Kelly Goldsmith is not one to back down from a challenge. She’s hauled wooden carts across the Kenyan savannah, flirted with starvation and dehydration, and even tipped back shots of cow’s blood. It may sound extreme, but it’s all part of the game–if you’re a contestant on “Survivor: Africa,” that is. In 2001, Goldsmith, who was 21 at the time, competed in the reality TV show’s third season, where she was the eighth competitor to get voted out.
Thirteen years later, Kelly Goldsmith is no longer scouting for food or concerned about forming strategic tribal alliances. Rather, she’s focused on helping her students at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management master Research Methods in Marketing. But she does see some parallels with her past: “Survivor’s” Lord-of-the-Flies dynamics taught the charismatic instructor a thing or two about human interaction and fed her interest in interpersonal dynamics–a subject she still finds fascinating to this day.
That passion trickles over into her classroom, where her enthusiasm and wit-laced lectures earned her a nomination for Kellogg’s 2013 Outstanding Professor of the Year Award. When she started teaching at age 30, Goldsmith was barely older than many of her students. “There was definitely a lot of curiosity about who she was as a person … from a student perspective you wonder, ‘Wow, this person is closer in age to me than their peers.’ So I think we might have been more critical,” says Jessica Chung who took Goldsmith’s first class in 2010. “But Kelly was great … it was a very natural fit for her. She has a great animated way of speaking, so it’s very engaging. It’s very hard to be bored in her classroom.”
Goldsmith recalls “white-knuckling the podium” in her first class, but says she has since learned to let lectures flow more naturally by building interactive lessons around students’ experiences. “The more I teach, the more I give myself permission to have fun with the class, to really let the course organically emerge as we go through the content … It’s all about the way you tell the story, and so letting us tell the story together and learning to have fun in class, that’s the direction I’m trying to continue to move in,” she says.
The young professor has a solid example to follow; her father, the renowned public speaker Marshall Goldsmith, coaches executive leaders and has published multiple books on management. “He’s an incredible storyteller, and I think having been exposed to that throughout my life–it’s just a high bar, and it makes it intimidating for me to go into teaching because I’ve been raised by, I would venture to say, one of the best teachers in the world … but we’re a little bit irreverent as a family and we’re not afraid of a challenge or hard work, and I couldn’t resist the challenge to sort of follow in my dad’s footsteps–at least a little bit.”
Both of her parents also hold PhDs. “I was raised to think that everybody got their PhD when they grew up … I really was very indoctrinated in that way of thinking,” she recalls. But Goldmsith gravitated toward marketing of her own accord. “I’m one of the people who just really enjoys understanding what influences the decisions that other people make,” she says. The San Diego native followed her early interest in consumer decisions to the East Coast, where she completed her PhD in marketing at Yale University.
Despite her penchant for people, Goldsmith digs the analytical side of marketing too. “I’m a total data nerd at the end of the day; I love doing data analysis,” she says. “So it’s neat for me to be able to preach the gospel of data to a new generation who may not have any experience doing their own data analyses,” she says. Currently, her research focuses on consumer goals, consumer judgment, and decision making; her work has been published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology and the Journal of Marketing Research.
That expertise carries over to the classroom, according to Matt Kambic, who completed Goldsmith’s course in 2013. “Kelly is an expert at what she does; she lives and breathes her work, and it comes through in the class,” he points out. “I used to consider marketing as a really fluffy subject, and I honestly thought after I signed up that it would be one of my least favorite classes … it was one of my top three classes at Kellogg, and Kelly is the reason why,” he adds. Beyond the curriculum, Goldsmith is known for her ready humor and quirky stories, such as regaling students with a funny anecdote about a fad diet and incorporating clips of her Survivor stint in an end-of-year video.
Goldsmith treats her students as discerning consumers. She’s meticulous about updating the class syllabus, fact-checking lecture slides, and hole punching handouts. “If you get too in your head, it’s easy to forget that you’re in a professional services business, you are providing a service. The sacrifice and opportunity cost for students is very high, so they rationally have high expectations when it comes to crossing the T’s and dotting the I’s … I’m able to be a better instructor by reminding myself that they are the customer. They deserved a polished package,” she says.
Outside the classroom, Goldsmith is known for scheduling lunches with her students and attending their extracurricular events. She also maintains close ties with alumni. “I graduated in 2011, and it’s 2014 now, and I’ve definitely kept in touch with her,” Chung says. “She’s someone I can easily email; she’s come to Minneapolis before, and we’ve met up …. she’ll be somebody in my contact book for many, many years.”