Christina Plhak came to Freeman Company just a year prior to the pandemic shutting down large swaths of the world we used to know. Freeman is known as a leader in the events industry: it works with some of the largest trade shows, conferences, and exhibitors of all sizes. But it was faced with the challenge of an entire industry pause when every live event was called off in March 2020.
You can hear the relief in the senior vice president of IT’s voice now, having made it through the most challenging environment of the twenty-first century. Plhak was able to drive change across an organization that has done much more than it’s endured; it’s evolved to meet the needs of the new post-pandemic world.
As a woman who grew up in IT before “IT” was a well-understood abbreviation, Plhak has already faced her share of obstacles in navigating a field that was mostly male for decades. Her servant leadership has escalated her to the very top of her field, and she’s found countless ways to pave her path so that women hoping to emulate her journey find fewer systemic obstacles in their way.
The Value of Trust
The SVP says navigating the COVID-19 pandemic required the leadership at Freeman to lean heavily on grit and trust.
“We were in the live event industry undergoing a complete shift in the way people were able to live their lives,” Plhak explains. “I’m so proud of this company, because of our resilience and ability to pick ourselves up during an unimaginable time. As hard as it’s been, it’s amazing to see how we’ve come together and rebuilt ourselves.”
Trust among leadership was crucial. While furloughs were necessary, the leadership team had to undergo a massive reorganization while working from home. Plhak says the errant dog jumping into a lap or inquisitive child inadvertently stumbling into frame brought out the most human parts of the organization. It further built empathy across a company making hard decisions at the hardest possible moment and trusting one another that they would come out the other side.
“Those of us who remained had to wear multiple hats because we were no longer a team of thousands—we were a team of hundreds,” Plhak says. “I understood we had to ‘survive to thrive.’ We had to harness our energy, our brain power, and our strength and ensure we could come back stronger than ever.” Amazingly, Freeman was able to bring back many of its furloughed employees as its industry ramped back up while also retaining and recruiting new talent.
Lessons in Resilience
It’s not the first time Plhak has had to endure the sour before achieving the sweet. Her first job was helping an organization prepare for the dreaded Y2K changeover in 2000. The transition was so seamless that Plhak found herself out of a job shortly after the company realized it had made it through the challenge unscathed.
“It was my first job out of college, and so it was an incredibly hard pill to swallow,” the SVP remembers. “But going through a layoff right out of the gate really helped me build resiliency and realize that my career wasn’t over. It had only just begun.”
Resilience has been part of Plhak’s journey since she was a child. At eleven, her family moved from the US to Brazil. Suddenly, the child had to learn Portuguese and how to navigate a brand-new culture—dozens, in fact—as she quickly accumulated friends from all over the world.
By the time her family moved back to the States when she was fourteen, Plhak was hesitant to leave. She’d built a life she loved.
“Of course, I was excited to get back home and be closer to my family, but life in Brazil had really become part of me,” she reflects. “I realize now that I was incredibly lucky to live overseas, and it’s an experience I wish more kids had the opportunity to have.”
Lessons for the Next Generation
In every role, Plhak has found a way to encourage women in technology to be themselves, to speak up, and to be unafraid to make their ideas known. The SVP has spoken to groups across the world, including an event in India where she was able to speak to over two hundred women about their inherent power and ability to lead.
“When I’m working with other women, I really home in on that dialogue that is always running through our heads that we unintentionally put there, but that society has instilled: ‘Can I really do this? What are they going to think of me? Am I going to be judged?’ It takes a conscious effort to quiet those voices down and instead focus on the fact that not only can you do it, but you can encourage others as well,” she says.
Plhak mentors colleagues and college students alike. And she is unafraid to speak up for women when they might not have the confidence to do so. It’s an unfortunate skill she had to learn early in a field that, historically, has not always been welcoming to women.
The SVP has helped an organization most poised to feel the effects of the pandemic succeed despite challenging times. And she’s helped countless women find their voices and become leaders in their own right. Plhak hasn’t just survived, she’s thrived.
Infogain is a human-centered digital platform engineering company based in Silicon Valley with delivery centers in Seattle, Houston, Montevideo, Kraków, and across India. A multicloud expert and Azure expert-managed services provider, we accelerate experience-led transformation in the delivery of digital platforms using technologies such as microservices and generative AI.