Athena member Kate Renwick-Espinosa is an insightful business executive and board director who leads the only national not-for-profit vision benefits company providing access to eyecare for nearly 90 million people worldwide. Since joining VSP three decades ago, she has grown along with the company to become VSP Vision Care’s first female president. At the helm, her leadership is guided by compassion, and she works passionately to support working parents, diverse interests, and employees of all levels.

Learn more about Kate’s journey to President, how VSP is supporting working parents during the pandemic, the principles that drive her leadership, and her advice for rising women leaders in this profile. 

Tell us about your executive journey.

My first job out of college was with VSP. I got my start in the sales department, and the various roles I took on gave me a firm grasp of the business and helped me understand our customers. From there, I progressed to become VSP’s Chief Marketing Officer before moving into my current role as President of VSP Vision Care. Although I’ve been with VSP for over three decades, the journey has been anything but static. I’ve seen the organization grow from an insurance company doing business in only three states to become a global retail, manufacturing, and insurance company covering 90 million people worldwide.

As president, I lead the insurance part of the business, and am accountable for all the operating, strategy, and P&L responsibilities. At the same time, I also work with the CEO and board on decisions that cut across all the VSP companies to ensure that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. A president’s role is an excellent opportunity to lead the business, while also being part of a larger enterprise.

How has your journey been different having stayed at the same company your entire career?

When you stay at the same company for so long, you need to take an active role in challenging yourself to continue learning and finding ways to look at problems differently. I think it’s important to fall in love with the problem you’re solving instead versus your solution, because you have to keep a fresh perspective in the way you approach problems in order to grow.

What’s next for you in 2021?

I’m actively pursuing corporate board service because I see it as a growth opportunity to supplement the experience I’ve gained at VSP. I currently serve on the board of the National Association for Vision Care Plans and on a regional board for Make-A-Wish. I also recently joined the board of Women’s Empowerment, an organization that educates and empowers women who are experiencing homelessness with the skills and confidence necessary to get a job, maintain a healthy lifestyle, and regain a home for themselves and their children. 

What is the unique value you bring to the boardroom?

I would add the most value to a company in the healthcare space, especially one focused on consumer experience. This would leverage my insurance and healthcare knowledge, my experience as a President managing a P&L, as well as my experience as a Chief Marketing Officer. This combination gives me a unique understanding of how to use market and customer insights to develop successful business and growth strategies.

What are the principles that drive you as a leader?

I always keep compassion and empathy at the heart of my leadership. I really see this benefit the workplace by creating stronger collaboration, decreasing stress, improving morale, and leading to overall better results. I strive to stay connected with the people in my organization and make myself approachable for all employees. I believe that the better you understand and connect with the people in your organization, the better you understand your business.

As we shifted to remote work due to Covid-19, what steps did you take to support working parents?

My strong passion to support working parents is based on my own life and professional experience. Quite unusually, I was promoted to my first executive role while I was on maternity leave. That, and VSP’s continued support and encouragement throughout my career, have always stuck with me. At VSP, we offer as much flexibility as possible and provide resources like virtual communities that help VSP parents connect with each other. We’ve also partnered with Care.com to help employees find backup childcare and eldercare on short notice.

As difficult as it’s been, there have been unexpected upsides—like the time I’m now able to have with my family because I’m not traveling as much as I was before. It shows that even amid challenges, there’s always opportunities to be grateful. 

You’ve talked about VSP’s commitment to fostering a community of antiracism, inclusion, and compassion. What actions have you taken to make sure voices of color are heard in the organization?

After the death of George Floyd, so many of our employees were in pain. We didn’t have all the answers, but we listened to our team members and helped as much as we could to start difficult conversations so employees could feel comfortable being their authentic self at work. Since then, we’ve hired our first Chief Diversity Officer, and have been working on a program for diverse emerging leaders and new talent acquisition strategies.

What has been the most impactful part of your Athena membership?

It’s terrific to be part of an organization supporting women in this space. I’ve gained tremendous value from the connections I’ve found through the Athena network. My Member Success Manager put me in touch with two wonderful women to help prepare for a board opportunity I was pursuing, and I look forward to staying in touch with them on an ongoing basis.

What advice do you have for women rising into the C-suite?

The most important things are to keep learning and get comfortable being uncomfortable. Women often feel an unrealistic need to be completely prepared for every new assignment or role. But working through discomfort to try new things is the only way to learn and get better.

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