Meet TOA's Board: Kat O'Brien

November 22, 2021 Christiaan Perez

Insights from The Opportunity Agenda

This fall we welcomed two new board members to The Opportunity Agenda. Today you get to meet Kat O’Brien, Director of Product Management at MasterCard. Kat tells us more about the essential role that stories of strong women played in her upbringing and the importance of providing assistance for refugees who are forced to move because of situations beyond their control.

Q: Stories play a considerable role in changing hearts and minds. What is the first story that you recall having that kind of impact on you? It could be a family story, a book, a show, etc.

Kat O'Brien stands smiling next to a brick wall in a blue dress for her headshot photo.

I am and have always been a voracious reader. I learned to read when I was three and I remember how every summer I used to go to the library so I could join the book club. I remember how surprised the librarians were whenever I showed up to exchange one pile of books for another. I don’t have one book, exactly, that I would say stands above all the others but there was a genre of stories that I was really drawn towards, stories about strong women and girls. You know, those old-timey stories about girls who were very independent, would cause trouble, and go against the grain. The Little Women series or books by Laura Ingalls Wilder are just some examples, and there were lots of books about independent-minded girls that I really loved and have informed who I am today.

Q: Who is a hero in your life, someone who inspires you?

I don’t think I can pick just one person. In general, I am inspired by people who fight for others, people who fight for the underdog. Growing up, a lot of my family members worked to help others, whether teaching, as social workers, librarians, or volunteering. My family often worked to help children living in low-income neighborhoods, with immigrant families, and migrant workers who could use a helping hand. I am inspired by people who fight for others, who advocate on behalf of communities who are largely ignored by our society, especially refugee communities.

Q: What would you say is your superhero power?

I would say I am really good at connecting people across a wide spectrum of backgrounds. I like meeting people from different walks of life and learning more about those differences that make up our unique identities. Because of my widely curious nature, I can often find those unique connections between people who may not have been connected otherwise.

Q: Is there a particular issue The Opportunity Agenda works on that you personally identify with? Why is that?

Yes, I would say I am especially drawn towards immigrant human rights and equal opportunity. In college, I spent a summer on a service project through the University of Notre Dame (my alma mater), where I worked with people who came here from Iraq, El Salvador, Vietnam and a number of other countries. Today, I continue my passion for supporting refugee communities through my support of the International Rescue Committee and Techfugees. There are so many important causes in the world but the needs of immigrant communities, particularly those who are not U.S. citizens, are often overlooked because they are not able to vote. Those of us born in the U.S., as many challenges as we may have, have access to certain privileges compared with those who are forced to leave their homes because of matters outside of their control.

Q: What is something you would like The Opportunity Agenda community to know about you?

I would say that I am an interesting blend of passion and interests. I grew up in Iowa, my dad is from a farm and my mom is from DC. I like big cities and warm weather. I love Spain, starting from when I first studied abroad in Spain going all the way to when I worked with the Real Madrid Soccer team. My ultimate dream is to one day be able to move to Spain. I actually applied for a visa a couple of years ago, but the application was rejected. I definitely plan to apply again. This experience has also been a reminder about how challenging the immigration process can be. If it’s hard for me, I can only imagine how much harder it is for people with an urgent need to migrate, but without the financial, legal, educational, or even language resources that are available to me.

Q: The Opportunity Agenda is a social justice communications lab, what does that mean to you?

To me it means that The Opportunity Agenda is a kind of “studio” for how to shape the way the message of social justice reaches the public. The Opportunity Agenda’s approach provides a chance for organizers and communications practitioners to help hone the stories of what we think should happen around social justice and the creation of equal opportunity for all.

Q: When have you encountered a problematic narrative and how did you overcome it?

This goes back to the stories I read when I was young, the stories about women who challenged gender norms. I would like to say that gender inequality and the ways in which gender inequality appears in our daily lives is a narrative that I have confronted all my life and have been more intentional about confronting in recent years. Throughout my career, I have often found myself in spaces where women are not normally present. In high school, I participated in a March Madness pool and I actually finished second, which I wasn’t told for a few days because the boys were embarrassed that I was the only girl in the pool and did so well. Later, I became a baseball reporter, and I was one of just a handful of women reporting on baseball. For a while, I remember just showing up in spaces where women were less present and focusing on just doing the work. Lately, as I have grown as a professional, I have become more comfortable in standing up and voicing my opinion on gender inequality in spaces where I am present.