Kellogg’s New MBA Gatekeeper: Gatorade’s Kate Smith

So what caused you to leave Corporate America and return to Kellogg?

Ten years into PepsiCo, I came to a crossroads of personal reflection on what I think of as the chapters of my life. I asked myself what do I want the next chapter of my life to be. Do I want to just keep going? Do I want to rise within a major organization, continuing to build businesses and brands? Or am I at a point where I would like to pursue something else? I don’t know if there was a trigger or simply the desire to take the energy, the passion and the skills I’ve built and put those against something with more meaning.  All the energy and time I’m now spending is going to have more significant impact on people’s lives.

What triggered this moment of self-reflection is that when I was a student here I thought I might some day like to return and work here. The funny part of the story is that when you come to an intersection in your career and ask yourself how to identify what’s next, one of the first people you call is Roxanne Hori. I’ve had a relationship with her since I was here as a student. As a Kellogg alum, I recruited MBAs for my entire 14 years in the CPG business. I’ve been responsible for talent development and evaluation. So there are threads here that are obvious connector points, but you pick up the phone and say, ‘Roxanne, let’s go to dinner. I’m at this point when I want to kick the tires and talk to you about my future.’ I go to have dinner with Roxanne and there unfolds the benefits of being a Kellogg alum. Our Career Management Center services are for life. It’s an amazing part of the Kellogg experience.

I came away from that dinner thinking I wanted to go back and work at Kellogg. I did do additional self-reflection to help me confirm that this would be a wise choice. But I still remembered that when I walked the halls here as a student I felt that I might want to be here one day.

Was there a magical moment for you as a Kellogg student that really helped to drive you back to the school?

I’d say it was the total experience. If you go to one moment, they are all formative and additive. I don’t feel there was a transformational moment. I feel the two years was the transformation. What I love about Kellogg is the diversity in the student population and the experience. I grew up in Minnesota. I went to the University of Illinois, and I came to the big city of Chicago. Then, I came to Kellogg and the world came to me. And I went on and became much more aware of what was going on outside the Midwest because of my Kellogg experience. So it was transformative for me in terms of my view of the world and my understanding of business.

Interestingly, I had an undergraduate business degree so I qualified for what was then called the four-quarter program at the time. And I looked hard at which one I should pursue. Because I knew I wanted a career change, the two-year program was the obvious choice. I would have a better chance of getting into marketing with the summer internship, which was completely a proof point. Lucky for me, I came out in a boom era where the offers were everywhere. It was a very easy transition because of what Kellogg provides and I was well equipped to make that change.

I now get to talk to perspective students who have dreams as well as the current students who are here experiencing what I went through years ago. There is an energy in this place that I cannot compare to other schools but it’s unparalleled. That life changing conversation thread is the same conversation for almost every student and alum.

What I knew about Kellogg when I applied and what is still relevant today is that it is the number one school for marketing. It has a highly collaborative culture that values the contributions of every student and provides so many leadership opportunities outside the classroom. At all these top schools, you’re going to be well educated. You’re going to walk out well equipped to go on and be successful in a business career. But to me it was Kellogg was a 360-degree experience. When I evaluated which school to go to for undergrad, the best piece of advice my parents gave me was to evaluate the schools on three areas: the academic experience, the athletic experience, and the social, outside-the-class experience. I applied the same principles as I looked at graduate school. I can still name every member of my first team group from all over the world.

Typically, when a corporate type comes into an admissions role at a university, they are almost always HR (human resources) people. You’re an exception because you’re a marketer. So what gives?

I floored most people when I did this. They said ‘huh?’ So after my conversation with Roxanne, Sally then went and hired Betsy (Ziegler, a former McKinsey partner who is associate dean of MBA programs and dean of students). So now you’re telling me the opportunity to make this transition exists. So then I was thinking, ‘Wow, I could work with a McKinsey partner at Kellogg. I’m going to get challenge and growth and the opportunity to be a member of a phenomenal team. We have a magic equation in insuring the type of person we want here and yet no other school has followed. I had a ten-school group meeting last week and every single one of them asked me if I were going to continue to interview every applicant. Of course, we are. It’s a very important element to what we do.

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