Kathryn Leary, MBA ’77: Reaching for ‘Option Q’

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Kathryn Leary, MBA ’77: Reaching for ‘Option Q’

The civil rights and feminist movements opened doors, and the advertising and marketing veteran took full advantage.
December 4, 2017
Kathryn Leary, MBA ’77 | Kiefer Hickman

Kathryn Leary has never made the obvious choice. Therefore, when she decided to part ways with her business partner at Jamison & Leary Advertising, she chose the unexpected.

“I tossed aside option A, B, and C, kept my corner office and secretary, and built an international marketing company,” she says.

Indeed, the decision was so much of an outlier that in 1990, Jim Collins, MBA ’83 — then a Stanford GSB lecturer, and later an author of business books including Good to Great — developed a case study for his students about her business decisions.

“Jim Collins called what I did ‘Option Q,’ ” Leary says. Perhaps she’s comfortable making unconventional choices because she has never felt that a goal was beyond her reach. She credits this to a strong belief in herself, and also to her parents and those who fought in the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s and in the feminist movement.

“Everybody had worked to open those doors, and I thought, ‘I have to walk through them,’ ” says Leary, who received her MBA from Stanford GSB in 1977.

Educating Each Facet of Oneself

Looking back at her time in corporate advertising and her years running her own marketing company, The Leary Group Inc., she says that two vastly different educational experiences shaped her artistic and business sides.

“At Antioch, I learned to smell the flowers. At Stanford B-school, I learned to cut and sell them,” Leary says. “Stanford GSB gave me the tools to look at industry, business models, financials, and maximizing profits."

At Antioch College, I learned to smell the flowers. At Stanford Graduate School of Business, I learned to cut and sell them.
Kathryn Leary, MBA ’77

The skills she acquired helped her develop into a recognized leader. In 2012, Stanford GSB’s Black Business Student Association gave Leary the Tapestry Award, which honors an African American alum “who has woven inspirational leadership, intellectual excellence, and service to others” into his or her personal and professional life. In addition to being an accomplished businessperson, Leary is a yoga instructor, a playwright, an adjunct professor, and the mother of one daughter.

Five years after she received the Tapestry Award, another dream of Leary’s became a reality: On March 12, 2017, after 16 months of negotiations, 1,200 seats in The Richard Rodgers Theatre in New York City were filled with Stanford University alumni and their guests attending the Tony Award-winning hit Hamilton. Leary, who lives in New York, had organized the special event — along with the Stanford Alumni Association and her good friend Janet Montag — in an effort to help build stronger community among East Coast alums.

“I used the new ‘old girls’ network,’ ” Leary says with a laugh. “I’m very inspired by the play; it’s a celebration of diversity and a love for our country. I said, ‘Let’s celebrate all of it, all at once.’ ”

— Jenny Luna

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