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2018 Best MBAs: Kathryn Bernell, Northwestern University (Kellogg)

Kathryn Bernell

Northwestern University, Kellogg School of Management

(Earning dual degree with the McCormick School of Engineering at Northwestern through the MMM program).

All-around adventurer who’s strikingly passionate and deeply committed to overhauling our broken food system.

Age: 29

Hometown: Houston, TX

Fun fact about yourself: I competed competitively in debate all throughout middle school, high school, and college.

Undergraduate School and Degree: The University of Denver, BSBA

Where did you work before enrolling in business school? Clif Bar Customer Manager:

Managing the sales plan for conventional, natural, drug, and distributor customers; directing retail sales teams in 100+ stores; building digital asset strategies and customer on-boarding programs for the E-Commerce channel; managing over $3MM in trade; building accrual database to forecast promotional spend; launching internally and external supported product audits; overseeing new product launches within the club channel.

Where did you intern during the summer of 2017? Starbucks, Seattle

Where will you be working after graduation? I am pursuing reBLEND, my startup that I launched during my MBA, full time as CEO/Founder.

Community Work and Leadership Roles in Business School:

Elected: Food and Agribusiness Group (President, Founder of FOODx conference), Project Impact (Fellow), Kellogg Entrepreneurship Organization (Entrepreneur in Residence & Venture Competition 1st place winner, VentureCat B2C 2nd place, Northwestern Pitch Competition 2nd place), MMM Student Executive Board (Director), The Garage at Northwestern (Entrepreneur in Residence), Zell Fellow, TEDx Northwestern 2018 Speaker, Youn Impact Scholar

Clubs: Innovation and Design Association (Case competition finalist), Kellogg Marketing Club

Founding: reBLEND, single-serve frozen smoothie cubes crafted with ‘misunderstood’ fruits and vegetables that give you back the time and fuel you need to better win your day!

Which academic or extracurricular achievement are you most proud of during business school? I launched a conference that is now an annual event, called FOODx, last year. When I arrived at Kellogg, I joined the somewhat nascent Food and Agribusiness Group. The group struggled with generating broad-range engagement from students and lacked an annual event for non-members to rally around. Furthermore, especially in the midst of recruiting, I witnessed my peers looking at the food space through the lenses of brand management/CPG; there is so much going on in the space outside large CPG, and I felt it was critical to highlight these touchpoints across industries and domains.

I developed a TEDx style template, invited speakers that discussed innovation in 6 different food related segments: The VC landscape, online meal delivery, new retail formats, sustainability consulting, the cannabis industry, and integrating new food products in the healthcare space. Our team obtained cross-club partnerships, corporate sponsors, and support from the broader Kellogg community. The event was sold-out and demonstrated the wider interest students have in the food world.

FOODx is going to continue each year with a new theme, and this year it is Food & Ag Tech: The Future of our Food System. I think this is my proudest accomplishment, as FOODx is bringing students together around a common theme: how can we continue to evolve and change the way the food system operates.

What achievement are you most proud of in your professional career? Growing up, I witnessed some of the strongest women in my life fight fiercely to survive their battles with breast cancer and found that my ability to take ownership of my own odds mattered intensely, not just for me, but for all women who could be helped by proactive prevention efforts.

In 2014, I became intimately involved with The Breast Cancer Fund, an organization that actively seeks to further research, advocacy, and education on the role that prevention has on cancer incidence. In fundraising over $11K for the organization for a three-day mountaineering trek, I recognized that the BCF wasn’t reaching women my own age, the women who could benefit most from lifestyle changes; their largest Facebook demographic resided in women ages 35 to 44. As I spoke about my training and fundraising efforts to friends, I saw the smart educated women who did pilates and drank their green juice fall flat around their awareness on the topic of prevention. This was the basis for my work in launching a national workshop series that specifically targeted millennial women with information to prevent exposure to toxic chemicals in cosmetics linked to cancer incidence.

I remain relentless optimistic that the tables can be turned on cancer, and view my involvement in the natural product space as a key to doing this. There is so much power in understanding the impact of our daily decisions on our overall well-being, and being able to impart this ability onto others is what gets me up in the morning.

What was your favorite MBA Course? My most impactful course was New Venture Development with Professor Rick Desai. Rick drastically shifted the way I think about entrepreneurship and my understanding of ‘risk taking.’ Rick’s philosophy is that great entrepreneurs aren’t actually big risk takers, but rather excellent ‘scientists.’ Our class was structured around learning how to identify key assumptions built into a business model and the methodology and approaches to test these assumptions. Rick continues to be a close mentor and advisor, and is someone I immensely respect inside and outside the classroom. This course ultimately altered my views on entrepreneurship and encouraged me to move forward with a business I am passionate about.

Why did you choose this business school? The MMM program. I was at a cross-section in my career wherein I knew I wanted to pursue a career in the food space that enabled me to spend more time on ‘white-space’ projects. After learning about the curriculum, experiential learning opportunities, and MMM community at-large, I knew this is where I wanted to be.

What is your best piece advice to an applicant hoping to get into your school’s MBA program? Know what excites you prior to beginning the application process. I knew I was driven to change the broken food system and this passion guided how I thought about programs and communities I wanted to pursue. I didn’t know exactly what role I wanted after my MBA, and I think that’s fine, but having a filter around my industry domain has allowed me to best use my time while in school.

Which MBA classmate do you most admire? Only one? My peers never cease to amaze me with their passions, drive, and willingness to give back to those around them. However, if I had to choose only one classmate, it would have to be Mia Velasquez. Mia is that rare individual you seldom see not only invest herself in every activity and project, but also someone that excels in everything she does. Mia is a leader in the Personal Wellness club and is constantly investing her time and energy into the well-being of those around her.

What impresses me most about Mia, is her ability to cultivate community. Mia seamlessly combines her love to bring people together alongside her deep commitment to those in her life and is always the first person to set up events and experiences that have cultivated a richer Kellogg community during my time here. Mia has even gone so far as to develop an online event planning app for Kellogg to better facilitate payment processing for group events.

I have no doubt that Mia will continue to be a force in the lives of everyone she touches in the next chapter of her life as well.

Who most influenced your decision to pursue business in college? When I was in high school, I quite frankly did not want to go to college; I had dreamed of going straight to culinary school and bypassing college entirely. This clearly is the last thing any father wants to hear from his 16-year-old daughter. With a firm hand, I opted to pursue a Hotel Restaurant Tourism Management degree. Halfway through the program, I realized I did not in fact want to be in restaurants, but that I loved the food space. I moved into R&D roles with companies like Panera and Pei Wei, marketing internships with companies like popchips and McDonalds and shortly after graduating, I landed what I had deemed to be the dream job at Clif Bar.

It was the dream job for that period of time, however as I continued to explore my contributions to the teams I was working on, I began to see a trending interest towards the ‘white space’ projects and opportunities to build out new programs or systems. I started shadowing members of the innovation team and soon realized that this was a team that I too wanted to be a part of. Everyone on the team had their MBA, and at that time, I started thinking about the prospect of obtaining my own MBA too. My mentor, the VP of Innovation, extended the support and guidance around exploring what my career could look like outside the role I was in at that time. Our conversations motivated me to think broader and bigger. As I started thinking bigger, I identified that an MBA (specifically the MMM program) would enable me to target the type of work I was drawn to.

Little did I realize that I would be moving into an entrepreneurial role, graduating with my own startup, but that’s the beauty of this place and the experience of stretching yourself through the program.

If I hadn’t gone to business school, I would be…at culinary school; I know that I would still be working to shape the way people eat, but I imagine that my reach and impact would be at a significantly smaller scale.”

What are the top two items on your bucket list? 

  • Hiking around Patagonia before taking the voyage to Antarctica to go ice climbing and skiing amongst penguins
  • I am petrified of heights, but had booked a trip to climb to Norway’s Kjerag this past summer. For months, I prepped myself for the big step onto a rock that stood thousands of feet above a Fjord. When the moment came (4 attempts later), I successfully made my way onto the central rock before my fear took over. I ultimately was only able to scoot myself onto the rock, but didn’t get up into a standing position. I’m not yet done with conquering my fear and Kjerag and I plan to go back and make it on the rock with both feet in the future!

In one sentence, how would you like your peers to remember you? The person who deeply cared: about the people she surrounds herself with, the impact she makes on the world around her, and the role she has in motivating others to take a leap of faith in themselves.

What is your favorite movie about business? Joy. Seeing Joy Mangano’s story unfold on the big screen gave me immense inspiration in my own abilities to fight against the grain and to reject the temptation to give up when all signs signal that I should.

What would your theme song be? “We Don’t Have to Be Ordinary” by Something in the Night. I think I’ve always felt the fire to push myself beyond ordinary towards the goals I have in-store; sometimes this has required me to chart my own path or drive myself into the realm of discomfort. Channeling the confidence to push myself has required me to constantly challenge my fears around ‘what them people say,’ and the reality that taking ‘your shot might be scary,’ but to me, that’s what life’s all about.

Favorite vacation spot: Copenhagen. Each time I visit, I always find myself taken by the art galleries and exhibits at the Louisiana Museum. Peddling around the incredibly well designed city and venturing into cafés brimming with delicious worldly cuisines always get me. I’m Celiac and 6 years ago during my first visit, I found a bakery that makes the most insane seed nut loaf. I generally make a point of scoping out the best gluten free bakeries when I travel, and qualify this one as the best of the best. My reviews were so glowing, that one of my classmates returned back to school with a loaf of this bread after his break!

Hobbies?I am currently launching a startup that sources misshapen and misunderstood produce in crafting delicious functional smoothies. As a result, I spend quite a bit of time in the kitchen concocting new recipes and products. Prior to Kellogg, you could find me hiking new trails with my dog over the weekends, but have settled on long walks now that I am in the Midwest.

What made Kathryn such an invaluable addition to the class of 2018?

“Kathryn arrived on campus like a determined breeze. By the time the second week of the fall quarter of her first year, Kathryn was launching herself as a social entrepreneur, planning her path, and gleaning wisdom from faculty and alumni. From the very start, Kathryn has distinguished herself as an engaged student and agile innovator. It is rare that we see an early-stage entrepreneur so willing to explore, learn and pivot as Kathryn has proven herself over the past two years.

Kathryn is a refreshing combination of bright, determined, connected and concerned. When her entrepreneurial path has run into brambles, she’s navigated through. When products needed shifting, she shifted. Most importantly, Kathryn centers social and environmental impact in every choice she makes for her growing enterprise. In addition to being a stellar student and successful social entrepreneur, Kathryn is one of those students who always says “yes” when anyone in the Kellogg academic family needs anything from her. Help out as a judge for first-year students pithing their innovation ideas? Yes. Speak on a panel of Kellogg entrepreneurs? Yes. Kathryn is community-minded, innovative and determined. She’s the epitome of a Kellogg student.”

Megan Kashner ‘03
Assistant Clinical Professor, Kellogg Public-Private Interface
Director of Social Impact

DON’T MISS: THE ENTIRE LIST OF THE BEST & BRIGHTEST: CLASS OF 2018