Author: Tanya Yatzeck


About Tanya Yatzeck

Tanya Yatzeck, EMBA 43, is a project manager in continuous improvement at Spire Inc.

Cameron McKenzie (my son), me, and my daughter Maya McKenzie at my EMBA graduation in May 2015.

I was already an educated person. I had a master’s degree in the humanities. I had experience. My career—IT project management—was established. I remember thinking, “I’ve had enough school. I know what I need to know.”

The problem was, I was dissatisfied with my career. Not really at home in IT, but dependent on my IT income, I didn’t know how to do something else without leading to bankruptcy. I started talking to people I knew and respected about this problem.

A friend suggested talking to Frans VanOudenallen, executive career coach. Frans has an office at Olin. He’s associated with EMBA, although that’s not the conversation we had. When I visited him, we talked about my job dissatisfaction and what we could do about it.

It didn’t occur to me that school might be a means to address the problem. I appreciated the conversation, went home, and thought about it.

The author in front of Fudan University in Shanghai, one of the stops we made on our International Residency in March 2015.

The author in front of Fudan University in Shanghai,
one of the stops we made on our International Residency
in March 2015.

I worked for Washington University at the time; the post-graduate programs host semiannual informational luncheons for staff members. By the time I returned to work gave it more thought, I’d been bitten. The conversation with Frans and the luncheon made me feel like I had something within my grasp, although I couldn’t put my finger on it. I asked Frans for a contact with EMBA. He put me in touch with Edie Varley.

I first met Edie for mid-afternoon coffee at Kaldi’s in Clayton. She soon got to the heart of my issues. Before I knew it, I was describing my worst work nightmares and listening to her explain that I didn’t have to put up with it.

Persuaded by a Force of Nature

Edie’s title, director of discernment, is a product of her unique approach: Helping potential students decide whether the program is right for them.

“It’s not recruiting. I’m not selling anything here,” she said. “It’s a pound of flesh and it’s a chunk of change, and so together, we get to the heart and the root of it.”

Meanwhile, I had teenagers approaching college age—five of them. I thought it was selfish to start a program when it was their turn, not to mention the time commitment and balance of responsibilities between my husband and me.

I knew WashU might sponsor my degree, but I hadn’t asked yet. I didn’t know what they would say if I expressed a desire to do it. What if they said no? And I didn’t want to give up vacation time for classes.

Edie and I spoke several times. Talking to Edie means having the most intense, poetic, maddening, and beautiful conversation you’ve ever had, every time. Yet, when the phone would ring in those next days and weeks, sometimes I didn’t want to answer.

She challenged me to stand up for myself, to become my best self. She didn’t want me to give up and she wasn’t giving up on me. Edie said follow-up calls with prospects are the most challenging part of her job.

“When they don’t return emails and they don’t return phone calls, they fail to realize that their brand and their reputation is always speaking,” she said. “Somewhere, they stopped seeing me as a guide. They’ve turned me into a vendor selling them something.”

Having the ‘Grown Up’ Conversations

Deep down, I was so touched by Edie’s passion, I took the next steps: an information session with executives and lunch with students. A doctor from the WashU medical school talked about how the program allowed him to break off a piece of his job and concentrate on it as a startup.

He got married during the program and took his wife on the trip to China. He got funding from his department by telling them, “I’m going to do this.” I couldn’t see myself doing that and being successful at getting funding, but I liked the idea.

Sometime around my first meeting with Edie, I broke my leg. Though she still encouraged me to join the next cohort, I decided to slow down. I needed time to heal, prepare, and talk to my leadership about the opportunity.

Edie had spoken about the “grown up” conversations required to ask for what you want, so with that, I approached the director of my department with the request. I expected her to say no. I didn’t feel I was a valued enough employee to warrant support in this endeavor. But by this point, I wanted it so badly, I feared I’d have to quit if they refused.

She didn’t. On the contrary, she laid out the steps to make it happen. I would have to use my vacation. They would sponsor me. By that time, I thought I’d be crazy to turn down a free MBA over vacation time. Just like that, I had had the grown up conversation that would change my life. I started the next September.

Edie says the reward for her work is the people who describe the great things that have happened to them because of the EMBA program.

“You’re living the dream. You decided to face your fears and do it anyway,” she said. “That is a daily reward for me: When I see them live up to the fullness of their own promise and help other people do it, too.”

This is all true. So, when I talk to anyone considering the program, I tell them to do it. And I tell them to talk to Edie.

Pictured above: Cameron McKenzie, the author’s son, the author herself, and her daughter Maya McKenzie at the author’s EMBA graduation in May 2015.

She Suite, International Women
She Suite, International Women's Day, March 8, 2018

She Suite, International Women’s Day, March 8, 2018

For International Women’s Day on March 8, the Executive MBA Leadership Series at Olin featured the “She Suite,” a panel of six women WashU EMBA graduates who have risen to the top of their organizations. For 60 minutes, these women answered questions about how their organizations work toward gender parity, how they dealt with challenges, and how they explain their successes.

On Risk Taking: “Your greatest achievements are out of your comfort zone”

Andrea Faccio, chief marketing officer at Nestle Purina North America, has risen to the top at Nestle and has worked in four different countries, but was most challenged by a manager at Nestle who asked her to take a role in an area in which she didn’t consider herself an expert.

“He offered me a job developing a strategy on nutrition. I looked at him and said, ‘I am NOT a nutritionist.’ He said, this is what I want. I want someone that can work with other people. I took the job and now I think it was my greatest achievement in part because since I wasn’t an expert, I had to ask people for help. If somebody offers you something that you’re not sure about, trust that they see something in you and that you can do it,” she said.

On Breaking the Rules: Nevertheless, she persisted

When Linda Haberstoh, president of Phoenix Textile Corporation, was considering the EMBA Program at Olin, she wasn’t sure it would help her because Phoenix is a small, family-owned business. She ultimately did it because, as she says, “I felt about an inch wide and a mile deep,” and credits the program with a wide range of her personal and business growth.

Joyce Trimuel, chief operations officer and chief diversity officer at CNA Insurance, asked for support from her leadership at a previous company to do the EMBA, and was told, “You don’t need an MBA to be successful here.”

Nevertheless, she persisted.

“This was so important to me, that I did it anyway. I was self-sponsored and used my vacation days for class, and I would do it again in a heartbeat. However, my brand took a hit. I was no longer the rule follower, I was the person who doesn’t listen,” Trimuel said. “So, what I ended up doing was working extra hard. I had to make sure that I didn’t compromise my team, or make any miss-steps. For the time that I was in school, I had my best performance at that company.”

On Setbacks: “I was willing to take a short-term hit to reach my long-term goal”

Trimuel acknowledges that her insistence on pursuing the EMBA resulted in a hit to her personal brand at that company. “The EMBA helped me become a better leader, but in terms of managing my personal relationships, I had ruined some and worked hard to repair them,” she said. “Sometimes you take a short-term setback in order to have long-term success and I was willing to do that.”

Rebecca Boyer, chief financial officer at KelliMitchell Group, made a choice to take a step back professionally for what looked like a better opportunity long term. Boyer found success very early as a financial professional, taking a controller position in her early 20s. She describes always telling people she was 30 in those days in order to avoid inevitable questioning of her authority for one so young.

“My next job, I took a role as senior accountant, but my gut told me it was a better opportunity,” Boyer said. “Ultimately, the opportunity included helping start four companies and shutting down a 75-year-old company. It was the right choice.”

On Diversity and Inclusion in Business: “Lead with the data”

As chief diversity officer at CNA, Trimuel spends a lot of time working on the problem of inclusion. She says you have to show leadership what is in it for them.

“There is so much data out there that can substantiate that companies that are very intentional about diversity and inclusion will outperform companies that take a more passive approach. Even if they don’t believe it’s just the right thing to do, numbers and data don’t lie. It’s going to help with the bottom line, it’s going to help with retention, it’s going to help with attracting new talent to your organization, and if you build that business case for it, people are much more likely to get on the bus, and for it to be a more sustainable culture shift for your organization.”

On Culture: “The values of the organization matter”

After a long, successful career at Ameren, Mary Heger, chief information officer, looks back and understands why she is still there.

“I think about my career, I was not one who had a goal from the get-go, grand plan. I started work, I found positions that I loved, and I gave it my all in terms of learning the business,” Heger said. “I looked for opportunities for education and opportunities to prepare myself for the next step, I was willing to take the risk of working in an area that I wasn’t familiar with—it’s what we all have to do to get that experience. I worked at an amazing company whose values lined up with mine that I think is absolutely critical.”

On Gender Differences in Business: “Don’t cry until you get to the elevator”

Linda Haberstroh has a unique perspective on the textile industry, which is still a very male dominated industry. Phoenix Textiles is an anomaly, and has been since it was founded by her mother in 1983. She is pleased to report that the business they do now with mills in India and Pakistan involves many women-led companies and that it’s exciting to see women stepping up globally.

“My mom is the founder, our fiduciary board is a majority of women, my fellow shareholders of our privately held family business are my sisters. Our executive leadership team is 50/50, and our joke is we are looking for a few good men so we can have gender parity,” she said. “When my mom was trying to get the mills to open up, she would go down to New York every week and try to get them to talk to her, and she would hear ‘no’ every week. Every week she would go back. Every time, they would tell her no she would always say to herself, ‘Don’t cry until you get to the elevator, don’t cry until you get to the elevator.’ Finally after the first company went with us and we were able to get that crack, and a place in the marketplace, we were on our way.”

As an alumna of Olin’s Executive MBA program, I was invited to attend this year’s 13th annual St. Louis Business Journal’s Women’s Conference on January 26. Although I had heard of Rent the Runway, I didn’t know anything about it until Jennifer Hyman, founder and CEO, gave the luncheon keynote.

Founded nine years ago with friend and fellow Harvard classmate Jennifer Fleiss, Hyman’s company has raised $190 million in venture capital funding. RTR earned $100 million in revenue in 2016. Its Series E round of $60 million that year was among the largest ever for a woman-run company.

Hyman’s message epitomizes why I love going to this conference. She talked about her idea, why it works, how it has grown, and emphasized that if she can do it, anyone can. This conference highlights successful women who want to share their stories and help other women achieve their goals.

The overall business case for RTR is compelling. In an economy where we rent everything from cars (Uber) to bedrooms (Airbnb), renting clothing makes sense. RTR grew from the concept that for special occasions in particular, women are willing to spend more than they can afford on designer clothes they won’t wear more than once.

By offering rentals of special outfits at a fraction of the cost, RTR makes high-ticket items accessible to a wider audience. The company has expanded the concept beyond special occasions to everyday fashion.

Hyman’s experience and advice applies to anyone in business, but especially to entrepreneurs. Here are the tips that caught my attention:

If she can do it, you can do it

A self-deprecating and funny Hyman explained the very basic actions she took to start her business. Hyman conceived of her idea when her younger sister bought a dress for a special event that cost more than her rent. Hyman and Fleiss brainstormed, which led to the $190 million question: “What if we could rent dresses?”

From there, they pursued an in-person, five-minute meeting with the most influential fashion icon they could think of—Diane von Furstenberg—and cold-emailed her by trying different combinations of her initials and name, until one of the attempted addresses made it through.

You don’t have to have it 100 percent figured out

Hyman and Fleiss did not have their business model worked out when they met with von Furstenberg. “We didn’t know what we were doing when we walked into her office,” Hyman said. “We just threw on von Furstenberg dresses and did it.”

They came up with the name “Rent the Runway” on the spot and pitched the idea. “I think entrepreneurs sometimes make the mistake of being secretive about their ideas, trying to get it all worked out before talking to people about it,” Hyman said.

Instead, Hyman and Fleiss could form their business plan based on conversations they had with the people they talked to about it.

If the answer is no, ask why

“By the way, she hated the idea,” Hyman said. von Furstenberg initially resisted the premise that renting clothes could be profitable, but the conversation continued. By asking questions about the resistance von Furstenberg had, Hyman learned that the von Furstenberg brand appealed mostly to women in their 50s and 60s, but that their marketing targeted a younger demographic.

The five-minute meeting extended to two hours. Hyman said the other designers with whom RTR now has great working relationships were also resistant at first. By keeping the lines of communication open, Hyman continued pursuing the conversations.

People at the top don’t always have the best ideas

At the end of their two-hour meeting with von Furstenberg, Hyman and Fleiss asked for the names of two or three other industry people they could talk to. “It’s the people on the front lines who know the most about the business,” Hyman said. Talking to von Furstenberg was a foot in the door, but great ideas can be mined among lower-level people.

Never stop dreaming bigger

With success in special occasion rentals, RTR could have continued to grow. Hyman kept pushing, however, for expanding the reach of the “Cinderella moment.”

“Women grow up believing that the only day they will feel like Cinderella is on their wedding day,” Hyman said. Believing this didn’t need to be the case, she came up with a subscription concept that would allow women to rent and exchange items for a monthly fee.

Your alma mater can be your calling card

It’s interesting to consider why von Furstenberg took the meeting with Fleiss and Hyman.  As Hyman tells it, their email to her was a one liner: “We are two Harvard business students with an idea and could we have five minutes of your time?”

Whatever her reasons, you can’t underestimate the impact of their academic credentials. In my experience, in St. Louis, a reference to Washington University can and does have a significant impact.

I’m in an older demographic than RTR’s target market—20-somethings who value wearing and being photographed regularly in a wide variety of high-end clothes.

I also wear plus sizes, which, though available on the website, are not offered in great numbers. If Hyman is thinking about this additional area of growth—older, larger women seeking Cinderella moments—I look forward to becoming a subscriber.

Tanya Yatzeck and, at right, David Moons.

My first impression walking into the event “60 ideas in 60 minutes,” presented by alumni of Olin’s Executive MBA program on January 9, was that the six panelists mingling among the attendees were EMBA graduates.

That information was on the event invitation, but it didn’t hit home until I overheard them reminiscing about their classes and the fun that they’d had getting together in the years since graduation—just like me and my former classmates. The panelists were us.

Sixty ideas in one hour sounds daunting, but the simplicity of the format made it possible to absorb every single one of them. Each of the six panelists had 10 minutes to present their 10 ideas. Each had a theme, which kept the content fresh from speaker to speaker.

Gene Dobbs Bradford, president and CEO of Jazz St. Louis, used his musical training as a theme, while Jennifer Labit, founder and CEO of Cotton Babies, emphasized her experience in entrepreneurship. Eric Benting, owner and operator of Chik-fil-A, shared his  insights about working with very young employees.

Attendees at the EMBA-sponsored “60 ideas in 60 minutes” event.

Don Halpin spoke of pivoting from a military career to medical innovation, and Ken Yamaguchi about straddling both corporate and university surgical responsibilities. Jan Alonzo, an attorney, provided a practical tool box of tips, including counting good days, blessings, helping others, and the legal and business necessities of becoming informed about the problem of sexual harassment.

While I was there, I was surprised and pleased to run into my classmate from EMBA 43, David Moons, president at his family’s business, Anji Mountain. I asked him why he attends Olin events.

“When you work in a small business, it’s very easy to get focused on just what you’re doing and ignore some of the external factors that are influencing your business,” he said. “WashU events provide me with the opportunity to stay in touch with what other companies are doing and, more importantly, how some global macro factors can be affecting my business and my people.”

I asked David to distill the 60 ideas into his top three:

1. Pull multiple levers. Find your idea and make sure all of your resources support it.

David: “We have a major initiative this year with some patented innovation. I’m cherry-picking different things that we’ll likely do to support that launch, but we’re now thinking more of, “Let’s just pull all the levers.” We don’t really know what’s going to work, and we might as well go full stop as opposed to limit our financial exposure, because we want to make sure this thing is a success.”

2. If you think you know what you’re doing, you’re likely in decline.

David: “That is something that will likely keep me up and still does keep me up on a nightly basis. I think that level of focus—on continuous improvement and not resting on your laurels—is about trying to drive your company and your vision and what you’re doing to improve. It’s something that’s critical. We can’t be successful if we don’t do that.”

3. Use mission to inspire people.

David: “When I think about mission inspiring people, it’s not just my people that I work with at Anji Mountain. It’s more about using our mission as a company to inspire our customers to get further engaged with our business. We compete in a hyper-competitive market. There are a lot of major players that are established. We need to continually find ways to differentiate, and using and leveraging our mission to better position ourselves with our customers is something we’re going to continue to focus on.”

David added, “I’m going to take probably the top 30 and bring it back to my company and my people, and hopefully they can get something out of it and it starts a bigger dialogue.”

I spied another EMBA classmate, Ken Franklin, running out of the event before it was over. I talked to him by phone later in the day.

“I’ve always felt that I have a moral compass guiding tough decisions, but I didn’t realize that it’s a skill,” he said. “At the end of the day, you want to do the right thing, be honest, have integrity, and build character. That’s what leaders do. My big takeaway—big ideas come from the heart.”

Read more about the event and find a list of all 60 ideas.

A high-performing team is the holy grail of leadership. But how do you build a strong team in practice? The beauty of Olin’s Executive MBA program is the abundance of opportunities to learn, apply, and practice team-building skills.

Executive MBA alumni Eric Willis and Ali Ahmadi, EMBA Academic Director Lee Konczak, and Associate Professor of Organizational Behavior Andrew Knight summarize some of the more salient lessons about team-building from the Executive MBA program and their professional lives:

A Shared Purpose

As part of the Leadership Residency, Lee Konczak, academic director of the Executive MBA Program and senior lecturer on organizational behavior and leadership development, administers a team development survey to measure how well the student teams function.

The assessment is Olin’s way “of defining for EMBA teams what a good team looks like,” Konczak said. “Teams do better when they have shared goals, plan ahead, and communicate. In some cases, it’s obvious when teams aren’t on the same page using this assessment.”

According to Konczak, commitment to a shared purpose and a willingness to plan are the two most important team-building takeaways for executives in the program.

Diversity of Perspectives and Experience

Eric Willis, EMBA 43, was a senior brand manager when he started the EMBA Program. He was promoted to a brand director during the program and is now director of marketing at Nestlé Purina Petcare. For him, the team-building aspect of the Executive MBA Program was an opportunity to practice skills he’d learned at Nestlé with a completely different and diverse group of professionals.

“One of the things I loved most about the EMBA program was that it was such a diverse group of people with different points of view and different backgrounds, all coming together in one place,” Willis said. “On your team, you’ve got to figure out how to leverage everyone’s strengths to achieve a common goal.”

At Nestlé Purina, Willis regularly brings groups of disparate team members together, including finance and product development participants, to agree on mission and vision. Some of the challenges include developing trust, addressing different sets of values, and communication.

“To me, building a strong team means getting diversity of thought. It means respecting people’s different points of view,” he said. “When I think of building a strong team, I think of empowering people to make decisions, and I think of leveraging what everybody brings to the table and trying to find a way to use everybody’s different perspectives to reach a common goal.”

An Environment of Trust and Respect

Entrepreneurship is an area in which building strong teams—and building them early—is critical. As an EMBA student, Ali Ahmadi, EMBA 44, leapt fully into entrepenreurship, co-founding drone 3D software startup “Strayos” (formerly AirZaar), with a fellow student. He knows firsthand how important it is that teams work well when the stakes are high and the rewards are not guaranteed.

“Early stage founders often don’t realize that the idea or product is not the only factor motivating the talent; it’s also the willingness to follow their leader into an environment where the odds are stacked against them in succeeding,” he says. “When you build a team that trusts and respects you as a leader, they will go through a wall of fire to reach the common goal but if the trust and respect are neglected, then very little can be done to salvage it,” he says.

Be Open to Feedback

Andrew Knight, associate professor of organizational behavior at Olin, finds that one of the biggest roadblocks for entrepreneurs is cultivating and developing a sense of shared ownership—“not in an equity sense,” Knight said, “but in terms of the feeling of ownership that the team members have over the venture. There is kind of an asymmetry in people’s investment in the project at the outset.”

Knight suggests leaders invite input from those joining the team, while at the same time creating boundaries: “Encourage new team members to make contributions and suggest changes to the venture, but pair that with clearly communicating where the entrepreneur is less willing to make changes.”

This clarity—inviting input within a mutually understood structure—“applies in almost any creative team where there is a need to get people feeling ownership—especially implementation and innovation,” Knight said.

The importance of this delicate balance is supported by recent research by Knight and Associate Professor of Organizational Behavior Markus Baer, who identified three behaviors of successful lead entrepeneurs in the earliest stages of a venture.