Deans’ First Jobs: From Washing Dishes To Selling Hot Dogs

Rice Dean Peter Rodriguez

“I mowed lawns when I was younger, but my first real job was as a lifeguard at 16 at the city pool. It was fascinating to be in charge of something important. In charge of their safety and cleanliness and time; kids were there all day all summer. It was also my first teaching job. Every morning, we taught swim lessons. I had toddlers and water babies. It’s stressful because some of them love the pool and want to jump into the deep end. And others were petrified and didn’t want to go in at all. And then you learn that you’re really working for the parents.

It was all about communications. Coaxing someone to do something and communicating hard messages. Do not run on the pool deck, you’ll fall. Do not jump into the deep end, you can’t swim. Trust me, I won’t let go of you. There was a lot of back and forth with a lot of different personalities. You were working in tense situations and trying to keep parents from getting too involved. There were kids who cried nonstop and others who ran away and jumped in. And then parents who wanted to be there every step of the way. It was good preparation for being a dean.”

– Peter Rodriguez, Rice University (Jones)

Dean Geoffrey Garrett


“I left university administration in LA to become CEO of a small not-for-profit 501c3 organization doing great work in international affairs – the west coast analog of the Council on Foreign Relations. It was not-for-profit, but it was a real business: fiduciary board, annual tax return and audit, and the staff of about 20 people relying on the organization (and above all me) to raise enough money every year through gifts and grants to pay their salaries. Having to let people go because we couldn’t afford their salaries was miles away from the stability of rich private universities.”

 – Geoffrey Garrett, Wharton School


Nasdaq CEO Adena Friedman with Owen Dean Eric Johnson at this year’s commencement

“I started my business career in sales, working for Corvette America Inc. At the time, it was a rapidly growing supplier of parts and accessories for Corvettes. Given the fiberglass construction of the old ‘vettes, the cars didn’t rust, making them idea renovation targets. Corvette enthusiasts are among the most dedicated, seeking to restore their cars from the 1950s and 60s to exact, pristine condition.  Corvette America had both retail and wholesale customers, selling both to hot-rod shops and end users.  A pre-web company, sales were almost entirely phone-based.  I was a Corvette nut myself, so I started working at Corvette American to help fund a restoration project of my own 1968 stingray convertible.

Throughout college, I slowly worked my way up the sales ladder, eventually leading the sales team at 22 as director of sales. All seven sales representatives on my team were older than I – some twice my age.  We had just landed Corvette America onto Inc Magazine’s top 100 fastest-growing companies, and my job contributed to that growth.

Every few hours, I would update a large whiteboard in the saleroom with the sales of each representative. I loved the simple focus of hitting the numbers and driving the competitive atmosphere of the room. I quickly learned the value of metrics and incentives. But I also learned that incentives could lead to less-constructive behavior. Often times, when sales representatives hit key benchmarks that defined their bonus, they would start hiding orders – saving them for the next day.  Crammed into a small room, you would hear them lower their voices as they talked with customers, scratching small notes to themselves. The next day, a pile of invoices would appear, overloading the warehouse and leading to late shipments — classic sales behavior and an important lesson in management!”

– M. Eric Johnson, Vanderbilt University (Owen)

Dean Scott Beardsley


“My first job was picking blackberries at age 10 in Maine that I would sell at the local supermarket. Then, my jobs morphed into shoveling driveways and mowing lawns in Alaska. I had my own landscaping business that helped me pay my way through college. I delivered pizzas. I delivered newspapers. In college at Tufts University, I was a TA who taught physics and a fundraiser for the advancement office. After college, my first job was in Silicon Valley, working in strategic sales for a semiconductor company called Advanced Micro Devices.  Overall I learned that there are many ways to make money, but that it all starts with hard work and being customer centric.”

– Scott Beardsley, University of Virginia (Darden)


Dean Tiff Macklem

“I got my first management job because I was good at solving problems. I solved a lot of my bosses problems, so when she got promoted, they gave me her job. I led my new group of six people by example. I was enthusiastic and positive. But a year in, half my group was floundering. The problem seemed clear: half of my group were low performers.

What I discovered was that I was most of the problem. I did not understand what half my group expected, what motivated them, or what they found easy or difficult. When I finally listened, I discovered not everyone was like me; members of the group had different interests, talents and ways of communicating.

Looking back, I still feel badly for the first group I managed — there is a reason they start you off managing a small group!  What I learned is you have to listen before you lead.”

– Tiff Macklem, University of Toronto (Rotman)


Dean Scott DeRue


“My first job in business was loading and unloading rolls of upholstery fabric from semi-trucks. One truckload would take all day, and the rolls of fabric weighed nearly as much as I did. I was 13. I learned three things from this job. First, I learned that every person in an organization matters. Second, I learned about taxes. Third, I learned that I did not want to load and unload rolls of fabric as my next job.”

– Scott DeRue, University of Michigan (Ross)


* Go to next page for the first “real” jobs from deans at Stanford, Texas, Duke, Notre Dame, Minnesota, and Emory.

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