Katy DeCoursey (MBA ’08) has leveraged her non-traditional professional background and career experiences to land positions with Siemens, American Express and Frito-Lay. DeCoursey capitalized on her knowledge, experience and lessons learned along the way to land her dream role: director of innovation strategy and innovation for Dr Pepper Snapple Group.
Here’s how she did it, in her own words.
I went to school to be an industrial and systems engineer and loved it. During my co-op – a multi-year internship – with The Coca-Cola Company, I realized I was very interested in business. I wanted to think beyond being an engineer.
My colleagues would sort of kick me under the table and say, “You’re not supposed to think like that. It’s going to cause issues from an engineering perspective.”
That was really the first time that I realized that I might want to change directions.
Waiting for the right time
I’d begun thinking about getting my MBA while I was still in engineering school. My timing was awful – I started to look at going to business school right as the dot-com bubble burst. So after graduating from Georgia Tech, I set my sights on a consulting role with Siemens, the largest engineering company in Europe. I used my background and the fact that I spoke German to position myself as a good fit for the firm’s internal consulting group in Munich, Germany, where I could leverage my skills in a business capacity.
After 9/11, I came back to the U.S. for personal reasons. During the recession that followed, lots of people were going back to school. With limited business experience and fierce competition from other applicants, I knew I wasn’t likely to get in to the type of business school that I wanted to. I felt like the best thing would be to seek new roles, learn about new areas and then go back to school. I thought of it as an experiential MBA. It was kind of a unique move.
Wanting to be closer to my family in New York, I pursued a position at American Express. While I didn’t have a traditional business or finance background, I’d made my own path in terms of gathering relevant experiences. I knew my way around working with numbers and had the analytical and organizational skills needed to put pricing processes in place, which is what American Express was looking for.
The position wasn’t where I saw myself long-term, but the opportunity to work for a company with great, inspiring leaders in an intellectually interesting city appealed to me. It was also a fabulous place to round out my skill set. I got exposure to finance, sales, marketing and strategy, which gave me a nice launch pad for going to business school when the time was right.
Finding my way
When I came to Carolina, I was a bit of a lost soul. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to pursue consulting or marketing. I even explored investment banking! You rarely get a blank slate, so I wanted to learn about all the different areas of business and make the best choice.
I interned in consulting, which was a great fit professionally but not personally. I was about to get married and was very concerned about being on the road all the time, away from my family. I chose marketing because it incorporated the strategy aspect that I loved about consulting and pushed me intellectually. It was also a lot of fun, yet it allowed me to be at home every night.
As a career changer, I had to work harder to land my internship and full-time positions – and other roles beyond those – and explain how my engineering and unconventional business background was relevant, because on paper it might not have looked like it at first glance.
To do that, I had to understand the key requirements for a particular function or role. I leveraged my network heavily throughout the recruiting process. The biggest thing that helped was asking someone – a classmate or acquaintance – to share insights about the role I was interviewing for. The UNC network is phenomenal. People made time to help coach me on the aspects of my background that were most relevant and how to best position myself to be considered for opportunities.
A few years after I graduated, I left the corporate world to start a business around my passion for marathoning. A few months in, I suffered a very bad injury. The doctors told me that I would probably never be able to run again, much less run a marathon. It was pretty crippling personally. It broke my heart to work on the business when I wasn’t able to run. I realized that my heart wasn’t in it anymore.
When things didn’t go as planned, I felt a little like I was going back to corporate America with my tail between my legs. But ultimately, the experience greatly improved my self-awareness. I have always been very entrepreneurial and thought that starting my own business was the right way to nurture that. Running my own business helped me realize that I missed the interaction of an office environment. I thrive when working in teams– it brings out more of my strengths. I also learned that I’m better suited for roles that allow me to do new and unchartered things with the safety, resources and backing of an established company.
Finding the right fit
My role as director of strategy and innovation for Dr Pepper Snapple Group is the opportunity I’ve always wanted. It perfectly melds my different experiences and skills. Plus, it’s a company where you’re encouraged to think differently and push through breakthrough change, so it satisfies my entrepreneurial desire to see value being created.
My work is focused on developing a strategy around potential new products, from identifying customer needs and insights to partnering with a brand team and cross-functional partners to create a product or offering that addresses that need. My engineering background helps with understanding and appreciating the technical side of the process and gives me more credibility with cross-functional teams.
Having exposure to other functions – such as sales, finance and forecasting – and understanding how to position a product has also been a big help in thinking about how to commercialize these products.
Paying it forward
Throughout my career, I’ve been fortunate to work with students from Carolina – and from other schools – to coach them through the recruiting and hiring process for the company and for my own team.
My approach to coaching is a bit unique. I’m interested in what’s right for each person – and for their long-term goals – first and for the company second. I counsel students to spend a good amount of time thinking about where they want to be long-term. It’s a tough question to answer early on, but important to think about because each opportunity needs to give them another tool for their toolbox and equip them for the long-term opportunities they’re working toward.
I’m at a great point in my career doing something I love to do. I encourage people to embrace change and chase some of the opportunities that might look crazy on paper but will move them toward their end goals. As someone who has had a lot of change in my life, I’ve found that taking risks and doing things unconventionally can accelerate your career and create great personal and professional growth.