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How I worked my way to the top in the 200-year-old, male-dominated cruise industry-and brought other women on board

I vividly remember a day during my tenure as president and CEO of Celebrity Cruises when I was visiting yet another amazing part of the world on one of our ships. I was hosting a “Celebrate with the CEO” cruise, and we were sailing the spice route, which included countries in the Middle East and India. It was a fascinating itinerary visiting many wonderful countries, and of course, engaging with diverse cultures and people. When we arrived in Mumbai, I was excited to get off the ship to meet our driver and guide for our tour of the city. I walked up to her to get into the car, and she very politely said to me “I am waiting for the CEO.” I replied, “I am the CEO.”
The look on her face was priceless. She then said, “They didn’t tell me it was a woman.” I just smiled. It was not the first or the last time someone was surprised I was both the CEO and a woman. We had a wonderful day and at the end of our tour, she asked me for one of my cards so she could show her daughter when she got home. She wanted her daughter to know she could do anything when she grew up. That touched me because that’s exactly what I had been trying to do ever since I became the president and CEO of one of the most popular cruise lines in the world.
I took the helm of Celebrity Cruises in December 2014, 30 years after I started in the company as a sales rep. So much had changed in the cruise industry and our company over that 30-year period. New and innovative ships, explosive growth, and tens of millions more consumers opting for cruise vacations. But one thing hadn’t really changed in all that time: the gender imbalance in the key operations and leadership roles on board ships. Especially on our bridges–where the captain steers the ship. And it was my mission to change it.
I had been in other positions at the company throughout my career where I was the first woman. But when I was appointed president and CEO, I knew my role would forever be changed. I’d have the power and influence to be the biggest changemaker there had ever been in company history, a role I didn’t take lightly.
The day I was appointed, my phone was ringing off the hook. Everyone was so interested to know what it felt like to be the first woman in this role. I was overwhelmed, and to be honest, confused by all the hype! I didn’t place a lot of emphasis on my gender. I just worked hard, smart, and fearlessly for three decades, eventually earning the role of CEO. But later I realized…they were right. How important it was and what an honor it would be to be able to use my gender to make meaningful change and bring other women along with me. And that I did.
The first, and most impactful of my many moves disrupting the 200-year-old cruise industry was appointing Captain Kate McCue. McCue was, and continues to be, a beacon for other women, beloved by guests and crew, and everyone who meets her. The first, and still only American woman at the helm of a mega cruise ship. The first woman to start up a new ship and take it out of a shipyard. The first woman captain for Celebrity Cruises. The most followed Captain on social media. She represented the beginning of a sea change for Celebrity.
I continued to collaborate methodically with like-minded men to grow the number of women on our bridges from 3% to 33% over nine years. The average percentage of women in all maritime is 2%. Most of the men I surrounded myself with believe in gender equality because they have wives, daughters, mothers, and sisters. For so many years, our male captains didn’t believe their daughters would be able to follow in their footsteps. That’s not the case anymore. I showed many of our male captains that yes, their daughters can do what their dads do. I will never forget the day I walked onto the bridge of Celebrity Edge with the ship’s godmother, Malala Yousafzai. The captain of the ship was on the bridge with his wife and three-year-old daughter. And his daughter was dressed in a Captain’s uniform. Just a couple of years earlier, that never would have happened. Progress.
My career had so many firsts. So many things I look back on and am so proud of. Brand transformation, financial performance transformation, and gender equality transformation. We don’t get many opportunities in our lives to make meaningful change. When these opportunities present themselves, we must make the most of them. Being a woman was a superpower and I used it to do good. It was good for gender equality, and it was good for business.
Years later, the story of the Mumbai tour guide asking for my card to show her daughter that women can do anything still empowers me. It’s a reminder for everyone that we can be anything we want to be when we grow up, as long as we continue to make waves wherever we are.
Lisa Lutoff-Perlo is the vice chairman of external affairs at Royal Caribbean Group and the former president and CEO of Celebrity Cruises. She’s the author of the forthcoming book MAKING WAVES: A Woman’s Rise to the Top Using Smarts, Heart and Courage.
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