The Blog

Women in Business Q&A: Maureen Cavanagh, President, Vision Impact Institute

Maureen Cavanagh was recently named President of the Vision Impact Institute, currently supported by Essilor. The mission of the Vision Impact Institute is to raise awareness of the importance of healthy vision, including the socio-economic impact of Uncorrected Refractive Errors (URE) and quality of life benefits of visual correction. The Vision Impact Institute provides a unique data-base featuring scientific research and peer reviewed studies directed to government policy-makers, industry leaders and influential advocates. Considering that at an annual cost of $16.1 billion, URE is the most costly eye condition in the United States. The Vision Impact Institute is using evidence of this kind to reinforce the need for healthy vision, eye examinations and eye screenings with a provision for optical correction.

Cavanagh joined Essilor in October of 2005, as the Director of DEFINITY ™ lenses, launching DEFINITY ™ throughout the Essilor network following the acquisition of The Spectacle Lens Group. Soon after she was named Vice President of Integrated Retail, carving out a separate division and launching a new platform to specifically meet the needs of surfacing retail customers for Essilor. In December 2009, Cavanagh was promoted to President of Nassau Vision Group and OOGP, overseeing several stock lens and contact lens distribution centers, along with a local digital lens laboratory, Nova and the Shore lens division.

In May 2012, Cavanagh was elected as the US representative for Essilor employee shareholders on the Valoptec Board of Directors. She was also nominated to represent Valoptec on the Essilor International Board of Directors in France.

Prior to Essilor, Cavanagh held various executive positions within the optical industry including Cohen's Fashion Optical, Marine Optical and Johnson & Johnson Vision Care. A 23 year veteran in the optical industry, Cavanagh is a certified optician and graduated from Bridgewater State University.

Cavanagh is a strong advocate for women in leadership roles. She currently mentors several women in business and was integral in the launch of the Diversity and Inclusion initiative at Essilor. She has served as keynote speaker on topics of inspiring change and was a guest on the Power Hour radio show, advocating on behalf of women taking control of their own career development. In 2011 she was recognized as one of Jobson's most influential women in optical and in March 2015 she was honored with receiving the prestigious Pleiades award from the Optical Women's Association. She serves as the Executive Sponsor of the Essilor Women's Network and as a board member for the Optical Women's Association.

How has your life experience made you the leader you are today?

Being the youngest of five children, I think I had to stand out a little more to be noticed and heard. I had a great upbringing, and we were all encouraged to take on new challenges and overcome obstacles. I had the confidence early on in life to sing three solos at the Christmas mass one year and then quickly took on leadership roles in high school and college as the captain of the swim and gymnastics teams. I always had a way of taking on more responsibilities. I had three jobs during college, and my resume today shows that at each of my places of employment I continued to promote to higher level positions.

My biggest advice to college graduates is to separate yourself from the pack, make a lasting impression by being the first one in the office or the last to leave, be articulate in your communication and always volunteer to take on more responsibilities.

How has your previous employment experience aided your tenure at the Vision Impact Institute?

I met a wonderful woman about six months ago while I was traveling abroad, and we began chatting about our jobs and our experiences. She listened to me and then smiled broadly and said, "By God, you have gone from success to significance...what a wonderful journey." That really hit home to me because I have always been such a driver of revenue and profit. As a leader I am very passionate, competitive and driven. I quickly realized that all of these attributes that I have developed and the successes that I have enjoyed along the way have perfectly positioned me to take on this new challenge. Helping people live better lives through better sight is the most rewarding experience that I have encountered thus far in my career. I am able to focus my business skills with the same fervor and resilience into identifying and building critical evidence on visual impairment and its socio economic implications around the world. Every day I have the privilege to wake up and ask myself how I can positively impact people's lives today.

What have the highlights and challenges been during your tenure at the Vision Impact Institute?

We have had so many accomplishments to date that are really starting to build momentum and it's very exciting. First and foremost, you need to recruit good talent. Hiring Kristan Gross, Director of Content and Communications, was key to getting the Vision Impact Institute off the ground. Her exceptional skill set in communications and PR gave us a huge advantage early on in the process. We worked together with an agency to build a new website that is more user-friendly and allows for more granular searches of the studies. Kristan quickly learned the content and research side of the business and has done a great job of gathering evidence-based studies, coupled with the right messaging, to heighten the awareness of our cause. Second, moving the Vision Impact Institute to the United States and establishing a 501(c)(3) has allowed us to be better positioned as a global leader in the advocacy space. We have many resources that we are tapping into and our bandwidth is getting stronger. Honestly, the biggest challenge we have today is keeping up with the many inquiries regarding our rich database and having enough man hours to support so many wonderful advocacy initiatives around the world.

What advice can you offer to women who want a career in your industry?

I would suggest starting out in a Fortune 100 company to get the proper training and foundation that will quickly springboard you into a successful career. Your resume is your roadmap, and every path you take is critical to your end goal. Take public speaking courses and leadership training along the way and, of course, make a lasting impression at every company. I would also strongly suggest building a network of internal and external stakeholders who will both teach you and provide guidance and feedback along the way.

I would highly encourage women to network and participate in women's organizations. As an executive sponsor of the Essilor Women's Network, I have the privilege to grow alongside more than 300 members, who engage in educational forums aimed at inspiring, developing and empowering women to contribute at their highest level. I also serve as a board member for the Optical Women's Association, which is focused on enhancing the leadership of women throughout the Optical Industry. These types of organizations are invaluable to a woman's ability to grow and learn about herself and how she contributes to the world around her.

What is the most important lesson you've learned in your career to date?

I've learned that leadership happens by example: be a role model and earn the respect of others. People are watching you every minute of every day. You must be encouraging, passionate and confident, and you must learn to delegate. The best advice I ever received was from a leadership coach at Columbia University, who told me to "get off the dance floor and onto the balcony." I will never forget it. And finally, you must have strong emotional intelligence. It's all about self-awareness, self-management, relationship management and social awareness.

How do you maintain a work/life balance?

In the beginning of my career, work/life balance was really difficult. I had two jobs when I graduated college and worked hard to get ahead. My best advice is to value the time you have by being present wherever you are. If you are working, stay focused, work hard and make sure to leave a lasting impression. Taking on more responsibility doesn't always mean that you have to work longer hours. Learn to work smarter and learn to delegate. When you are home or with family, be grateful for those around you who are supportive of your career and enjoy your time away from work. Every weekend should feel like a vacation to recharge your batteries and let your guard down. Without balance you will burn out, and it will definitely affect your health and your ability to be your best.

What do you think is the biggest issue for women in the workplace?

I think the biggest issue that women have is the lack of data relating to women's performance in the work place. More and more companies are supporting gender equality and clearly understand the benefits that women bring to the marketplace. In fact, companies are now tracking and publicly reporting this progress as part of their corporate responsibility in annual reports. The power of diversity is truly DIVERSITY. It is not that women are better than men; it is that together we are stronger and diversity matters. I think women need to understand this better and position themselves more in senior management positions. Women need to have confidence that they too are important in the workplace and provide great value to an executive team.

How has mentorship made a difference in your professional and personal life?

After 30 years of employment, I have learned a tremendous amount and can share some of this wisdom with others. Having great mentors myself, I make an extra effort to mentor women and young adults to dream big, take chances, and be confident in their abilities. I often say, it is not where you went to school; it is how you apply yourself. It's your work ethic, and the team that you build around you that makes you successful. It's learning by trial and error and trusting yourself enough to take chances. Those chances may push you a little out of your comfort zone, and they will always challenge complacency. I took chances and believed in the process - the process of hard work, a commitment to continuous learning and giving back. I am so grateful for the opportunities that I have had in my career and know how important it is for me to give back, to continue nurturing and mentoring new talent to unleash their potential, and in so doing, build the next generation of women leaders.

What do you want the Vision Impact Institute to accomplish in the next year?

I would like for the Vision Impact Institute to have earned the respect of other NGOs, key opinion leaders and advocates across industries that benefit from healthy vision, and be recognized as the leading provider of the most relevant evidence-based data on visual impairment in the world. In order to accomplish this, we must be steadfast in our approach to filling the gaps that exist in both local and global data - data that can truly prove the need for government policy change globally. We anticipate having our web platform translated to Chinese by the end of 2015, and my goal is to have several web platforms in various languages in the coming year. I would also like to identify the "wins" where VII has complemented major breakthroughs, by building awareness around the need for healthy vision, and ultimately to share best practices with others globally. I truly believe together we can make a difference by Giving Vision a Voice.