Rising to the Top

Thursday, April 23, 2015

A visit with some of the Carlson School’s women alumni who are making big strides in the business world.

Like mother, like daughter

While LeAnn Trousil was taking night school classes for a mechanical engineering degree, her daughter, Stephanie Staska, was completing her BSB at the Carlson School. Trousil’s goal was to graduate first, but Staska ended up beating her mom by a semester in 2003. Immediately after, both started a journey that they would end at the same time.

“I chose the Carlson School for my MBA as it was one of the top programs in the country,” Staska says. It was the school of preference, Trousil adds. “If I went somewhere else it would have been second or third choice.”

Both received their MBAs in December 2007. And although their destination was the same, the journeys they took to get there were a bit different.

When Trousil entered the workforce 37 years ago, she didn’t have a college degree. “My daughter once asked me—was it more of an obstacle that you had no degree or more of an obstacle of being a woman? Not even close—the obstacle was being a woman.” she says.

Trousil figured more education would help her, so she spent 10 years in night classes for her mechanical engineering degree. When getting her MBA, she focused on supply chain. “I love supply chain because that’s where the action is,” she says. “You always have such potential to be the hero. There is a lot of opportunity to fix things, solve a problem, and help the company make more money—some really rewarding moments.”

She is currently the director of supply chain and operations for a division of Emerson Electric. She also is on the supply chain advisory board at the Carlson School. “It’s a good place to network, meet other people in the profession, and talk about problems and issues your company is facing,” she says.

Staska’s goal in getting her MBA was to gain a more macro view of a business. “I wanted to be able to understand the various functions and how they interacted with one another,” she says. She has been employed by Twin Cities Power Holdings, LLC since 2008 and is currently its chief risk officer and chief compliance officer.

“I would say that in today’s world, you’re only limited by your own goals,” says Trousil. “Go for it all.”

As leaders in their industries, both Trousil and Staska have similar philosophies. “I think what makes a good leader is to be able to step in and have people look to you for direction when they are looking for it and stepping back to have them do it on their own,” she says. “And knowing when the right time is to step in and when to step back.” Staska says respect is important. “It is important that you treat everyone respectfully and fairly during each and every day,” she says. “Earning respect is more difficult. It involves honesty, integrity, and a certain amount of competence in what you do.”

Staska adds that, unlike her mother, she hasn’t run into much overt discrimination in her career, but today’s female students shouldn’t take that for granted. “You can’t wait around for opportunities to come to you or be handed to you. If you want something, you need to ask for it,” she says. “This applies to participation in teams and projects at the office, advancement opportunities, training, and even compensation. You cannot expect to receive something you never asked for.”

Reaching the summit

Basia Gorska, ’98 MBA, has shown that there is nothing she can’t climb. She was already an MD and CPA back in 1996 when she was looking to expand her skill set to better prepare for her position as general director of emerging markets for St. Jude Medical, Inc. As she was living in Poland at the time, she found the Warsaw Executive MBA (WEMBA) program to be a good fit, so she enrolled.

Two years later with an MBA under her belt, she brought her new skills to the fore. She ended up expanding the territory she was responsible for to all emerging markets for St. Jude, including Eastern Europe, Israel, and South East Asia. At the end of 2000, she was headhunted to move to the United States and work at Lilly USA, a large health care company based in Indianapolis.

Taking the job was an easy choice: After reaching the role of senior director at St. Jude, she found that there was no more room to grow in that company as a woman. “My move to the U.S.A. allowed me to expand the opportunities in my career,” she says. “At Lilly, there are more options for women who may be interested in senior positions. The climate for women in the medical field depends on the company that one works for. In general, it seems that pharma offers more options for women in comparison with companies that produce and sell medical equipment.”

Her first role at Lilly USA was as a senior account manager in managed health care services. “My goal at first was to work in the U.S. only for five years and gain ‘American business experience,’” she says. “Then I wanted to move back to Europe and find a VP position based in one of the ‘big five’ countries.”

However, history stepped in a year later to keep Gorska in the States. “After 9/11 it took almost seven years for me to get my green card,” she says. During those seven years, she stayed in the same position at Lilly and came to love her new home. “Instead of moving back to Europe and searching for a VP position, I enjoyed life too much in the U.S. and I moved to San Francisco,” she says. She was soon promoted at Lilly and is currently the national oncology GPO manager, where she oversees the company’s relationship with McKesson Specialty Health—a $500 million portfolio.

She has taken on other challenges, too – like climbing tall mountains. She has completed six of the Seven Summits, the highest peaks on each continent and plans to finish the seventh—Mt. Everest in Tibet—by June of this year.

Being able to respond quickly to changing conditions is paramount in mountain climbing as well as in leadership, Gorska says. “My philosophy on leadership is to tailor it to each person and situation, as one needs to be very flexible to be a good leader,” she says. “The leadership style depends on who I am managing— inexperienced versus experienced or someone new and very excited versus someone jaded and disillusioned. I gained that philosophy mostly from my more than 20 years of work experience.”

The chemistry of finance

For the past nine years, Addie Braun, ’99 BSB, ’05 MBA, has been at Google—currently the Head of Industry – Branding—what she calls the career of a lifetime. However, it was a bit of a circuitous route for her to get to this point. 

When she was a freshman in college, she was a chemistry major at Loyola University in Chicago. After a while, she realized that chemistry was not for her and wanted to try something different. “When the lure of a private Catholic college wore off, I yearned for a big school. A Big 10 school,” she says. “I finally landed at the doorstep of the Carlson School after a year of finding myself in liberal arts—architecture—in 1995.” At the Carlson School, she says she finally felt at home and wished she could have arrived sooner. “It was exactly where I belonged. I had an analytical numbers-driven mind and netted out on finance as a great fit for my character and skills,” she says. “My goal was to do something in the stock market.”

She received her undergraduate degree in 1999 and wanted to be a stockbroker. “After interviewing with some lightweights, I finally landed a job as a broker at Smith Barney in downtown Minneapolis. This was my dream job,” she says. “I excelled as a retail broker for four years before realizing I wanted to expand my skills into marketing. I tried to break into that world, but was not met with a lot of open arms. I knew I had to once again get more education to make the transition work. This time I immediately thought of the Carlson School for my MBA. I could hardly wait to get back there.”

The memory of that period of time between when she submitted her application and when she got into the program is still vivid to her. “I knew I only wanted the Carlson School. I used to run across the Stone Arch Bridge and you can see the glorious Carlson School in the distance from there—and I remember thinking ‘I hope I make it into there,’” she says.

She did make it and she ended up quitting her full-time job to get her MBA through the part-time program in the evenings and weekends. “I worked my tail off from 2003 to 2005 to graduate in under two years while holding a full-time internship. It was the best two years of my life,” she says. “The career services center was of particular value in preparing me for interviews and for securing dozens of on-campus interviews.”

Braun went on to become a senior marketing analyst for Northwest Airlines, which ultimately helped her land a position at Google. But she also credits the Carlson School and the encouragement she received. “I felt super supported as a woman at the Carlson School,” she says. “Always around me I see men with extreme confidence in their presence. I was never intimidated by that but inspired to be exactly the same. The Carlson School armed me with the confidence to be an equal.”

To female students and alumni, Braun’s biggest piece of advice is involvement. “Get involved in at least two committees or boards—one internal and one external—as these will create a lifetime of networks and opportunity,” she says.

Of marketing and motherhood

After graduation, Michelle Champlin Bergner, ’94 MBA, joined Northwest Airlines as a senior strategic analyst with its domestic pricing group, developing pricing strategies for both its leisure and business travel segments. She eventually moved up to managing Trans-Atlantic Passenger Marketing, setting strategy and developing promotions for travel to Europe, India, Africa, and the Middle East for both Northwest and KLM Royal Dutch Airlines.

But then came some hard choices. “I’m an all-or-nothing kind of person,” she says. “When I had my first child, I went back to work thinking that I could put in 100 percent at work and 100 percent at home. That simply wasn’t the case for me and I felt I wasn’t able to focus enough time and effort to do my best at both endeavors. It was a very difficult decision, but I felt I needed to choose what was most important for me to be happy and focus on that.”

Champlin Bergner felt work could wait but childhood was fleeting. She didn’t want to miss those important moments. So, after seven years, she left her company for full-time motherhood. “There were certainly trade-offs, but for me it was the right decision,” she says. Champlin Bergner was officially away from the business world for 13 years.

“When my youngest child started middle school, I could see that I really wasn’t needed as a full-time mom anymore,” she says. “I’d been very active in the school’s parent association, volunteering my time and keeping my marketing skills active as the VP of communications and marketing, then as president-elect, and finally as president. But when my term as president was up and my children were more independent, I thought ‘what’s next?’ I knew I needed to do something just for me. Turning my sights back on my marketing career was a natural choice.”

Because she wanted a lot of schedule flexibility and to have ample variety in her work, it seemed logical to start her own business. After a lot of planning, she recently launched her company—Kamili Consulting. Kamili, which means “perfect” and “complete” in Swahili, is a full-service integrated marketing consulting firm.

“Now that I have returned to the work force, I am once again looking to the Carlson School and have found it to be an invaluable resource for networking, making alumni connections, business planning, and education,” she says. “Once you graduate from the Carlson School, the connection doesn’t end. I consider us lifelong business partners and I look forward to keeping the connection alive and well.”

The Joys of Problem Solving

Karla Rabusch, ’87 MBA, always had a keen interest in finance. When she started her evening MBA program, she was most interested in the technical finance courses—learning more about interest rate risk, futures and options, and portfolio management rather than more general coursework. But she also found another course that greatly influenced how she applies her knowledge.

“I do think that technical knowledge was impactful. However, the class that had the biggest impact on me was called Problem Analysis and Decision Making,” she says. “It got me to focus on solving the root cause of a problem versus the symptoms. Decision making is such a critical skill and one that I think differentiates the workforce. Most of what we do centers around solving a problem.”

After graduating from the Carlson School, she moved into her first management role at American Express Financial Advisors (now Ameriprise) and held several roles there before she moved to San Francisco in 1997 to join Wells Fargo as the chief finance officer for its mutual fund business. That role morphed into chief administrative officer and she became president of the mutual fund group in early 2003. Here, she oversees all business groups that support the fund family.

This role has garnered her several accolades, including being named one of the leading women in the asset management industry in 2014 by Money Management Executive and one of the 100 most influential people in mutual funds in 2010 by MutualFundWire.com. The San Francisco Business Times named her one of the 100 most influential businesswomen in the Bay Area in both 2004 and 2010.

As a woman, she did find a few challenges in the finance industry. “Generally, I think the challenges stem from unintentional biases,” she says. “For example, early in my career, males at my level would go to daily coffee breaks with more senior men and would gain insights into work that the women didn’t, as we weren’t invited to coffee breaks with more senior staff.” She says she still gets asked questions about administrative things that aren’t her responsibility—such as being asked to solve a food problem at a meeting where she happened to be the only woman present—but has found ways to mitigate these situations.

“When I notice unintentional biases, I have conversations with people—both with women and men—as it is everyone’s responsibility to become more aware of the unintentional biases we all have,” she says. This method of handling the situation is a direct call back to her problem analysis class of so many years ago: “People often quickly jump to problem solving without a thorough assessment of the root cause of the problem—often the need to continue solving issues that pop up since the solution didn’t really address the right problem,” she says.

However, even though there are challenges, Rabusch says she has noticed that there is a greater recognition that having more women in the workforce has benefits and she feels fortunate that she has had many supporters help guide and encourage her in her career.

The Delicate Balance of Work and Children

As a mother of three, Gita Vellanki, ’01 BSB, says her approach to leadership is analogous to her approach to parenting. “I try to provide the level of support necessary to enhance learning, provide exposure and recognition, and urge my team members to take on new responsibilities,” she says.

She had originally come to the Carlson School with a keen interest in how business and technology intersect. After graduation, she entered GE’s Information Management Leadership Program and quickly decided that IT was not where she wanted to spend her future. She left for a start-up strategy consulting firm focused on offshore outsourcing. The firm was then acquired by one of her clients and she moved into various business roles.

“While in this role, I moved to New York City for my husband’s job and I went to work for a boutique management consulting firm focused on operational process improvements,” she said. Eventually, the family moved to California in 2009 and she has spent the past few years in high tech working for Cisco and software company VMWare. She currently runs the global data analytics and operations team supporting VMW’s education business. In 2014, she was named as one of the top 15 high performing women leaders in customer operations at VMW.

Crediting the Carlson School, she says she appreciated the diverse student body and the focus on teamwork at the school. “I believe these qualities are the basis of any global corporate environment, and are certainly present in the very fast-paced environment of New York City and Silicon Valley,” she says.

She says trying to balance kids with work presented a tremendous obstacle during her time in New York. “I think a lot of this has to do with the environment at most companies,” she says. “However, in Silicon Valley and the tech industry, people are rewarded for their efforts, not political maneuvering and ‘face time.’ Currently, despite significant hours focused on work-related activities, I have the freedom to manage my schedule to also take care of my personal responsibilities. My senior leaders at VMWare have been extremely supportive of my career aspirations while being very understanding of the importance of balance.”

STEM Needs Women

Yvonne Houle-Gillard, ’98 MBA, says she has been on the receiving end of some gentle teasing from her grad school classmates about remaining with the same company—3M in St. Paul—since receiving her MBA. But she’d have it no other way. “There was no need for me to move from company to company to experience career growth,” she says. “There has always been another challenging opportunity for me within 3M.” 

And she has made the most of these opportunities. As a newly minted MBA, she started as an IT applications project lead in the commercial graphics division and quickly moved up the ranks to various other positions in IT, including managing the consumer business group. In March of 2014, she was named 3M’s global training and operations manager. Here, she is responsible for setting and executing the training strategy for business transformation and information technology. She says, “3M is in the process of transforming the way we do business. We are focused on delivering more value to our customers, being more relevant to their changing needs, and driving increased productivity. Throughout this transformation, my team is working to provide our global workforce the training, tools, and experiences they need to be successful.”

The opportunities in information technology are endless

As a leader within 3M, Houle-Gillard feels that she has a responsibility to give back to the community—sharing her time, talent, and treasure. She supports 3M’s annual United Way campaigns and is an active volunteer at her church, her sons’ school, and her alma maters. She enjoys recruiting new talent from the Carlson School for internships and full-time positions, and has assisted 3M’s foundation, 3Mgives, in directing scholarships to Carlson School students and faculty grants to Carlson School faculty members. She is quick to point out that 3M has outlined six leadership behaviors that help shape its culture and bring its vision to life. Her favorite is “Develop Others and Self.” She tries to personify this by establishing new ways for 3Mers to increase their understanding of global business processes at 3M.

Houle-Gillard says she has found the business climate at 3M to be positive for women in IT, although she notes that when she was first starting out at another company, she found that men who had daughters her age did not always take her seriously. “I had to work hard to earn their respect,” she says. An encouraging corporate environment also helped. “I have been fortunate at 3M to have several sponsors who have championed me,” she says. “They helped bring challenging opportunities to my attention and supported me when I received those challenging assignments.”

Because of her success in the field, Houle-Gillard is disappointed that there are not more women studying computer science or information systems even though 52 percent of college students are female. “Fourteen percent of women are majoring in STEM [science, technology, engineering, and math] subjects compared to 39 percent of male college students choosing STEM,” she says. The current number of high school girls selecting computer science as their college major are so low that the IT workforce of the future is projected to be comprised of three percent women and 97 percent men. Houle-Gillard thinks this is a tragic statistic, but is comforted about the Carlson School’s new initiative to increase the numbers of women majoring in MIS, finance, and supply chain.

“I have found information technology to be a personally and financially rewarding career,” she says. “If you are willing to work hard, deliver results, and continue learning, the opportunities are endless.”