Celebrating International Women’s Day: Inspiring Women Shaping Our Future

From the Disney Parks Blog and written by: Jill Estorino

In honor of #WomensHistoryMonth, last week we shared stories of iconic women from Disney history and their contributions to the Disney Parks experience. These women were true innovators of their times and helped pave the way for so many of us.

As we celebrate #InternationalWomensDay, we’re also looking to the future, and I’m pleased to introduce you to an incredible group of women who inspire me and are shaping tomorrow around the world.

Whether it’s the magic of a theme park visit, creating the perfect vacation, or using technology to create more personalized interactions and immersive experiences, these seven women are some of the cast members who are creating the future of Disney Parks, Experiences and Products.

They are risk takers and innovators, and are pushing boundaries to help us do what we do best, in new and exciting ways.

Here are their stories.

Jill Chen – Executive Director & General Manager, Direct to Consumer Retail, Greater China & Korea

Jill’s team supports Disney Store, shopDisney and overall Consumer Products, Games and Publishing ecommerce, with a focus on building product offerings, partnerships and technology solutions. “Having a direct relationship with our consumer is an important part of Disney’s strategy,” Jill said, noting the shifts in today’s economy, and how consumers shop is evolving. “I’m focused on expanding shopDisney in Hong Kong, Taiwan and Korea, creating a one-stop shopping destination, putting our guests at the center of everything we do, and staying focused on what we do best – telling stories through products and experiences that resonate with our guests.” One recent example is the partnership between Disney and Tan Yuan Yuan, internationally renowned ballerina and “hometown hero,” for the Disney Magic Label – Sparkling Minnie Collection for Disney stores in Mainland China.

Jill continually challenges herself and others to not get too comfortable. “You only live once and life is not a dress rehearsal,” Jill said. “You are responsible for driving your journey forward and spending your life on something that make sense to you. Once you find yourself satisfied with the status quo, take that as a sign to move onto the next stage of growth in your life. If you adopt this attitude you will constantly develop new goals and new challenges, which can invigorate your creativity and passion for life.

Lesley Kay Combs – Sr. Manager, Trip Operations, Land & Cruise

How many people can say they scouted locations in Antarctica as a day at the office? Lesley can. She and the team at Adventures & Expeditions travel extensively, planning and confirming all the logistics that go into building a trip, and guided by the Trip Development team to curate exciting new vacations guests will enjoy. Adventures by Disney is known for their signature service and hassle-free vacations for families, and that’s due in large part to cast members like Lesley working behind the scenes and thinking one step ahead to take care of all the travel details in advance, no matter how big or small – even for exotic adventures to Antarctica! This is one of the many ways Disney is looking to create opportunities to bring experiences “beyond the berm,” taking the things we do well, like making magic and great guest service and storytelling, and exploring new businesses.

Recently, Adventures by Disney announced their first-ever expedition cruises to Antarctica and the Galápagos Islands, and the guided tour operation went through a transformation in the last year and is now known as Adventures & Expeditions. When building or refining an itinerary to a new destination, Lesley says “Our vision remains the same – to create a lifetime of memories for guests and travelers as they venture to destinations around the world with Adventures by Disney or National Geographic Expeditions. We never get too comfortable with our itineraries. Our teams dive into every aspect of our business and constantly looks for ways to improve our guest experience.”

Lesley shared some great advice for those just entering the workforce: “Take chances or risks,” said Lesley. “You face may the fear of uncertainty, but regardless of the outcome, you will grow, become more confident and resilient.” She also recommends being multi-lingual and supporting and celebrating our differences to form connected teams and ensure that everyone’s voices are heard. “Kindness and being helpful are like a boomerang. They always come back to you. I’ve always been told that people who give of themselves tend to be healthier and happier!”

Barbara Bouza – President, Walt Disney Imagineering Business Operations, Design & Delivery

Barbara leads Walt Disney Imagineering’s team of designers, architects and engineers that builds Disney’s theme parks, resorts and cruise ships, and immediately noticed how different Disney was when she joined the company.

“Women represent only 17-18 percent of licensed architects in the United States, and for African-American women, the number is even smaller, about 0.4 percent—not even one percent of the profession,” said Barbara, who is an architect. “At Disney, I’m surrounded by incredibly gifted women, many in senior leadership roles across all disciplines, and the opportunities here seem unlimited.”

Innovation is no stranger to Imagineering, which has a legacy of pushing boundaries – evolving, inventing and breaking new ground. “I see it as my responsibility to nurture that spirit, while also fostering an environment where people feel empowered to take risks and challenge norms,” Barbara said. “More importantly, we have to keep a constant focus on our people and their needs. What we do for a living is about creating that ultimate guest experience, and to truly transform the business, we need to make sure our people are healthy and thriving.”

Even more so in the working environment during the pandemic. “So much of the burden is placed on individuals to set boundaries, ask for help, and to speak up, but it shouldn’t always have to come to that.” Barbara said. “As leaders, we need to set the right tone in our actions, not just our words. Let people know they don’t have to be on 24/7. It’s our responsibility to create an environment where people are able to do their best work, and part of that is being thoughtful and considerate of everyone’s unique circumstances and personal obligations.”

Gina McCarter, Senior Project Manager, Digital Experience, Disney Parks, Experiences and Products 

Gina has worked in the digital technology field for her entire career. Now as a Senior Project Manager at Disney, she’s the driving force behind some really exciting technology that will be coming to our guests around the world. While we can’t spill any secrets, her work involves developing more intelligent products that can help us tell better stories and create more interactive experiences.

“I am extremely proud to be a part of the Connected Products organization,” Gina said. “We are driving the business forward by forging new partnerships and evolving our technology to unlock a new dimension of the Disney Parks and Resorts experience.”

Working in a field that is traditionally male, Gina credits a willingness to push boundaries and take risks, along with keeping an open mind, in helping her build her career. “That willingness to try something new, to share my point of view or ask for help has allowed me to be more confident and develop a solid network of people who support me.” She says she has learned that the decisions she makes today, are not necessarily the decisions you have to stick with tomorrow. “If it doesn’t work out as you had hoped, try something new. Don’t quit if you set down a path that isn’t what you thought it would be, just change direction.”

Gina credits her mentors and a strong network to helping her succeed, and she recommends making an effort to seek out a mentor who will take a vested interest in supporting your career growth. “My mentor, Nathan Leader, provides regular and candid feedback on my performance, and always leaves me feeling inspired, capable and knowing that I have a champion in my corner ready to support my success,” said Gina.

Andrae Gill – Senior Manager, Event Programming/Production, Disneyland Resort 

Disneyland Resort has been closed for nearly a year and the teams there have worked hard to find ways to help guests stay connected to the resort, and offer experiences that would fall within the state-mandated guidelines. By reminding herself to constantly challenge the status quo to drive business forward, Andrae Gill and her team created the new A Touch of Disney experience at Disney California Adventure Park, which opens March 18. This limited-capacity, ticketed opportunity allows guests to rediscover the sights, sounds, and can’t-miss experiences of Disney California Adventure Park, with the flavors from all around the resort, and has already proven to be very popular.

“It’s not the same world we were in a year ago,” Andrae said. “We are testing something today that works in a COVID-19 world, but that could also inform events in the future.” And she notes that it’s important to form inclusive teams when leading projects. “I try to call out when there is a blatant ‘miss’ of a group not represented,” Andrae said. “It’s important to bring partners in early, to have a voice at the table. What I envision as the perfect event might not be someone else’s vision. We need those different perspectives to bring Disney magic to life.”

Her advice:  She would tell her younger self, “You are enough. What you bring to the table is enough. Don’t try to be anyone else.” Today, her mantra follows the live-action Cinderella film: “Have courage and be kind.” She says people may not always remember what you did, but they will always remember how you made them feel.

Dr. Pamela Hymel – Chief Medical Officer, Disney Parks, Experiences & Products

Dr. Pamela Hymel, or as we call her “Dr. Pam,” has always had a challenging job, but this past year was like no other. As the leader of our global health and wellness strategy and our domestic medical clinics and programs, guest first aid services and employee wellness programs, the pandemic put her decades of public health experience to the test.

She’s been instrumental in creating Disney’s health and safety measures, promoting well-being for our guests and cast members. “I’ve focused on understanding the science of COVID-19 and collaborated with our business leaders to integrate the medical science with our operational plans and health and safety protocols, as well as worked with local, state and national health care agencies on reopening our businesses,” said Dr. Pam. Next up – educating our cast on the importance of getting vaccinated and supporting continued business resumption.

Someone as busy as Dr. Pam has seen first-hand the impact this time has had on everyone.

“When I see some of our cast juggling taking care of parents who become ill, helping children who are in virtual classrooms and being on zoom calls, I am amazed at how much they all have had to take on,” she said. “Allowing flexibility in work schedules and meeting attendance is something we can all do for each other. I have had many calls with team members with toddlers on their laps and I have certainly contributed my share of cat sightings on my zoom calls. Encouraging women and men to take time for themselves is important for us as leaders.”

Yasmin Kouchouk – Director, Digital Experience, Disneyland Paris 

Born and raised in the Middle East, Yasmin says gender inequality was a given, with little hope for change. “When I joined Disney, I remember being in awe at the various diversity chats, champions and committees,” she said. “Seventeen years later, as a woman in Technology and Digital, I’m grateful of Disney’s continued focus. I’ve learned that it takes constant work to make progress, and that everyone is responsible for bringing about this change.”

Yasmin is currently working on enhancing the Disneyland Paris mobile app to provide a seamless guest experience by adding new features like Standby Pass and online check-in for resort arrival.

“I constantly remind myself of Sir Richard Branson’s quote ‘Complexity is your enemy. Any fool can make something complicated. It is hard to keep things simple.’” she said.  “Such a powerful message whenever I feel we are overly complicating a product or experience. Our guests are on vacation, our digital tools should enhance and simplify their experience, not add frustration! Simplifying the experience is not easy, but the challenge is what makes it interesting and fun.”

Follow along for more stories of phenomenal #WomenBehindTheMagic on our social handles; Instagram: @DisneyParksBlog, Twitter: @DisneyParks, and Facebook: @DisneyParksBlog.

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