How Mary Woo is creating her own opportunities

A photo of Mary Woo, Adobe Korea's Managing Director

Having joined the team in August 2020 as the new managing director of Adobe’s South Korea business, Mary Woo has more than 28 years of experience in the software and IT industry, successfully driving cloud transformation and business growth for large companies and small businesses.

But when she reflects on her career, it wasn’t always a straight line. Her years with a struggling startup, being rejected from multiple job roles, being in a male-dominated profession, and building a self-imposed glass ceiling taught her many valuable lessons. And the one sticks out above the rest is that the best opportunities are the ones you create for yourself. We sat down with her to learn more about career journey.

Can you tell me a little about your career journey up until joining Adobe?

I began my career at a startup with my college friends and after eight years it almost went bankrupt due to an economic crisis that hit many Asian countries, including Korea.

I didn’t like the risk associated with a startup, so I started to apply to larger companies, but as I was working on my resume, I had a difficult time because I didn’t know what to focus on. At the startup I worked on PR, marketing, development, sales, and many other tasks. I felt I had the right experience, but I never heard back from the many roles I applied to. I later reached out to an HR team to inquire why and they told me it was because they didn’t know what my specialty was. That was shocking to me, because I didn’t realise I needed one.

Eventually I couldn’t find a role in a big company, so I joined another startup. I worked on building the company and trying to figure out what my specialty should be. I finally decided that I wanted to focus on sales, and I spoke with the CEO and said that I only wanted to focus on that, and they agreed.

All the salespeople at the time were male and I felt that there was something missing in the way the job was being done. Since I joined sales a little later than most of my colleagues, I found it very difficult to get customers to want to meet with me as I didn’t have any connections in the industry, so I needed to figure out what I could do to differentiate myself. I decided to buy a technology book and translate it to the Korean market, which worked very well! I went back and revised the whole sales presentation to include information about the technology behind the solutions, became a trusted partner to my clients, and customers suddenly wanted to start meeting with me. I ended up meeting with 2,800 customers in just three years!

From there I was able to join some big companies like Citrix, Dell, Microsoft and now Adobe! I often had to recommend myself for roles and that is how I got my first country manager role. If an opportunity became available that I thought I could do, I put my hand up!

Why did you decide to join Adobe?

In our changing world I feel that understanding customers’ businesses is very critical. And crucial to that strategy is understanding our customers’ customers. I looked at a few companies that were interesting and I felt Adobe was the one. It is a company that enables customers to transform themselves from a business perspective and paves the way for their digital transformation.

As a female leader, what has been the most significant barrier in your career?

I have experienced multiple barriers in my career. In Korean society the glass ceiling has existed for a long time. Director level positions have less than 5 percent representation of females.

But I also realised that the glass ceiling exists within myself. While I was at Citrix, I was quite successful as a sales representative and I was asked to be the acting country manager after being there for only six months. They wanted me to run the business as a placeholder while they searched for someone else. As I worked with the recruiter to help with their search, it never occurred to me to recommend myself for the position. I couldn’t imagine a multinational company appointing someone like me, and I wasn’t sure if I’d be happy in such a high-pressure role. When the recruiter suggested I ask my manager to extend the acting period to see if I would be good fit, I asked, ‘Is that even possible?’ and the recruiter said, ‘Why not?’

I sent my manager my proposal as well as a few goals I would commit to execute during the trial, and after performing well, I was offered the role.

What is some of the advice you share with young women entering a male-dominated profession?

Find out what your strengths are, focus on them and build your capabilities. Reinforcing your strengths can give you a great base to work from and as the world continues to move more online, communication will be very important.

What are your hobbies outside of Adobe?

I love nature. I spend time hiking, cycling and small farming with my friends and family. I have also written a book in Korean prior to joining Adobe which will be coming out in the first week of November called Working with Confidence in Myself, which is about how ‘being capable’ is what helps me, and others grow together.