Karina Castro’s first two weeks as director of IT operations for Danone North America made her doubt all her years of experience in technology. Setting higher standards in a fast-paced environment while designing state-of-the-art IT services and infrastructure was overpowering. Then, there was the resistance she encountered when she sought to change the way things had been done for years. And coming onboard during the last quarter of 2015, Castro felt pressure to deliver results fast.
She likens those two weeks to drinking water out of a fire hose.
In her third week at the company, Castro found herself in a precarious situation, having to set realistic expectations with her boss even if that meant challenging time lines and shifting priorities. “Unfortunately, there’s no such thing as a magic wand in IT,” she says.
Instead, Castro presented a two-year strategy to upgrade her company’s technology while saving the health-focused food company more than $1 million each year. Now that this plan is in place, she is leading a similar upgrade for a recently acquired company.
Castro grew up in a middle-class family in a small town in Northwest Mexico. Her mother, Adelaida, had a business selling school supplies, and her father, Julio, was a top sales rep for Yellow Pages in their region. Her close-knit family included her grandmother and sister.
Castro studied computer science at Monterrey Technical Institute, where she also attended high school. With scholarships and her parents’ support, she didn’t have to work, but her father gave her sound advice: students work on fake projects as part of their class work, but she should experience real ones.
So, she took an internship with PepsiCo, and after three months, she was hired. It was a valuable experience that exposed her to the corporate environment. She worked two hours as a website designer at PepsiCo before heading to class on the opposite end of the city at 9:30 a.m. At 1:30 p.m., she was back at PepsiCo until her next class at 4 p.m. Balancing school and work took an impressive amount of energy and effort, but she couldn’t be more grateful to have had the opportunity to learn and be recognized for the first time in the IT field.
Six months before graduation, Castro faced a personal challenge when her beloved grandmother died. Then again, three weeks before the ceremony, her father died. “My graduation was to honor him and to give him the satisfaction wherever he was that I had accomplished what he so hoped for,” she says.
When her sister died seven months later, Castro wanted a clean break. Although she hadn’t thought of working in the United States, she seized the opportunity when Softtek Integrations Systems offered her a position in 2005.
As a twenty-one-year-old Mexican woman moving to Connecticut, Castro encountered huge hurdles, such as the high cost of living, language, and the culture of a male-dominated industry. In fact, she was the only woman in a fifty-two-person department.
“You have to exceed twice the expectations so you can be noticed,” Castro says. “You have to be relentlessly determined to succeed.”
After her time at Softtek, Castro took a job at Alexion Pharmaceuticals, which specializes in a rare blood diseases and helping physicians with its detection. During her five years at the company, Castro grew exponentially—from executive support technician to global manager.
Under the guidance of Aaron Parent, Alexion’s director of infrastructure services, she learned how to manage a team. He stressed that a diverse makeup is better than having members who think alike, and he pushed her to be proud of her accomplishments and to make a difference experiencing a new country.
Now, Castro considers her management style to be honest to a fault as well as fair. “You need to lead by example,” she says. “Although there might be many ways to achieve good results, the best ones are achieved when people follow your lead, not your orders.”
Castro has had other mentors who offered career advice, but her role model is someone more personal: her mother. “I am who I am because of her,” she says of her mother. “The only reason to be here is the pursuit of happiness. I fortunately found a job and profession that I love.”
At Danone, Castro says she is pleased to be part of a company whose focus is on “one planet, one health.” Likewise, she says she’s proud of Danone’s commitment to a diverse workforce and its empowerment of women. Of the seven directors on the IT team, three are women at her level, and there are more than seventeen nationalities represented among the seventy-two members on the complete team.
While facts like this are encouraging, Castro admits work needs to be done to attract women to the tech field. “Things are now changing, and I hope for generations to come to embrace their abilities in whatever field they desire,” she says. “There should be no more gender-dominated careers.”
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