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Alumni share insights into ROI from hiring recent Kellogg graduates

As a guest lecturer for an experiential Kellogg course on marketing and e-commerce in 2018, Steve Oblak '01 spoke of scaling a business in the rapidly evolving digital space. He stressed risk-taking and fearlessness, and noted the importance of embracing humility and ongoing education in the digital era.

The class, taught by adjunct marketing lecturer Josh Cheroff '91 and co-sponsored by Oblak's company, Wayfair, wasn't just an opportunity for Kellogg students to glean insights from the $7.3 billion e-commerce site's chief merchandising officer and senior vice president. It was also a chance for Oblak to continue building a recruitment bridge with the business school on behalf of Wayfair.

"There's really good synergy between what Kellogg is focused on and what we're looking for in a candidate," explains Oblak. "Wayfair is doing phenomenally well because we've built an amazing culture that's very focused on results, personal advancement and collaboration. So as we build the next generation of leadership, we look to a school like Kellogg because it's producing wave after wave of candidates who are ready to jump into a business like ours, which is growing really fast, and not only drive immediate success and have a lot of respon-sibility, but also grow relatively quickly alongside the business."

Oblak is hardly the only Kellogg alumnus to return to his academic roots when recruiting new employees for his company. Ashleigh Gibson '13, associate director of brand building at the Kraft Heinz Company, jokes that if it were up to her she would do all her recruiting in Evanston because she knows she'll end up with candidates who fit her exact coverage needs.

"I feel like Kellogg students on the whole are humble and ambitious at the same time and those two qualities can be disconnected and don't always move in the same direction," says Gibson. "They'll give credit to the team and to the folks who helped them get the work done, but they want to drive results. That kind of balance is unique, but it's something that I find more frequently when I'm dealing with Kellogg students."

So far, Boston-based Wayfair has 25 alumni on its employee roster with five joining just this past summer. Kraft Heinz employs many more thanks in part to its Chicago-area headquarters and sheer size coupled with a longer history. Both Oblak and Gibson plan to increase their number of recruits from Kellogg in the future.

"We've seen a really high ROI off of the great people recruited from Kellogg," says Oblak. "Of course we have relationships with other business schools as well, but I'm an alum of Kellogg and that's where I'm focused."

It's not a new trend for business leaders to hire from their alma mater, but it's an opportunity that Kellogg is working to take full advantage of. Spearheaded by the school's Employee Relations team, the new #HireKellogg initiative is designed to inspire more alumni to hire and promote from Kellogg and to think about Kellogg talent after they are at their companies.

“As we build the next generation of leadership, we look to a school like Kellogg because it’s producing wave after wave of candidates who are ready to jump into a business like ours.”

"Since the recruiting and hiring process is constantly evolving we want to be part of the conversation and be a resource for companies that are looking for talent," says Liza Kirkpatrick, senior director of the Kellogg Career Management Center. "We find that with our employer relationships, alumni are oftentimes the engines that drive recruiting. We have numerous examples of companies that maybe did not recruit at Kellogg before, but because they have a really engaged alum at the company, they begin seeking Kellogg students. There's not a week that goes by that I don't have an alum reaching out saying, 'Hey, I'm hiring for my company, who should I talk to?'"

With the #HireKellogg initiative, Kirkpatrick aims to build new relationships with more companies in geographic areas, both home and abroad, that Kellogg recruits seek. Something, she says, that is increasingly easier given the advent of virtual interviewing options. It's also easy since Kellogg alumni everywhere want to help their fellow alumni do well.

"There's a shared experience, which plays out in a really positive way," she explains. "It's a virtuous cycle of somebody coming to school here, having a great experience, getting their career launched in a significant way and then they tend to want to give back by giving another Kellogg person a chance."

Oblak echoes this sentiment. "A common thread throughout my career has been Kellogg and the connections that led me from one place to another. My first job post-Kellogg was working for an alum and then that led me to another opportunity."

Kirkpatrick also notes that for most alumni, it's probably a safe bet to draw from Kellogg's pool of talent. "When you're recommending somebody within a company it's a risk to your personal capital and you want to make very informed risks when you go out on a limb like that," she says. "With Kellogg, you're expecting that people are going to be very high caliber, high quality and have high ethics."

Onboarding risks are especially high stakes at startups like Wayfair or in rapidly evolving industries where new hires are expected to drive results as soon as they join the company. Tom Smithburg '16, vice president at Shore Capital Partners, stresses how important this is in the private equity space.

"We're investing in small healthcare businesses and companies with $10 million in EBITDA," Smithburg says. "They're great management teams, but there's typically a skill set that's missing, so we need that utility player who can add analytical rigor and disciplined project management skills. Given that, it's totally deliberate that we hire from Kellogg."

Smithburg says he often falls back on the tangible learning experiences he acquired at Kellogg when performing his role at Shore Capital. Unlike at older, established companies, recent hires at Shore Capital don't walk the path of a well-worn job description.

"You really have to be a self-starter to succeed in this role," he says. "You have to be the type of person who can come in and see where the gaps are and have the intuition and the knack to tackle those issues and bring in other people as necessary."

Smithburg felt prepared for his role thanks in part to the opportunities he found outside of the classroom in Evanston. While an undergraduate at Northwestern, for example, he was the student body president. At Kellogg, he led a team of about 20 of his peers as part of the Kellogg Worldwide Experiences & Service Trips. "It wasn't just doing these projects, but it was also learning how to be a leader of people," he concludes.

Gibson agrees. "Kellogg allows you to practice what you learn in the classroom in real time. You can create change as a student, create a vision, galvanize your student colleagues, galvanize your professors, the leadership team, and so on. I had that opportunity." She continues, "I think that has had a big impact in terms of me being more experienced in dealing with peers and senior executives to create a vision and then galvanize that vision."

“We’ve seen a really high ROI off of the great people recruited from Kellogg.”

Having access to opportunities to develop such tangible skills is something both Gibson and Smithburg experienced as students and have witnessed in Kellogg recruits. It's also exactly what Oblak and Wayfair are emphasizing and expanding upon through the experiential e-commerce course they designed alongside Chernoff.

The hands-on course enables teams to develop a fully functioning e-commerce site while targeting consumers, setting prices and promotions, and developing marketing and messaging. For Wayfair, the class is an academic endeavor designed to stimulate interest in e-commerce as a career among students. It works well to simulate real-world experience in the classroom at Kellogg, though, because the culture of collaboration is already imbedded in the community.

"Because Kellogg is so team-focused and diverse, it helps you understand a lot of different viewpoints and how to basically work across people who have different ways of seeing things to arrive at the right outcome," says Oblak. "So the class is a great example of the forward-thinking collaboration Wayfair is looking to build with Kellogg."

Another key trait that Smithburg says he can count on from Kellogg graduates is motivation. Though private equity can be a lucrative industry, he says that money as a motivator is the prime reason for burnout. There has to be a deeper desire. For him, that was making a difference in the healthcare industry.

“We need that utility player who can add analytical rigor and disciplined project management skills. Given that, it’s totally deliberate that we hire from Kellogg.”

"I always wanted to be in healthcare in some shape or form since having a kidney transplant in 1995," he reasons. "For me, being a doctor was not an option, but I was always interested in business. So investing in healthcare companies and helping them grow is a way for me to be able to give back and pay my debts in some way by helping create a better healthcare system for other people."

Smithburg knows that everyone operates under different incentives, but he can count on Kellogg students to have at least considered these incentives deeply. And he can count on their ambition. "At the end of the day this is a really great opportunity for anyone who wants to be on a path to becoming a CEO one day, so it's a great fit for a Kellogg student," he says of the role at Shore Capital.

Gibson also brings up the merits of recognizing diverse motivating factors when discussing Kellogg recruits. "I think people just don't take the time to really understand people and what motivates them," she says. "That was a big lesson that I remember having hammered home when I was at Kellogg, and it's something that allowed me to have really strong connections across multiple groups and functions. It's allowed me to drive a lot of success with my team and allowed them to get promoted and move to different opportunities that are best for them."

While this conducive cycle of alumni reaching back to Kellogg to recruit new employees is mutually beneficial, Kirkpatrick believes most alumni participate for a slightly more sincere reason: because it just feels good.

"Oftentimes alumni reach out to us not because it's their job, but because of the community and their positive experience here and we greatly value that," she says.

Perhaps there has never been a more apt time for alumni to engage their alma mater in recruitment. As Oblak stressed when he spoke to the e-commerce and marketing class, scaling a business in an era of rapidly changing technology and global developments requires a willingness to take risks, embrace humility and continue improving—all traits exemplified when Kellogg alumni recruit other alumni.

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