett: Every day is really, really different which is what’s fun. The business is constantly evolving and we are constantly thinking about better ways to serve the needs of our creators. It’s a lot of communication with the leaders on my team. My job there is to make sure I’m unblocking them if they’re hitting any sort of challenges or advising them if they are at a turning point and trying to make a tough decision, which does require a lot of meetings but also real-time conversation and a lot of Slack. I actually like to be around in person so I do a lot of walking around talking to people and hearing about what’s happening in real time. At a higher level, I’m a part of the leadership team and we meet on a weekly cadence to both review how things are going and what the biggest opportunities are ahead.
Her Agenda: Tell me more about the newer enterprise side of Vimeo.
Kathleen Barrett: VHX was acquired in 2016 and that’s really the backbone of what we call Vimeo OTT right now. OTT stands for over-the-top. It’s any sort of digital video experience that’s not distributed over a traditional cable network. So, something like a Netflix is a great example. One of the most fun parts is what types of creators we are able to empower with technology that used to only be accessible to people at the highest end of the market—people with big budgets and sophisticated development team. Now, anyone from a two-person fitness shop to a sophisticated media company can use our technology and have a branded experience on the web and across different devices and apps. Beyond that, last year we decided to pull all of our enterprise sales touch experiences under one umbrella which we call Enterprise now, which includes live streaming and advance needs as well. My role has evolved as the company has continued to evolve and acquire other companies and we continue to organize in a way to make sure that we all move as quickly as possible and make the best products as possible.
I wish I knew what I know now when I was 20 and working with other women that had kids and how challenging it is. They are superheroes.
Her Agenda: Is there anything specific that you think young professionals should be investing in for their professional growth?
Kathleen Barrett: Seeking knowledge is really important and that can be done in different ways. For some people, it’s leaving your business and going to get an MBA. For others, it’s moving around in your company. In other cases, it’s going to a Skillshare. It’s constantly seeking more information. You are really nothing without the network of experts around you. But I have a pretty specific view on networking, which is engage people with specific questions. Most people are willing to sit down and take the time to speak with you about a specific problem if you are trying to become an expert in a certain area. You’d be surprised how many people are happy to make the time for that. Be specific and deliberate when you’re reaching out to people, but heavily leverage the people around you.
Her Agenda: How do you unwind or incorporate wellness into your life?
Kathleen Barrett: It’s probably evolved a bit. I’d say back in the day it was yoga or kickboxing, but now with a kid, I’d say making time with her and carving that out helps give me some perspective and get away from the day to day. It’s really trying to balance personal and professional. Not being too hard on yourself is important but also making time for the things that you think are important.
Her Agenda: How has motherhood impacted how you think or navigate your career?
Kathleen Barrett: At the simplest level, my days aren’t endless anymore. I share them with another human and so you have to be a little bit ruthless about prioritization and really think about if this meeting or this task or this responsibility…is it really worth trading off this time? I wouldn’t stay in a job that I wasn’t really passionate about or commit to things I’m not really passionate about because the trade-off is just too serious.
At the simplest level, my days aren’t endless anymore. I share them with another human and so you have to be a little bit ruthless about prioritization and really think about if this meeting or this task or this responsibility…is it really worth trading off this time?
The other is perspective. It’s so easy to get in your head and take things personally or seriously, and I think it’s important to take things seriously enough, but it’s also important to take a step back and realize everything’s going to be fine and there are more important things to worry about as well. I wish I knew what I know now when I was 20 and working with other women that had kids and how challenging it is. They are superheroes. I do very much think about how we can make an environment that is supportive for women and how we can make a difference, generally, in supporting women or parents. It’s a real challenge. Having that perspective is really, really valuable.
Her Agenda: What are the top three career skills that you think are must-haves for professional growth?
Kathleen Barrett: I think communication is really important in all directions—being able to communicate effectively with your peers, being able to communicate a vision and focus to the folks that report into you, and being able to represent yourself and your team to leadership or executive management. That’s really critical. If you are doing great work and no one knows, that’s going to be tough. I think flexibility is really important in a world that’s constantly changing. Being open to a bit of influence and being able to change your path and adjust to stay relevant is really important. And persistence. Things can be really challenging, but if you keep going and work through it, I think you’ll always find that you come out better on the other end. No matter what, you should be able to take something out of it.
There’s no secret room with somebody with all of the answers.
Her Agenda: Assign us some homework! What should we be reading, watching, or listening to support our professional growth?
Kathleen Barrett: It depends on where you are in your career but I do think everyone should read The Hard Thing About Hard Things. I really also like Radical Candor for feedback on how to give meaningful and effective feedback. I love the perspective of everyone going through things and the lessons they learned along the way and mistakes they made, which I think the How I Built This podcast is a fun one to get all those different perspectives. There’s no secret room with somebody with all of the answers.
[Editor’s note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity. Want more stories like these? Read more from our Power Agenda series here.]