How “God’s Breadcrumbs” have transformed the life and leadership of Google’s Kirk Perry
By: Steve Good, VP of Growth and Communications
One’s personal journey with faith is deeply intimate. It can be filled with peaks and valleys, joy and heartbreak, wealth and welfare, understanding and skepticism. When you listen to Kirk Perry, Cincinnati ’90, President of Brand Solutions at Google, talk about his relationship with his faith, you hear all of this. On the surface you see a likable, extremely well-spoken, and wildly successful man who is living the American dream. As you dig deeper, what shines through is a man of redemption and grace who uses his experiences with “God’s breadcrumbs” to inspire those around him to become greater versions of themselves.
“I was a part of a ‘CEO family,’ one that attended church on Christmas and Easter Only.”
Raised in Detroit, Michigan in a home that “ran out of money before it ran out of month,” Kirk’s beginnings were humble. He attended 10 schools between kindergarten and high school as his assembly line-working parents followed opportunities. Despite the constant moves and minimal means, Kirk learned valuable lessons as a young child that shaped his life profoundly. He identifies his great-grandfather as his role model—a tough man who taught him “how you treat people who don’t necessarily matter to where you’re going is who you really are.”
“My great-grandfather was on his own at a very early age. He valued education but wasn’t able to get the formal education he desired. He spent his whole life learning as much as he could and passing it on to others. He instilled in me a desire to continue learning every single day, to go to college no matter what, and to never give up,” said Perry.
Kirk’s relationship with faith was minimal during his youth, but his grandfather provided the spark to what would become an incredible journey.
The University of Cincinnati and Phi Delta Theta
For 18 months following high school and prior to attending the University of Cincinnati (UC), Kirk managed a Wendy’s restaurant to save money for his education. Once on campus, and during his first year at UC, his weekly regimen consisted of working 60 hours in addition to being a full-time student. Kirk began to think that transitioning to night school was in his best interest. It was during this time that one of “God’s breadcrumbs” appeared.
Noticed by his business law professor as a student with great potential, she encouraged Kirk to meet the assistant dean of undergraduate students to see if he could help. Upon hearing Kirk’s background and ambitions on campus and beyond, the assistant dean left his office for 10 minutes and returned with a full-ride scholarship in hand. With the scholarship came a challenge—“Leave UC better than you found it.” Kirk did just that.
As a sophomore, Perry joined the Ohio Theta Chapter of Phi Delta Theta. Within the walls of the Fraternity, he first experienced the value of a bond and realized that deep friendships with men could bring accountability to his life.
“My Phi Delt brothers pushed me to become involved on campus in the things that revolved around my passions,” said Perry. They remain some of my closest friends today. We have common core values that have strengthened our bond over the years.”
Perry was elected Student Body President, named UC’s Homecoming King, Mr. Bearcat (outstanding graduating male), and was the Outstanding Graduate and Marketing Student from the Lindner College of Business. He graduated summa cum laude and became the first in his extended family to earn a college degree.
Twenty-five years later, the University of Cincinnati invited him to give the commencement address, where he also received an honorary doctorate degree, UC’s highest honor. Along with his family, Kirk has endowed a scholarship for the Carl H. Lindner Honors-PLUS program.
On the Fast Track at Proctor & Gamble
With a BBA in finance and marketing in hand, Perry found early success with Procter & Gamble (P&G), the consumer goods stalwart headquartered in Cincinnati. Early into his career, Perry, who by that time was married to his wife Jacki with two of his now four children in tow, was given the opportunity to move his family to South Korea, and then to Japan, where his success with the company grew even more.
“My time in Asia was the greatest period of growth in my life. It shocked every sense that I had. It made me a better leader, father and husband and it challenged me in ways that I never would have imagined,” Perry said.
Upon his return to the US, Perry was tapped to run one of P&G’s largest businesses in North America, vice president of the Baby Care division, and from there on to be the vice president of U.S. Operations & North America Media & Marketing. In 2011, Perry was promoted to president of the Global Family Care division.
During his 23-year career at P&G, Perry led the marketing efforts of some of the world’s most iconic brands (including Crest, Pampers, Pantene, Bounty, Charmin and Puffs). He rose to become the youngest of 20 business unit presidents and was considered a candidate to become the future CEO.
What Kirk didn’t know as he was enjoying success at Procter & Gamble, was that an unexpected tragedy would soon shake him to the core and be the catalyst for his relationship with God and his personal faith.
Relying on Faith
James 4:8—Draw near to God, and God will draw near to you.
While on a business trip to New York City, Kirk received the news every parent dreads: his six-year-old daughter, Karly, had been diagnosed with cancer.
“I remember frantically getting to the airport, and I finally got a hold of my sister-in-law on one of the payphones to find out what was going on. As I was sobbing, I remember feeling a hand on my shoulder. After hanging up the payphone, I turned around and saw this little woman, 70ish years old, who didn’t say a word, but just embraced me. Not just a hug, a bear hug. As I pulled away from her, tears streaming down my cheeks, she wiped the tears away, turned and walked away. We never said a single world to each other. I am convinced that God put an angel behind me on the payphone that day to make sure that I knew that He was there with me.”
Fully understanding his helplessness in his family’s situation, Kirk turned to faith, and it completely changed the trajectory of his life.
“Before my faith discovery—and I hate to say it—my family was secondary. My career was the most important thing in my life. I justified it by saying, ‘If I do well, then my family will do well.’ I was missing the bigger point. Work isn’t what life’s about. It’s part of it to be sure, but it shouldn’t be primary. Life is about relationships. Today, I never put anything above my family and life has become much richer.”
Following his daughter’s miraculous recovery, and after establishing a faith relationship with God, Perry’s career continued to flourish and offer new opportunities.
The New Kirk
“I hope to inspire people to be a better version of themselves.”
With a new outlook on life, Kirk’s faith led him to accept an opportunity at Google—to become the company’s first-ever president of brand solutions. Within the role, he travels the Americas, Asia and Europe to partner with the world’s largest brands as they develop their digital advertising strategies.
“Google’s culture is absolutely amazing, and I wanted to be a part of it. I’m one of the old guys here, and our company’s diversity is truly inspiring! Google’s trust-based culture and simple mantra of ‘Don’t be evil’ allows our people to support each other. We are encouraged to experiment, learn, and even fail. The company’s sustained growth is a testament to the culture that has been created.”
When asked about aspects of the Google culture that could benefit Phi Delta Theta, Perry responded, “Complacency is the friend of failure. Phi Delta That cannot fail to innovate, and the Fraternity must remember that it will lose its leadership position if it isn’t reinventing itself constantly to its future members.”
When asked about how the Phi Delta Theta brand needs to adapt in the future, Perry stated, “Society is changing. College students are changing—They are more diverse and have so many more opportunities in front of them on their respective campuses. Phi Delta Theta’s value proposition must be clear. I’ve been impressed by Phi Delta Theta’s foresight to pivot along the way. Brands come and go, but those that remain stand for something. Phi Delta Theta has proven that it stands for something, and because of this, it will endure and continue to attract raving fans who will support the Fraternity with great enthusiasm.”
At Google, Kirk has committed to become a workplace missionary.
“I’ve realized over the years that those who compartmentalize their lives are not as successful as they could be. People who are authentic at work tend to succeed more in all aspects of their life. It’s not always easy to live your faith’s principles at work, but when I show up to work in a way that my faith wants me to show up, people notice, and it leads to interesting conversations and better relationships.”
The approach of proudly placing his faith on his sleeve was tested when Kirk unexpectedly learned about his own cancer diagnosis—stage 4 thyroid cancer. To share the news about his diagnosis with his team, Kirk created and shared a short five minute video, despite advice he received that it would be too personal.
As shared in the video, “Life is 10% of what happens to you and 90% of how you react to it. There are two things you can do for me—Do your job and pray for me.“
Within 24 hours, Kirk had to create a filter in his email inbox for the wave of responses received. He heard things he never thought he would and instantly knew that his faith would prevail in the battle against cancer.
Hebrews 11:1—Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see.
Today, Kirk is healthy and continues to live out his faith day-by-day with those in his life. He speaks openly and candidly about his journey, and no matter your relationship with faith, his message resonates.
Brother Perry’s advice to those who struggle with their faith is threefold: 1) Faith allows you to believe, but it doesn’t necessarily provide you with answers. You must first have your “faith antenna” up and tuned into the right station to have the opportunity to see God in many things, 2) You must have a relationship with your personal faith and spend a portion of each day building that relationship, and 3) Community is key as you build accountability into your faith. Whether it’s a church congregation or small group of people, surrounding yourself with others as they live their faith journey will strengthen yours.