Outside Academia Volume 2:
Interview conducted and transcribed by Rita Kompelmakher, PhD Candidate at the University of Minnesota, September 2014.
Loren Mayor received a PhD in Theater History from Northwestern University in 1999. She taught at the New School for Social Research and served as Visiting Assistant Professor at Northwestern prior to joining the business-consulting firm McKinsey & Company in 2000. For the past ten years she has held executive level positions at the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, Public Broadcasting Service (PBS), and National Public Radio (NPR). She currently holds the position of Senior Vice President of Strategy for NPR in Washington D.C.
At NPR Loren is part of the senior leadership team and in charge of working with the CEO and Board of Directors to chart the strategic vision for the organization. Part of her job involves research analysis and meetings with department heads at NPR to discuss operational activities that feed into that larger strategy. The other part of her job consists of acting as an internal consultant for the company on longer-term projects that align with NPR’s strategy. In our interview, I ask Loren to describe what her typical day looks like at NPR. She answers: “I am literally in meetings with colleagues in my company or industry from the minute I get here until the minute I leave.” She shares that following our call she has one meeting to analyze radio program pricing and another meeting to discuss the implementation of a new software system for the company. Prior to our interview she met with the senior team to discuss the upcoming fiscal year and to clarify strategy, metrics and deliverables.
While terminology such as ‘metrics’ and ‘deliverables’ might seem odd for a Theater PhD, Loren explains that many of the skills she needs on the job she acquired in graduate school. In our interview she aptly code-switches between business-world lingo and academic lingo, mentioning that when she prepares for meetings she is leading she relies on deep reading and critical skills in order to convey complex technical information in a way that will resonate with all audiences, no matter what their backgrounds. These are skills she honed in graduate school. She reminisces that one of the things she loved most about teaching was crafting a lesson plan that would organically bring students to an “aha moment” in class, adding, in parallel, “I strive for that in conversations I am leading in the corporate world.”
Even though her teaching experience became a significant asset in the corporate world, Loren acknowledges that she did have a “tiny half step up” from some of her colleagues in graduate school. Her dissertation examined the impact of the arts in economic redevelopment and her research analyzed trends in urban planning. She highlights that even in graduate school she was interested in the “macro-economic view of the world.” To support her graduate research she took classes at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern and she credits this with helping her acquire a “bit of (business) vocabulary” that proved useful later down the road. Additionally, after graduate school, she got involved in a civic initiative aimed at making the arts part of the city government’s planning agenda. However, even this work was inadequate preparation to make the switch from academic to media executive.
Loren’s transition from academic to media executive required an additional step. While holding a position at Northwestern she heard from friends about a recruitment opportunity at McKinsey & Company, a leading consulting firm. McKinsey & Company recruited “non-traditional candidates” and required recruits without an MBA to go through a three-week “mini-MBA” program that included courses in macro- and microeconomics, marketing, and strategy. McKinsey served as a “major training ground” for Loren. She describes her three years with the firm as a “trial by fire” that was “very rigorous and quantitative” and allowed her to hone the analytical skills needed for her career.
Bearing in mind that Loren spoke very fondly of teaching, I feel compelled to ask why she pursued the job at McKinsey & Company in the first place. She responds that in her career the “through line has always been a desire to make an impact” whether in academia or elsewhere. She described this impact as the ability to personally exert influence on activities in the world and to see a change in how things work. Although Loren saw the influence of her teaching in the classroom, at some point she started to wonder: “Am I having enough of an impact?” The bureaucratic aspects of the university frequently made it difficult to get things done. With the McKinsey offer she saw an opportunity to work with major companies that were making an impact in the world. On her current job she makes decisions every day and these decisions are implemented: “Things change and I love that.” This desire for impact also constituted one of the major reasons Loren left McKinsey & Company and went “in-house” to work for a public media company, explaining that working as a consultant did not permit her to “see the implementation process through from start to finish” as her current job now allows.
Loren confides that the transition from professor to analyst was not necessarily an easy one: “I went from being the expert in the classroom to someone pretty junior in a big system where I was fairly unprepared. That was a big change.”
I ask Loren to address the accusation of ‘selling out’ in regards to her new career since the transition to a nonacademic career entails not just a transfer of skills, but also a re-evaluation of principles that can emotionally and intellectually bind academics to a certain way of life. Loren responds that “you can turn corporate America into some big boogeyman,” but that she has “been in the public media for a decade” and found places with a strong sense of mission and meaningful work. “It’s about making a civil society. This company [NPR] sends reporters into Iraq and tells people about the Ebola crisis.” In describing her role in the company she says that “yes, I look at a lot of spreadsheets, but I feel that the work I contribute to makes this country better.” When she came to NPR the company was in a budget deficit and during her leadership this month they “are passing a balanced budget for the next year.” She sees this as one of her proudest moments on the job. Additionally, Loren touches on some myths about non-academic careers such as the fear of losing one’s sense of self and intellectual community. Although she concedes that “right after I left academia I felt a part of me was not getting expressed,” she now finds that her life “feels well integrated.” She sees commonalities between her new job and many of the things that made her love academia, especially “being with people and problem solving.” “I have a very intellectually satisfying job. I come home every day pretty energized by the things that got done.”
Academia positively influenced Loren’s sense of fulfillment and success in the media industry. “Pure passion” led her to pursue a degree in Theater History where she fostered her fascination with “how cultures craft stories about themselves.” She believes her ability to exercise her passion and to understand cultures made a difference in her new career. When she interviewed for McKinsey & Company she received feedback that they were impressed by her “passion and joy” for the things she was doing in her life. Her ability to speak in expert fashion in front of small and large groups of people has also been an asset. “Public speaking is not a skill that all business professionals are trained in,” she says. “Being in front of a classroom every week hones your ability to be a good communicator.” The training she received in academia as a professor –that required the crafting of new courses every 10 weeks –made it possible for her to “parachute into a foreign culture” at her consulting job and “process a tremendous amount of information in a very short time frame.” Although lacking the traditional MBA training of many of her colleagues at McKinsey, Loren felt that the wealth of experience she brought from academia made her stand out from “everyone else coming off the queue.”
I ask Loren to reflect on the most important factors that made possible her transition from academia to a non-academic career. She told me that she had a positive role model of someone who started in academia but did not end up there: her mother, who received a PhD in American Studies and left academia to work in non-profit management. In graduate school “everything is leading you toward being an academic. They do not bring in professionals who have the degree and do something else.” This sort of mentality can frequently make graduate students feel like only one path is available to them, but perhaps because of her mother’s influence Loren did not regard academia as her only option. “I never assumed I would end up in academia; I assumed I would start there.”
Toward the end of our conversation I ask Loren if she has any advice for graduate students who are considering non-academic careers. Although a “strong advocate” for the idea that “if you follow your passion good things will come,” she also believes in her mother’s motto that “chance favors the well-prepared mind.” Reflecting on the classes she took at the Kellogg Business School while pursuing a PhD, she suggests that taking classes in other departments will “give credibility to why you are interested in this new thing.” She advises graduate students to take advantage of the campus to gain information about things of interest to them: “Find a professor, find a graduate student and talk to them.” These are things that you can potentially “talk to prospective employers about and add as a line in your resume.” Similarly, she believes it is important to “build out your network and meet people from different [non-academic] backgrounds.” For the most part “people are thrilled to talk about themselves” and it is “a whole lot easier to have a conversation” than to “approach someone when you need a job.”
Since Loren has experienced a professional life in both worlds, academic and corporate, I ask if she would hire a PhD in Theater and Performance Studies. She replies, “Yes.” The skills one gets in a PhD program, “everything from rigorous analysis, good writing skills, and, in theory, good communication skills if you have also been teaching,” are all capabilities she wants in a colleague. The degree also demonstrates to her one’s ability to finish a task, since it is a “mountain to get a PhD.” When she meets with people who have started a program and didn’t finish it, she underscores that it is “their misfortune to talk to her” because one of the qualities she respects most in her colleagues is perseverance – “that you can start it and finish it.”