Ask An Alum: Lessons from Graduating in the Great Recession

Cap and Gown Ask an Alum Series #1, May 14, 2020

Kathryn Kilner:  Lessons from Graduating in the Great Recession

By Ellen Petrill, Eleanor Walker, and Kathryn Kilner

The word unprecedented was thrown around regularly in 2020. The year brought great uncertainty and chaos as we grappled with a global pandemic, an economic recession, social unrest, and political division. While the exact factors and combination of scenarios may be unique, there have been other times of great uncertainty and challenge that we can learn from as we navigate through our current environment. 

With that in mind, Cap and Gown invited Kathryn Kilner, Stanford ’08, to share about her experiences graduating in a recession for our first Ask An Alum event. Kathryn is a past president of the Cap and Gown Alumni Board and current executive committee member. Professionally, she is a technology marketer and currently works at Tableau leading global go-to-market programs.

Here are some of the takeaways and nuggets of wisdom Kathryn shared when she spoke to 35 Cap and Gown members and guests about her experiences graduating into a recession. 

Kathryn was a member of the distinguished class of 2008 at Stanford, double majoring in History and Human Biology.  She quipped, “I didn’t get the memo that most who claim as sophomores that they will do double majors drop one before they graduate.  I was obsessed with completing both my majors.”   Kathryn also minored in Dance and led the Cardinal Ballet.  Kathryn worked so hard up until the day of graduation senior year that she admitted, “I wasn’t able to complete a sentence on June 15, 2008.” And, Kathryn wasn’t quite done with her degree yet – she still had her honors thesis to complete.  She walked for graduation, then, exhausted, took the summer to rest.  

On taking care of yourself: Self care is critical! Especially when things are hard, it is important to take the time to recharge. Learn what your body, mind and spirit need to thrive and set aside time to take care of yourself. You aren’t wasting your time, you are putting yourself in a stronger position to tackle whatever challenges you face. You don’t cut corners by working to a point of burnout. Being burnt out makes you less effective and everything takes you more time. You can be burnt out or you can take care of yourself. Your choice. 

After resting most of the summer, Kathryn took up work on her honors thesis again in the fall. In September, she also spent some time in New York City and happened to visit friends who worked for Goldman Sachs on a Sunday night.  When she arrived at their downtown apartment, they were anything but calm.  They were running around the apartment, dialing into work conference calls, logging on to their laptops to fire off PDFs, and freaking out about their jobs.  They knew things were changing and big disruptions were coming.  The next day, September 15, 2008, Lehman Brothers filed for bankruptcy and Goldman Sachs failed five days later.  

The Great Recession ensued. There was instability in the financial markets, disruption to the status quo, and a feeling of freefall and chaos.  Although the factors at play in 2020 are different, the pervasive feeling of uncertainty is similar.  It wasn’t the environment that anyone hopes they graduate in, but you don’t get to choose that. 

After finishing her thesis in December and officially graduating, Kathryn asked herself, “Now what?”  In early 2009, she decided to take a temporary marketing job while she figured out what she wanted to do.  By the winter of 2009, the news was full of headlines of companies laying off people — not unlike what we saw in the spring of 2020, but even more extreme.  

On the power of mindset: Seeing news headlines in March of 2009 like ‘Company X to lay off YYYY people’ was discouraging.  It felt like the message was that there weren’t any jobs available.  But that wasn’t true.  There were jobs out there, but I had to work to find them.  I had to believe they were out there, though, to go look for them. 

“How I got through,” Kathryn explained, “was to focus not on what I couldn’t do, but what I could do.  I could take the next step:  the next application for a job, the next informational interview, the next phone call to a contact, the next skill to work on.”  You don’t need to figure out which company is going to hire you, just your next step – which application to submit, who to ask for advice, or what new skill to build. You can always take courses or volunteer or simply practice what it is you want to do in your own way. 

On staying positive and productive: Focusing on what you can do, not what you can’t do is so important to staying productive.  I have also found it helpful to keep a gratitude journal.  It’s hard to be both grateful and depressed at the same moment.  I found that what we have overrides what we don’t have.

In times of greater uncertainty, it helps to be simultaneously more certain about what you want to do and more creative about how you do it.  You need to be able to articulate what you want beyond “a job” to enable people to help you and to seize opportunities when they come your way. One key way that Kathryn explored what she wanted to do was conducting informational interviews.  She did dozens of informational interviews to learn about different types of marketing and possible career opportunities.  

On informational interviews: Informational interviews can be easier to land than you might expect, because you are simply asking the person to talk about themselves.  Everyone loves to talk about themselves!  I have learned a lot and honed in on what I wanted to do by talking to different people.

During these informational interviews, Kathryn was often asked about her double major.  “Which are you?” they would ask.  “Do you want to be a doctor because you majored in human biology?  What do you want to do with history?”  

She realized she had to learn how to tell her story in a way that made sense to others.  She needed to tell her story quickly and clearly and make the person understand how her interests fit their interests, in their language.  She needed an elevator pitch — a story about you that could be told to an executive in the time of an elevator ride.  

Over time, Kathryn honed her elevator pitch to connect her studies to the career she wanted in marketing.  Her pitch goes something like this:  “I studied culture from both historical and scientific perspectives, double majoring in history and human biology.  My history studies gave me experience analyzing trends and writing persuasively.  My human biology studies gave me insight into why people do what they do at the societal and neurological level.  Both of these skill sets enable me to be a better marketer.”

Your pitch should describe who you are, your background and how it is relevant, and what you can do for the person or organization you are talking to.  Developing it takes time and delivering it takes practice.  Don’t expect to nail it on your first attempt.  As you get better at delivering your pitch, consider how you can customize it to the person or organization you are sharing it with to reflect what they are looking for.  When you are applying for jobs, you need to show how you will fit their needs and how you can do the job based on your background and experience.

On getting a job when you haven’t had a job: Just because you haven’t been working doesn’t mean you don’t have experience.  You have experience!  It may not be in a corporate job, but it could be from experiences with your family, volunteering, a class, a campus or summer position, or in a different function or industry that can be related to what the other person is looking for.  The key is to reframe your experience using their language and their world view.  Employers are trying to mitigate risk–in particular the risk that the person they hire can’t do the job, so explain why you have the background to do the job.  Be creative and confident.  You believing you can do the job and being passionate about what it is will go farther than you think.

After months of informational interviews, honing her pitch, and seeking opportunities, Kathryn found one that connected with her passions in a startup, BrightTALK.  She interviewed for a marketing program coordinator position, but didn’t get an offer for that role.  Instead, she was offered a contractor position to solve a specific business challenge.  Because she was excited about the potential with this company, Kathryn agreed to take it on.  

Because it was a contractor role and not full-time, Kathryn didn’t stop the interview processes she already had underway.  She received a full-time offer from another firm and then had a choice to make.  She did more research on what the second job would actually entail and decided she wanted to stay at BrightTALK if they offered her a full-time position. They did and she worked there for five years, building out four different marketing teams from scratch for them before deciding to expand her experience at a larger company. 

On choosing a role: Think about not just what the role is, but what the experience of doing the job would be like as well as what the job would prepare you to do.  What will your hours be?  How long is your commute?  Does the salary cover your expenses and provide for your needs?  What sort of roles will the experience you get in this role open up to you?  My advice is to go with passion over fear.  You may have to put in some grunt work to get to where you really want to be, but two years or even five years, is not long in your career.  Use your interests to guide you and constantly be learning to open more doors, refine what you want, and put yourself in the position to get it. 

One other career decision point Kathryn shared about was thinking through balancing career and life passions.  Kathryn loves to dance and choreograph.  In college, she minored in dance and ran Cardinal Ballet.  She thought about turning that passion into a career, but recognized that dance doesn’t typically pay a ton and a dancer’s job is to audition, which sounded stressful to her.  She decided a career in marketing would be a better fit overall, and could provide the space to keep dance in her life.  Kathryn has taught dance on the side over the years, attends dance classes regularly, and now has a side business as a wedding dance choreographer. The little extra spending money is nice, but the real blessing is keeping dance as a source of joy rather than stress.  She also loves supporting the arts and enjoys connecting with people with shared interests at events. 

On your career passions vs. life passions:  Ask yourself about what you want out of a career and what passions you want to keep in your life in other ways.  Not every passion needs to be a career.  Explore multiple options and choose the balance that is right for you.  That balance can also change over time. 

Kathryn closed by sharing about the role that networking and connections had played in her career.  She had heard about the job at BrightTALK because a friend from high school knew the chief marketing officer there.  An executive she met through a friend put in a good word for her, which helped her get a job at General Electric.  An introduction from her costume designer from her Cardinal Ballet days helped her land a job at Salesforce.

On the power of networks and making connections:  You never know how your contacts and connections will help you in your job search.  In fact, it is more common to find your next job through your outer network — the friends and contacts of your friends and contacts–than your inner network.  Keep making contacts and building your networks — they matter.  

Unprecedented times call for greater creativity and extra determination to find our way, but they are not the end of the story.  Kathryn has had over a dozen years of corporate experience since graduation.  By constantly learning, expanding and honing her skills, developing her pitch, building her network, and taking time to rest, she has navigated uncertainty and created and taken advantage of many opportunities to build her career in marketing.  Check out her Linked In profile for more details.  Undoubtedly, there is much more to come for Kathryn.  

Many participants at the event recommended resources for networking, mentoring and career support: 

  • Beth Kneeland Pickett – Business Networking International
  • Marisa Mission – Design Your Life, a Stanford offering, developed by the D-School.
  • Karen McKinley – Stanford Alumni Network.  There are hundreds of alumni ready to connect with students.  BEAM, SAA career network.
  • Theanne Thomson – Stanford Alumni Career Services

The Ask an Alum Series was organized and implemented by Cap and Gown Board members Eleanor Walker, ’15 and Nancy Wenke Price, ’80, and Board president Carol Benz, ’85.