Kellogg World Alumni Magazine, Spring 2003Kellogg School of Management
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A silver lining in a bleak economy
Career management only gets more important during a downturn. That’s why when the market went down, these students geared up

By Kari Richardson

Joanna Shebson
Joanna Shebson's creative approach to job hunting was the frosting on the cake.
Photos ©2003 Nathan Mandell

It was under sunnier economic skies that Jey Iyempandi and other members of the Class of 2003 temporarily decided to exit the work force to earn their MBA degrees at the Kellogg School.

When Iyempandi and his peers return to the market after graduation this June, they’ll likely find that soaring stocks and record profits continue to be replaced by a sluggish market and lowered expectations. It’s a business environment that’s perhaps more challenging than the one they remember — a landscape pitted by mergers, consolidations and layoffs, and an environment in which job offers are extended more cautiously than before.

For Iyempandi, a Master of Management and Manufacturing student who worked for Ford Motor Co. in India before beginning his course work at Kellogg, a job hunt in the post-bubble economy led the way to Dell Computer Corp. — one of the few companies that consistently has managed to beat expectations in a difficult environment. After a three-month stint as an operations intern last summer, Iyempandi in January accepted a full-time offer with the company to begin after graduation.

“It’s an amazingly well-run company,” he says. “The culture is really fast. You go into a meeting and people would say, ‘Can we do this at 4 p.m.?’”

To prepare for his first-round interview, Iyempandi queried Kellogg grads who work at the Austin, Texas-based firm about company culture, then traveled to another state to meet a recruiter on a lunch break from a scouting trip because the firm wasn’t visiting campus this year. Spurred by warnings from the Kellogg School Career Management Center (CMC) that the job market was more difficult than usual, Iyempandi says he began an independent job search earlier than he otherwise would and was prepared to go the distance to land an interview with a company he really cared about. Still, he wasn’t about to let challenging conditions define him.

“I knew that the overall economy was bad, but I wasn’t deterred by that,” Iyempandi says. “Dell is a big company — they can’t just shut their doors. I knew I had to be really prepared.”

Call it turning lemons into lemonade or finding the silver lining in cloudy economic skies. Kellogg students and career counselors have adapted to the more challenging conditions the economy has presented by stepping up the pace of their job hunts and opening their eyes to previously unseen options. Some even say the conditions have had positive effects on the career choices students make by helping them to refine their strategies to achieve their ultimate goals.

“It makes students think about things they would normally think about later in their careers,” says Karie Davis, CMC associate director. “I’ve talked with a lot of students about building a strategy. If you can’t get where you ultimately want to go right after graduation, let’s talk about how you can get there in a couple of steps. Let’s talk about Plan B. You need a Plan B in any economy, because if you don’t have one, you set yourself up for a fall.”

Emphasis on traditional skills
New realities in the job market have placed extra emphasis on traditional job-hunting skills such as interviewing and networking — skills CMC counselors say will help students for the rest of their careers. Davis, who says many people have a negative view of networking, likes to tell students she landed her job at Kellogg, in part, through connections she forged. An experienced career counseling professional, Davis learned of the job through a friend of a friend.

Jey Iyempandi
Jey Iyempandi used persistence to capture a job at Dell.

“It’s a great story because it so clearly illustrates the serendipity behind networking. You really can’t go into the process thinking you know who your good leads are because guess what? You don’t. It’s not necessarily going to be the senior vice president or the dean. It could be someone on the support staff.”

Second-year student Mark Hamachek, who completed a summer internship at IBM last year, is no stranger to the value of networking. Hamachek hit the phones hard over holiday break, dialing up contacts at Recreational Equipment Inc. and Starbucks Coffee because he likes the products they make and wanted to explore job opportunities there. He also scheduled meetings with local venture capitalists in his hometown of Seattle to understand the small business opportunities that exist there.

“It’s amazing how many responses you get when you pick up the phone,” says Hamachek. But he admits making the calls wasn’t easy.

Hamachek, whose goal is to run a small company or own a business one day, says a tougher job market has helped him zero in on his long-term goals. He’s eyeing a marketing position in a medium-sized company as a way to develop expertise he can tap in the coming years.

“This is a tough economy and it’s making people think about what they want to do and how they want to get there. That’s what happened over the past three years — people could just do it,” he says, adding that young professionals who looked for jobs in the heady boom days of the 1990s sometimes faced difficulty sorting through all the opportunities for their true calling.

Hamachek took advantage of on-campus recruiting in his job search — and may ultimately accept an offer from one of those firms — but says he researched companies that visited campus just as closely as those he contacted in his independent job search.

Helping students help themselves
While it’s true that more students are looking beyond the boundaries of campus these days to find full-time employment after graduation, independent searches have always been an important part of the job-hunt for MBA students, says Roxanne Hori, assistant dean and director of the CMC. During the dot-com heyday, students who opted for high-tech employment needed to pursue off-campus leads, she says, because many start-ups and small technology firms couldn’t afford to hit the road to recruit new employees.

“So the misperception that you didn’t have to know how to look for a job is really just that — a misperception,” Hori says. “There was certainly an abundance of opportunities that could have been gotten much more easily back then than today, but in the end, people needed those skills in a boom time as much as they do now. If somebody wanted a job in tech, an independent job search was really the primary way to get it.”

Mark Hamachek
Mark Hamachek went to the basics of networking and research in his career quest.  

As the economy tightened, CMC staff held tight to the basics of the job search, with a few differences. Most notable was when a group of Kellogg School deans last year volunteered to follow up with students who hadn’t yet accepted a job offer as graduation neared. Hori says the idea, which the deans came up with on their own, arose out of a need to help students, even if the assistance was simply touching base with them.

“No other school did anything like that,” she says. “It’s still a novelty. People still ask me questions about that.”

That helping hand may have been enough to lift Kellogg to the top of the rankings in placement statistics. Three months after graduation, some 91 percent of 2002 grads had job offers.

Kellogg also is unique in that the director of its career center, Hori, sees students in one-on-one counseling appointments. She spends about 50 percent of her time this way. “Students know that they can come to me,” she says. “My boss, Dean Jain, keeps an open door policy himself, so I’d be hard-pressed not to.”

Davis adds that another item high on the CMC agenda is forging relationships with new companies. CMC staff take advantage of university breaks to research and pay visits to companies that haven’t previously recruited at Kellogg.

And along with broad, far-reaching workshops that advise students on the basics of the post-MBA job hunt, the CMC has begun offering targeted, “brush-up” sessions that pinpoint areas of interest to students. Recent examples include workshops on researching companies and staying motivated in the job search. CMC staff cull topics for the specialized review sessions from subjects that arise frequently in their interactions with students.

“A lot of what we’re doing is helping our students adjust their expectations a bit, to be realistic and to support them in the career changes they want to make by giving them ideas,” Davis says. “The students here are amazing, but it can be overwhelming, particularly for first-year students who are trying to adjust. They’re making new friends, they’re away from home, and oh, by the way — job search. It’s a lot to take on.”

Taking a fresh approach
When Joanna Shebson began her studies at the Kellogg School in 2001, she was fairly certain of the type of career she wanted afterwards. With a background in marketing, she hoped to remain in the field, but was looking for a toy company where she could hone her skills.

It’s didn’t take long for Shebson to find the ideal place for a summer internship: a Chicago company called Learning Curve International Inc. that makes a line of toys for infants called Lamaze and owns well-known brands such as Thomas the Tank Engine. The company earned rave reviews from the Kellogg alums with whom Shebson consulted, but there was one problem — they weren’t hiring.

“I was told they didn’t have a budget to have an intern,” Shebson recalls. “They’d already committed to another intern and they weren’t interested. But I decided this was definitely the company I wanted to work for because of the products and the environment there.”

Shebson was convinced the company was a place where she could leverage her marketing acumen, so she decided to try another approach. She and a friend visited a toy store where the friend snapped a picture of her in front of a display of Lamaze and Thomas the Tank Engine products. Shebson then had the image frosted on to a large sheet cake and sent it to Learning Curve, along with her résumé and a list of 10 project ideas she developed.

In sugary icing, the cake spelled out a question: “Joanna, your future summer intern?”

“The whole point of this was, ‘I’m very interested in toys and marketing, I’ve got a strong background from Kellogg, and this is a place that I want to work,’” Shebson says.

In a matter of hours, Learning Curve’s vice president of marketing sent Shebson a message of her own: “You take the cake, girlfriend. Never before have I seen something so creative and eye-catching. How did you know my two favorite things are chocolate cake and great project ideas?”

Shebson ended up getting the job, as well as a paycheck for her work last summer — even though she was willing to go without one in order to learn something new. As part of her internship, she had the chance to implement some of her project ideas as she created a focus group of moms for the company and streamlined a program of in-store retail promotions.

She is the first to admit she may not have pursued the Learning Curve internship so strongly under different economic conditions.

“In the end, this was the right place for me, so I’m happy it worked out the way it did,” she says.

©2002 Kellogg School of Management, Northwestern University