Growing from communicator to decision maker.
I spent the early part of my career working in communications and marketing, especially in public relations, and it was hard for me to escape the reality that communications plays mostly a supporting role in business. Decisions get made regarding a product or the direction of the company, and it’s your job to communicate those decisions. It’s an important role, and there’s certainly a strategic component to it, but I always felt that I was outside the room waiting for the decision to be made. I wanted to be inside the room. I wanted to be making the decisions. That meant building my skill set with an MBA.
I had gone to small schools as an undergraduate—Franklin in Lugano, Switzerland, and then Whitman back here in the States—and I liked that environment because of how involved you could be . . . because of how involved you had to be. If you wanted a school newspaper, you had to write the paper. So I wanted an MBA program where I’d be an active and valued participant, with an emphasis on “valued.” For instance, I was accepted to a very prestigious program at another school. And while I was very pleased to get in—it’s a great program with great rankings and great facilities—they never seemed as excited to have me there as I was in going there. I remember calling them several times to discuss financial aid information, and when someone finally called me back, they just gave me the URL to the financial aid section of their website. At W&M, it was easy to reach people. I felt they were trying to help me rather than just move me along, which made me feel like the experience itself would be more personal and more adaptive to my goals and ambitions.
My W&M experience was directly responsible for my current job. I my second year I took the Consumer Marketing CAM. A CAM—or Career Acceleration Module—is an eight-week immersion in a particular area of business. Our CAM was a live case study with Smithfield Foods. Our challenge was to grow business for Smithfield’s Gwaltney bologna line. We used all the skills we learned in our first year Data Analysis class to dig into the sales data that Smithfield provided. We even conducted our own consumer research. Then we developed a set of packaging changes, advertising ideas, and other recommendations. Based on my performance, Smithfield asked me to come in for an interview, then offered me a job.
I started at Smithfield as a data category manager, taking the syndicated data the Smithfield gets using it to make better business decisions. I did that for a year before moving to a brand management position in bacon brand. Then I was asked to manage the Gwaltney brand. Now I’m directing it. I’m in the room now. I’m the decision maker.
The biggest thing W&M did for me was give me the confidence to work with executive management. Because the program is small, you get to interact with professors, Executive Partners, and guest speakers, so you get the experience of having executive level conversations, whether they take place in a meeting, a presentation, or you run into a VP in the elevator.