When Sejal Desai, MBA’99, kicked off the most recent Women’s Leadership Series event at the Naveen Jindal School of Management, she encouraged the audience to listen for common themes that arose as the panelists shared their stories and advice.
The women on the panel represented different industries and professional experiences, but there was a clear common thread: They have each found themselves in roles that are very different from when they started their careers.
“I climbed the ladder to the top, only to see it was leaning against the wrong wall,” said Katherine Bock, JD, a former corporate lawyer who now operates her own career management coaching and consulting business, as well as teaches in the UT Dallas Executive and Professional Coaching program. “I went to law school to get into politics and make the world a better place. Now I still get to do that [with coaching], just one or two people at a time.”
Bock was one of four panelists who participated in the May 22 discussion titled “Disruption: Creating the Career Change You Want” and hosted by the Jindal School Executive MBA Programs and Office of Development and Alumni Relations. The panel was moderated by Desai, a self-described professional “serial disrupter.”
Desai and Bock were joined on the panel by:
• Trisha Cunningham, president and chief executive officer, North Texas Food Bank
• Catherine Helm, district team leader, Target Corporation
• Erika Horton, MBA’08, MS’13, IT portfolio and program manager, American Airlines.
After a networking reception, more than 100 attendees heard from the panelists on topics including turning a passion into a career, the importance of mentors and stress-relief recommendations.
Throughout the discussion, the women emphasized checking in with yourself and understanding your own strengths and values.
“For me, it is all about knowing who you are,” said Horton, who in addition to her IT strategy position at American Airlines, is passionate about providing career coaching and development to her team. “My strength is I’m comfortable in the gaps and helping people identify their blind spots and limitations. Because of that, I can help them fill those gaps.”
Similar to Horton, Helm stressed that you do not always have to make a drastic change to follow your passion; you can find meaning in a current role, even within a big corporation.
Helm served five years in the U.S. Army as a logistics officer, including assignments in the U.S. and the Middle East. While it was easy to find meaning in her Army service, once she left the military, she worried she would not find the same connection in the corporate world. Recruited by Target based on her logistics experience, her first location with the company was managing 120 team members in a store in East Los Angeles. She saw her purpose as making sure those eight hours they spent at work were the best eight hours of their day. She now manages more than 1,000 team members.
“Never underestimate your ability to find purpose in a big company,” Helm said. “Major corporations have the ability and influence to offer opportunities that are in line with your own values.”
Cunningham’s career path also changed as her personal values expanded into new areas. Before leading the North Texas Food Bank, Cunningham — who is a first-generation high school and college graduate — had a long career with Texas Instruments, starting first in marketing. She began sitting on nonprofit boards and eventually assumed the chief citizenship officer position at TI, where she expanded the company’s philanthropic efforts. Leaving the company after 30 years for the food bank allowed her to further explore her passion of giving back to the community. She encouraged the audience to stay open to new possibilities.
“Be open to new ideas and new paths, and remember that you don’t have to stay in your degree,” she said. “If something excites you — even if in your same company — pursue it.”
The theme of career change and disruption resonated with attendees who were also in periods of career transition. Janell Cannedy, MS’98, MBA’07, is an IT professional who is trying to figure out the next step in her professional journey. In addition to the networking, she attended the discussion to inspire her own self-reflection.
“Women have different stories and perspectives about how they go to where they are and the obstacles they faced,” Cannedy said. “Hearing their stories will hopefully help me pick with intent where I want to land next.”
Similarly, Christina Ungaro, BS’10, who works in a predominantly male environment in her banking job, saw this event as an extension of the women’s lean-in circle she started at her company, where colleagues discuss interests and issues that specifically impact them. “It has been very empowering,” she said.
Bock encouraged every attendee who was going through their own career disruption to act, even if they were not absolutely certain of the next step.
“It’s an exploration — the doing comes first and the knowing comes second,” she said. “When in the corporate world, I would say, ‘When I retire, I’ll do something I love.’ But ‘when’ might not ever come, so just do it now.”
Launched in 2012, the leadership series now includes three events a year. The final event for 2018 is “Disruption: Thriving in Work Everything in Between” on Oct. 9.
— Caryn Berardi