Receptionist to CEO: Karen Kaplan Did It at Ad Agency Hill Holliday

Image: Receptionist to CEO: Karen Kaplan Did It at Ad Agency Hill Holliday Karen Kaplan, CEO of Hill Holliday, gives the thumbs up after receiving an honorary degree from Deborah Marson of the board of trustees during Suffolk University's commencement ceremony at the Bank of America Pavilion on Sunday, May 19, 2013.

Thursday, 30 May 2013 08:27 AM

By Alexandra Ward

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Karen Kaplan started out as a receptionist at the Hill Holliday ad agency in 1982 with no advertising experience whatsoever. Fast forward 31 years, and she is now CEO of the company and one of the most powerful women in advertising with a career trajectory most women dream about.

"You can make your mark in every single job," Kaplan told Business Insider. "I still run into people today who remember me from when I was a receptionist who say, 'You were the best damn receptionist in the history of receptionists.'"

Kaplan, 53, has reached the top of the corporate totem pole, something she was told she would never be able to do. Her first week on the job, two catty women reminded her just how low she was.

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"They come on my second day, and they stand in front of my desk," Kaplan said. "They're looming over me with hands on their hips with their little headbands, and I remember they were like, 'Just so you know, just because you're out here and everyone can see you, you are still on the bottom of the totem pole. You are below us, you are below the guy in the mail room, you're below the guy who delivers the packages.' I thought to myself, 'We'll see about that.'"

Kaplan has held a dozen different jobs within Hill Holliday, from receptionist to design director to managing director.

"I had the same 12 jobs that everyone has, I've just had them all at Hill Holliday," she said.

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Kaplan's career is unique but not impossible. Female CEOs like Yahoo's Marissa Mayer and Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg are living proof that women can compete with men in the corporate world.

Sandberg even penned a book about it. "Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead" debuted in March and features tips for women on how to get ahead at work.

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