Women on Fire

Women on Fire

Three female creatives from Portfolio Studio crack the glass ceiling, talk about their hot, new careers, awards, and how to overcome challenges young women face in the workplace.

By Gina Greco

Women breaking ceiling

In 2014, the (now-former) President Barack Obama stood facing the nation on live television and stated, “Equal pay for equal work. It's not that complicated.” He then signed into law the Lilly Ledbetter Bill for Equal Pay. But what he said next, in his landmark speech, was the most compelling:

“Now, here’s the challenge: Today, the average full-time working woman earns just 77 cents for every dollar a man earns; for African American women, Latinas, it’s even less. And in 2014, that’s an embarrassment. It is wrong. And this is not just an issue of fairness. It’s also a family issue and an economic issue, because women make up about half of our workforce and they’re increasingly the breadwinners for a whole lot of families out there.”

Pretty profound. But, change has been slow to come, if at all, and representation in the workplace is still severely lacking. The share of Fortune 500 chief executives who are female remains very small, just reaching a record 5.4% in the first quarter of 2017. 

Fleishman-Hillard Inc. estimates that women will control two-thirds of the consumer wealth in the U.S. over the next decade. We can attribute over 80% of all consumer purchasing decisions to women, yet, according to research by The Terry & Sandy Solution, that 91% of women said that advertisers don't understand them. Perhaps that's because, in the advertising industry, there are still very few female creatives making the ads that women see. In 2008, just 3.6% of the world’s creative directors were female. Since then it has tripled to 11%, but that's still shockingly low.

Interesting Facts >>

  • 70% of young female creatives are working in a 75% male-dominated department
  • 70% of young female creatives says they have never worked with a female creative director or executive creative director
  • 60% of young females say they believe advertising is a career that doesn’t support young families

(Courtesy of The Guardian)

The founder of the Adobe 3% Conference (which gleans its name from the fact that women lack representation in the advertising industry) recognizes this reality. It’s what inspired her to create the conference. She explains on her site, that after some digging, she figured out why women were down in the 3 percent dumps: “Most of the issues start with a two-word phrase: lack of,” she explained. Lack of support during pregnancy, no childcare support, lack of female-based mentoring to help younger women get ahead, salary negotiation skills—lack lack lack!"

So, what’s the point of all this?

Well, quite recently, three smart, highly talented students from Portfolio Studio (who happen to be women) scored some great achievements that I would like to highlight and share with you.

These ‘Women on Fire’ are breaking into new careers in male-dominated spaces, winning Awards and using Portfolio Studio to gain the chops they need to succeed. They hope to change things. 

Without further adieu, here’s their three experiences, a bit of advice, and success stories. We hope they inspire you, drive you further, and help you accomplish your dreams despite the challenges that will unfold—starting now.


ONE >> Lisa Papada


Papada currently works at a Texas-based digital marketing agency as a Digital Copywriter for AT&T Business Solutions. Right now she's working for the Masters Tournament.


While attending Portfolio Studio, Papada, along with Stephen Chu, won student scholarships from Adobe to head to the The 3% Conference. 

“After attending, I can joyfully say there are some strong women out there who aren’t afraid to voice what’s right,” Papada recalls. Overall, she explained that the validation of winning an award is a lot like a little hug, “...you know you’re doing matters,” she said.

Photo by Brogan Jessup

Photo by Brogan Jessup


“Be tough, but not bitchy. I know that might be hard to gauge, but it’s all in how you talk. Stay strong and don’t budge on the small things. The last thing you want to be is a pushover. Your gut speaks volumes, and when you have an idea, own it. Have fun with the ‘What if?’ game and remember, a job should be fun, even with the frustrations.

Papada continues, “It is male-dominated—it just is—to stand out and show your strength is how you will earn the respect you deserve. Stay up-to-date on articles and in-the-know, and you’ll be the go-to person for ‘cool sh*t’ and relied upon.”

Also, "Don’t ever stop. If you see someone pass you up on a promotion, speak up. It’s never ‘That’s just how it is.’ Always ask questions because the worst thing that could happen, is you’ll get told, no. We learn from mistakes, we learn from what didn’t work. Your work will get criticized and pulled apart but at the end of the day, be proud of what you put forward and fight the good fight.”

TWO >> Elizabeth Lybrook


Lybrook’s Macco Diverse Media Campaign won two Gold for “Out of Home” and “Ambient Media” at the ADDYs. She completed the campaign in summer of 2016 during Portfolio Studio's Diverse Media course. “All the work paid off however,” she explained. Because, after winning the two Gold Awards, I was reached out to by Vitro, and just accepted a Jr. Art Director position that I will begin in April!”

*Here is a link to her winning campaign


After she graduated college, she felt her weak portfolio was the cause of her struggle to find a job in the field. “I was living in Alabama and learned about Portfolio Studio's great program. I had never even been to California before, but packed up my bags and headed to San Diego!” Knowing no one, waiting tables to make ends meet, Lybrook scored an internship at a small San Diego agency. After a year of hard work in the Portfolio Studio Art Direction Program, Lybrook not only now has a strong portfolio, but she has won 10 different awards. 

For Lybrook, winning the awards really provides motivation to keep creating better work. “It is such a great feeling to be validated for all of the hard work put into your project. It has put me into a competitive mindset to continue pushing my concepts and think even more creatively,” she noted. 

Photo by Oriana Jones

Photo by Oriana Jones


“I would encourage more women to take on masculine clients, such as ones in the automotive or sports industries. It is easy to be siphoned into feminine or 'girly' clients. Women in the ad industry have creatively pushed boundaries for a wide variety of clients, and should continue to do so. Having variety in your portfolio is key. ”

Lybrook also encourages younger women to work hard and love the work. Never settle on the first idea or the first 50 ideas, she explains. “I've found that my best ideas always come after I thought I had nothing left to think of,” she said.

THREE>> Kristen Sugihara


Sugihara was raised a tiny little island in Hawai'i. At 17 years old, she packed up her things and moved to San Diego to attend college. By 2015, she had enrolled in her first class at Portfolio Studio. “After that, my creative journey started moving at full speed. In a little over a year, I did a couple internships at Lambesis and i.d.e.a, won many awards, went to New York as one of AAF's Most Promising Multicultural Student, and developed a portfolio book from scratch. By the time I was 21 years old, I was hired as Vitro's youngest creative,” she says. "I'm now working on print, digital, out of home, and activations for a wide range of clients such as Caribou Coffee, UCSD, AGCO, and Adidas Golf.”


Most recently, Sugihara and her copywriter partner won a Silver Addy at the “SDX American Advertising Awards” for Space Camp. She’s also received recognition and awards from the 2015 Addy's, Graphis, Applied Arts, and HOW.

"The most positive aspect of winning awards is being able to share it with your teammates," Sugihara notes. “You've gone such a long journey with your copywriter, designer, etc., that it’s always a breath of fresh air that your hard work was recognized.” Receiving recognition of any kind inspires Sugihara to create something even better for the next project. “I am motivated to beat the idea that won and to always level up on my work. I have the mentality that if I can win X award or get X job, then I wonder what else I can do,” she explains.

Kristen Sugihara


“I think one of my biggest challenges that I faced—and am still facing—is my age and the way people perceive me. Because I am so young, people often think I am unreliable and have no idea what I am doing—which may be true 50 percent of the time [...] I am always trying to prove people wrong and end up working twice as hard to gain the trust of my colleagues.”

As for advice for women in creative roles, Sugihara says to tie your hair back, put on some lipstick, and kick ass

“Find as many mentors as you can. Find people who you aspire to be like and learn from them. The best part about my job is being able to work with and learn from all of the talented senior teams, CDs, and ECDs. I am able to take the best advice from each person and craft a style that is all my own.”

Gina Greco

Gina Greco is the co-founder of Portfolio Studio, the creative hub that connects ambitious students with industry professionals for career training and portfolio building.