Christina Gold, President and CEO of Western Union learned at a very early age not to judge people by the way they speak or where they come from. Appropriate for the head of a Fortune 500 company that operates in 200 countries. She knows that lesson first-hand. Born in the Netherlands, Christina and her family moved to Montreal, Canada when she was five-years-old. Both of her parents were very accomplished. Christina’s mother was an English nurse in London during WWII; her father was a Captain in the Dutch Army and an Olympic gymnast who was fluent in several languages, but both spoke with an accent. Christina didn’t speak English at all. Their new community saw the family as immigrants in a time and place where that was not a popular way to be viewed. It made them feel like outsiders. She still remembers the embarrassment she suffered when she was asked by her teacher to write an ‘outline’ on the blackboard. “I didn’t understand what that word meant.” Christina learned English quickly and by the third grade had moved to the top of her class.
So how does a shy little girl without career ambitions, except perhaps for a childhood fantasy that one day maybe she’d join the circus, become one of America’s 50 Most Powerful Women in Business three times (2003, 2006, and 2008), according to Fortune Magazine? Family has a lot to do with it. “My father was very kind and quiet, but also very strict and ethical …he always believed in doing the right thing.” Her mother taught Christina, along with her brother and sister, to care for other people and to give back to society. Christina attended Carleton University in Ottawa where she studied geography and economics. When asked which of life’s lessons have stayed with her most she responds, “the concept of really having to work hard, there is no short-cut for that; the concept of having to be responsible for yourself and not to judge people by the way they speak or where they come from. Even though we’re all different, we’re the same. I look back at some of the challenges my dad experienced, you don’t forget that.”
When Christina graduated from Carleton, jobs were hard to find but she managed to find one with a food company. “At that time, women weren’t looked at for management positions, so I got a job counting coupons and as a freight-rate checker. I knew [it] wouldn’t go anywhere and I wasn’t looking for a career, but I needed a job.” Her husband wanted to establish his own law practice and they needed money to buy his office furniture. She decided she needed a job with a better future. Christina eventually found her way to cosmetics giant Avon, as a clerk. She stayed with the company for more than 22 years in Canada in various positions. She worked in production, accounting, customer control, marketing and sales traveling Monday through Friday in Northern Canada. “I never got a master’s degree or went to business school – it was ‘learn as you go’ and there were a lot of people who helped me to learn.” Ultimately, she became the organization’s first female president for the Canadian division. It was during this time that Christina’s sister, an emergency room nurse requested that Avon donate soap, shampoo and other toiletries to Canadian army troops stationed in Bosnia. They did and Christina was rewarded with an honorary commission as a Lt. Colonel in the Ambulance Corps. This fall she will be inducted as a Colonel. In 1993, Christina did, “the most frightening thing I’ve ever done,” by becoming Avon’s US president. “I went from a $200 million dollar business to a $2 billion dollar business. I kept putting an extra zero on everything and telling myself that’s what it would look like in Canadian dollars; it was pretty scary.”
Like her parents, Christina has won many prestigious awards and honors. This year she will be the first woman to receive the Bridge Builder Award from the Josep Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver (given annually to an individual who has been instrumental in building important economic and cultural bridges between Denver and the international community). This summer, she will receive an honorary doctorate from her alma mater, Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada. Closest to her heart is the recognition she received for her work with Trickle Up, an organization co-founded by friend Mildred Robbins Leet which helps the very poor make their way out of poverty through business training and micro-lending. “If you put money in the bottom, it will trickle up and make a difference to people and their communities.”
One would think that having become a top woman executive in corporate America, Christina had to overcome one gender barrier after another. “Not as many as people would think. In the ‘70s when I first started working, there was a desire to move women forward. I had a lot of great mentors. Part of it is about being your own person and having courage. You push yourself harder. There was bias, but I didn’t think it was malicious because at the time we were going through a revolution or an evolution, in terms of women’s rights. As I’ve gone through other challenges, there was a certain resistance but I never let it get in my way. Avon was a terrific company to work for because they were committed to women, helping them move through and advance their careers. I was really fortunate, because I was in the right company at the right time.”
Looking back, would Christina do anything differently? “Sometimes I think I might have had a family; I don’t have children, but I don’t think so because I’m very happy in the way my life is and I’m happily married. I think I might have left Avon sooner. Not because I didn’t think it was a great company, but because I should have had more job experiences. I was there for 28 years total, that’s a long time. I didn’t have the confidence I could do anything else. But when you have the opportunity to try something new, you become much more inquisitive and your learning curve goes up, you get energized.” After leaving Avon, Christina spent a year as a consultant in New York when she was approached by friends from Canada who had acquired a company in the telecommunications (phone and Internet) business in Texas. Their revenues were crashing and she was asked to put the company in order. She did just that for three years before the company was eventually sold. “It was a good experience. I was planning to retire and looking for someone to run the Internet end of the business, so I was working with recruiters [who were also] looking for a president for a company owned by First Data. I met with them in the fall of 2001 and by the following May I was here – learning another business.”
In the tradition of the mentorship she’s received through the years, she shares this advice on achieving success. “You work hard and you have to deliver, there’s no doubt about it. You have to do the job. But, that’s probably half of it. The other part of it is understanding the politics. I didn’t at Avon and that was a problem for me. I knew I was doing the job, the stocks split; that by itself should have been enough. There were a lot of other things going on, but I was too earnest not to see that you have to pay attention … to the boards, investors and what’s going on internally. You can never lose sight of who you are. You have to enjoy the team, the people you work with and have fun. You have to love what you do and I always did, even when it was counting coupons.”
Diversity and inclusion are an important part of the equation. Western Union has a global presence and a large proportion of its employees are women. “We have a mosaic of the world. When you sit in a room with Western Union people, the diversity is not only visible, but so are the cultures and customer footprints we represent. In our company you have to understand and have the ability to move through a lot of different cultures, and communicate with a lot of different constituents. It’s exciting. It’s a great team, it really is. I think people are inspired by what we do as a business. Our customers are mobile workers from around the world who send money home, it goes through Western Union and that money is a lifeline to so many communities around the world. We’re proud of our 150 year heritage and the way we work.”
Christina makes Corporate Citizenship a priority. In 2007, the company established the ‘Our World, Our Family’ program committing $50 million over five years to create global economic opportunities, which will help aspiring individuals and their families stay connected, overcome barriers and realize their dreams. Christina is a member of the Committee Encouraging Corporate Philanthropy. CEO’s and NGO’s (non-government organizations) from the US and the world connect with the United Nations and have a dialog of how they can do more with philanthropy around the world. Last year, Christina had the opportunity to address the UN in what she calls an ‘awesome experience.” She also sits on two boards, ITT and New York Life. “It’s important to have an external focus on your business. By sitting on other boards you learn a lot about governance, the issues of the day and how other companies deal with them.” The experience proved especially useful when Western Union went public in 2006.
To say Christina’s schedule is busy is an understatement. Her board calendar is set two to three years in advance, and she travels roughly a quarter of a million miles a year. She strikes a balance with her personal life by setting boundaries and trying not to work on the weekends. “I try to turn it off at home but it’s not always easy, I have to make a conscious effort. It’s not just me. Part of being a leader is being a person. I don’t want employees and colleagues to just work until they drop. They need time for their families; they need to have a life. You need to make time to do the things that make you happy. What makes Christina happy? She’s a huge Bronco’s fan, loves to ski, assemble 1000 piece puzzles, tend her roses and visit her friends back in Montreal. My career is important because I feel tremendous responsibility to the shareholders and my employees … it’s stewardship for a period of time. It’s opportunity, diversity, and giving back, and I think it’s a privilege to work for Western Union.”
At the end of the day, what matters most to Christina is her husband of 39 years, coming home, having dinner and taking it easy.