Author: Sarah Podolsky


About Sarah Podolsky

Born and raised in New York City, I am a student at Olin Business School. I'm majoring in marketing and entrepreneurship and minoring in computer science! I also write for Her Campus, am an Olin Peer Ambassador, and am in Pi Beta Phi.

“We’d like to think it’s a straight path, but it’s more like a marathon. Your career is a long winding course with people cheering you on. But ultimately, it’s all on you.”
– Karen Branding, senior vice president of public affairs at the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis.

Branding helped round out this semester’s Women and Leadership series by giving the class some life perspective. One’s career is more than just a straight climb to the top. There are going to be setbacks and “hills.” However, Branding believes anyone can successfully cross the finish line if they keep three lessons in mind: strategic relevance, great personal branding, and persistence.

Strategic relevance

According to Branding, achieving a strategic edge for a business positions it for more success than other organizations. Even broader, a personal strategic edge will keep you relevant throughout your career. It’s important to continuously ask yourself, “What gives me an edge?”

Branding explains that one’s competitive edge will constantly change throughout a “marathon,” which is why it’s important to adapt, create, and recognize your changing advantage.

Branding cautions, “we’re all on a slow path to irrelevance,” citing Polaroid as an example. While they were too busy focusing on their past competitive advantage, they allowed themselves to fall behind in the digital space. Polaroid wasn’t focusing on what Branding refers to as their “opportunity gap.” It’s important for people to focus on their own opportunity gap, looking to how they’ll compete in the future and transfer current skills.

Personal branding

In order to create a promising personal brand, you must first practice self-awareness. Branding recommends seeking out what others think of you, especially if you can get information from trusted advisors.

In order to do so, find mentors and coaches. Branding notes that it’s easy to get caught up in finding a formal mentor, but “mentoring moments” are just as important. It’s much easier to ask someone you admire for a piece of advice during lunch than have them take on the lifelong commitment of mentoring. In living up to your personal brand, it’s essential to be a team player; you must lead with integrity and collaborate well with others.

In terms of Branding’s personal brand, what stood out to me was her incredible vulnerability. As she reflected on her career thus far, she opened up about how her career had affected her personal life and vice versa. In creating a personal brand, over everything, you must be yourself.


“Leap and the net will appear,” Branding said, quoting John Burroughs. Branding taught the class that we can only keep learning and growing if we’re not afraid to try new things. Throughout Branding’s setbacks, both personal and professional, her common theme was persistence.

If you keep running, you will eventually get to the top of the hill. Branding’s marathon metaphor gave a class of mainly young women embarking on their careers the perspective they need to leap.

Marie-Hélène Bernard


The Women & Leadership series welcomed its third speaker, Marie-Hélène Bernard, president and CEO of the St. Louis Symphony. Bernard always had a passion for music. Growing up in Quebec, she was surrounded by music and became an accomplished musician as just a child. After some time, the mounting pressure got to Bernard and she decided to put music on pause and jump into a career in law.


Like her passion for music, Bernard was driven by her passion for law. More than just passion, she found support from her colleagues. Bernard explains, “The men in my firm didn’t support women or men, they supported talent.” The support she got from her colleagues pushed her to achieve more than she could have imagined. Bernard highly values support in the workplace and shared the importance of finding mentors.

When her love for music once again began to outweigh her love for law, Bernard shifted to orchestra management. Bernard saw orchestra management as the ultimate way to combine her passion of music, law, and business. In moving forward with this transition, Bernard knew she would have to find a strong support system.


Entering the male-dominated orchestra management world as an immigrant and a woman, Bernard learned to not underestimate the impact of cultural differences.

Quebec’s emphasis on strong women had taught Bernard to be a bold decision-maker, but she found that her leadership style wasn’t as welcomed in American culture. She received feedback that she was too direct or too rough in her delivery. Bernard learned that she had to soften her leadership style and adapt.

Marie-Hélène Bernard took her adaptive style and applied it directly to her work to attract a larger crowd to classical music. In response to a class question, Bernard noted that classical music is not dying, but needs to be adapted to break down the intimidation factor as a barrier to entry.

Bernard wants to have people interact with the orchestra dynamic in a different way. For example, the St. Louis Symphony has started to play more movie sound tracks to gain access to a larger market and create lasting experiences.

Laura Freeman

“Women earn almost 60 percent of undergraduate degrees and 60 percent of all master’s degrees…but only account for 6 percent of CEOs.”

That’s how Laura Freeman, chief people officer of Schnucks, powerfully begins her talk for the Women & Leadership series. Freeman has had an incredible career working in HR at some big-name corporations including Wendy’s Carlson Companies, and her current position at Schnucks.

Her commanding go-getter attitude was evident from the moment she stepped into the room. Using her broad range of experience, Freeman shared three pieces of advice for women in the workplace.

Ask for what you want (and make it known)

Freeman expressed that throughout her career, she noticed women around her waiting to be “tapped,” while men had no problem asking for what they want.

As a single parent, and therefore sole provider, to five children at home, Freeman pushed herself to ask for what she wanted and deserved in her career. Her imitative allowed her to excel in HR roles from an HR consultant to vice president-level role, and finally her current C-suite role.

Diversity, equity, and inclusive workplace

Since working in her first international role at Bekaert Corporation, Freeman understands the importance of working in a diverse workplace. Freeman strongly believes that a diverse workplace is a productive workplace. She defines diversity as coming from different backgrounds, thoughts, and experiences.

Freeman notes that many companies believe a diverse leadership board will just happen, but the truth is, we have to all take on the responsibility of helping diversify the workplace. She mentioned that in her long career, she had never had a female boss. This fact hit hard in a class called “Women & Leadership.” If we work hard and embrace diversity, coupled with equity and inclusion, we can better our working environments as well as ourselves.

Purposeful development and succession planning

Ideally, managers would take time to sit down with their employees and open a conversation about career planning, but often that’s not the case. It’s important to take initiative with your manager to start a dialogue about what your career looks like and map out your career path.

This shows ambition and also gets you on the same page with your manager. Further, it’ll help you see whether your career goals align with your proposed career path so you’ll know when it’s time to move on.

Maxine Clark, founder of St. Louis-based Build-A-Bear Workshop, kicked off the semester’s first Women & Leadership class with a story of her childhood. This is a selection of my three takeaways from her talk.

It’s OK to make mistakes

Clark explained that her first-grade teacher, Mrs. Grace, was responsible for imparting a lesson Maxine has carried with her throughout her life: “Learn from your mistakes.” Every Friday, Mrs. Grace would hand out a red pencil to the student that made the most mistakes that week. Maxine Clark noted the uniqueness that for once it wasn’t the brightest or quickest student that was rewarded, but one that had made mistakes.

Taking this lesson forward, Clark was pleased to see that the retail industry also embraced mistakes. At her very first job in the executive training program at the May Company, she had the responsibility of marking down prices with a very similar red pencil. She thought, “Wow, I’m made for this job!”

As a student, whose value is measured often by test scores and grades, it’s refreshing to remember that making mistakes leads to growth. Looking around the classroom, I saw many young women also relieved by the idea that mistakes can lead to success. Clark’s words came at an important time as many of us are soon graduating and starting a new life chapter.

Know what you don’t know

Clark proudly admits, “One of my strengths is I know what I don’t know.” This acknowledgment helped her snag one an incredible promotion. As a new employee for the May Company, she was tasked with the job of traveling to Asia to pick out products for all of the May Company stores. Maxine knew immediately that she didn’t know what the other stores would need.

Without the support of her supervisor, she had to take it upon herself to travel to the Pittsburgh store to see their assortment. There, she ran into David Farrell, who would soon become the CEO. Impressed with her initiative, he continued a professional relationship, eventually promoting Clark to chief of staff. Knowing what she didn’t know both allowed her to prove self-initiative and feel comfortable asking for help.

Enjoy the journey

Clark emanates passion. With exuberance, she described every project she was involved in. She ascribes much of her success to her passion and her ability to “enjoy the journey.” Starting with Build-A-Bear, she felt that she could pour all of her energy into the company’s success and growth because she felt so passionate. Today, she invests her energy in projects surround education, women in business, and the St. Louis community.

Pictured above: Maxine Clark, founder of the Build-A-Bear Workshop, speaking in 2013 during Olin Business School’s Defining Moments lecture series. Photo by Jerry Naunheim Jr.

“Data can be used for great good to make a significant positive difference in our communities and our lives… but not without some problems.”

– Naveen Pinjani, Sr. Director Big Data Analytics at Daugherty Business Solutions

At the Data for Good conference on October 5, speaker Naveen Pinjani, along with consultant Jonathan Leek, dynamically kicked off a panel on the Vacancy Collaborative. The Vacancy Collaborative’s mission is to address St. Louis’s vacant property issue and perfectly reflects the conference’s core goal: to celebrate the combination of values-based-leadership and analytics.

Leek knew two things before the creation of the Vacancy Collaborative: He was a skilled data analyst and he wanted to help the community. Knowing this and the brutal fact that about 15 percent of all land in St. Louis is vacant, he put his skills to use.

Addressing this issue has been complicated. Leek asked, “How do we address what we can’t understand?” The data problem presented was that there are city employees who are doing the best they can, but aren’t trained in using and analyzing data. Leek recognized that systems are often put in place by those unfamiliar with data best practices. Along with volunteers, Leek set out to use his data skills to tackle the basics—how many vacant properties/lots exist, where they’re located, and what to prioritize.

Over the past year, the Vacancy Collaborative has combined four data sets, cleaned them up, and defined what each set means. They are on their way to incredible impact. The volunteer aspect of the project comes with its pros and cons; Leek explained its lack of bureaucracy is great, along with the autocratic decision-making process, but there’s a lack of input from domain experts and limited tools, resources and time.

Even with the negatives, the Vacancy Collaborative was able to convince Cindy Riordan, CIO of the city of St. Louis. Riodan said, “The vacancy data lit a spark with our [the City of St. Louis] staff.”

The vacancy issue affects the entire city from crime rates, to public health, to the city budget. The Vacancy Collaborative is now working on refining its web portal and even expanding to new data sets unrelated to vacancy. If you’re interested in reading more, check out

Sarah Podolsky, BSBA ’19, wrote this on behalf of the Bauer Leadership Center. Pictured above: Jonathan Leek, a consultant with Daugherty Business Solutions and volunteer with the Vacancy Project, presents to the Data for Good audience.