Wharton Women powerfully entered the new year with the annual Wharton Women Business Conference on January 24, 2017. This conference was held on the 8th floor of Huntsman Hall and centered around the theme of “Breaking Barriers.”
At the conference, keynote speakers Kat Cole and Erika Karp told personal stories and lessons and empowered us to be bold in launching our careers. We also enjoyed hearing an inspiring panel session with Wharton Professor Katherine Milkman, Johnson & Johnson professional Aileen Stockburger, and young entrepreneur Caroline Beckman.
The conference began with an energizing presentation by Kat Cole, the former President of Cinnabon and the current President of FOCUS Brands which runs six big-brand companies: Cinnabon, Auntie Anne’s, Moe’s, Schlotzsky’s, McAllister’s, and Carvel. We were all amazed by Kat’s outstanding leadership in the business world at such a young age. Fortune Magazine was too as they selected her as one of their 40 under 40.
Kat told the story of how she began her career as a waitress at Hooters. She was working her normal job when one evening, the chefs all walked out of the kitchen. Kat was faced with a tough decision: should she try cooking the food herself or close the restaurant for the night? She was not trained to cook or make food, but she decided to give it a shot and set to work in the kitchen. She said was propelled to do this for three reasons: she did not want to forfeit that night’s income, she wanted to help the customers, and she wanted to learn a new skill.
After that, Kat never shied away from taking on new tasks, whether it was working in the kitchen or cleaning the bathrooms. Her managers noticed her hard work and willingness to take on new responsibilities, so she was promoted up through the company. She began leading teams to open Hooters chains in new countries from Australia to South America. She became a Vice President at age 26. Her motivation to succeed was propelled by her personal qualities of being self-driving, always learning, and desiring to help others.
When Kat became the President of Cinnabon, the company was failing. Half of the franchises had been owned by a dishonest businessman and sold to naive buyers through false advertising. At the corporate level, company leaders were working to design a new low-calorie bun that Kat knew would not increase sales as much as they thought. Meanwhile, the economic downturn and decrease in overall retail sales created macro issues that affected Cinnabon. Despite all these signs of failure, Kat was willing to step into the mess and handle Cinnabon’s many complex situations with dignity, grace, compassion, and thoughtfulness. She was able to turn the company around and triple the EBITDA in three years.
Kat shared her words of wisdom: “The darker the situation, the brighter the light you are going to shine.” As a group of young women in business school preparing to launch our careers, we were so empowered by this message.
Next, the panel of three outstanding women from various careers shed light on many relevant questions. Young Entrepreneur Caroline Beckman was the former founding employee of Suja Juice which partnered with Coca-Cola in 2015. After the Coca-Cola deal, she decided to launch a new venture called Nomva which sells a line of probiotic smoothies. Her advice to us was to “go for the unique.” We were inspired by Caroline to think entrepreneurially and take risks.
Aileen Stockburger is the Worldwide Vice President of Business Development for the DePuy Synthes group of Johnson & Johnson. She has led an incredible professional career and has broken many glass ceilings as a businesswoman in a traditionally male-dominated industry. Her advice to us was to reach out to mentors who do not think like you and ask for their advice and perspective.
Professor Katherine Milkman teaches in the OIDD Department at the Wharton School and shared with us some of her fascinating research findings on decision making. In thinking about building teams and finding partners, she urged us to be fearless and ask people who are at the top of their game to be on your team.
Erika Karp ended the conference with a closing keynote session on impact investing. She is the Founder and CEO of Cornerstone Capital which practices sustainable investing. We learned from her that it is important to not strive to be successful, but rather strive to be valuable.
The amazing speakers at the Wharton Women Business Conference all empowered us to be courageous as we step into the business world and continue to break barriers!
Written by Julia Bache (W’ 19).