Breaking Barriers: Whitman Alumni Are Redefining Workplace Roles, Leading Through Innovation and Technology and Carving Out Diverse Paths to Success
Whether it’s educating its students and faculty on issues surrounding diversity, equity and inclusion; fostering new ventures through research, innovation and entrepreneurship; or tapping into the experience, generosity and leadership of its vast alumni network, the Whitman School of Management at Syracuse University is working to break barriers every day with a campus culture that continues to evolve, advance and promote its students with the support and skills they need to not only succeed in the business world but become leaders that are truly making a difference. To that end, we introduce you to six alumni who have used the foundation of their Whitman education to smash the glass ceiling, foster a new level of acceptance and bravely open doors leading not only to their own success but to the success of others, as well.
Reaching for the Stars and Stripes
When Kathleen Miller ’94 MBA was accepted into the Army Comptroller Program (now called the Defense Comptroller Program) at the Whitman School, she saw it as a stepping stone to her success. At the time, she didn’t have any idea that those steps would eventually take her to the United States Department of Defense (DOD), where this past August she was confirmed as deputy under secretary of defense (comptroller) after being appointed by President Joseph R. Biden Jr. L’68, H’09. The position helps oversee financial policy, financial management systems and business modernization efforts, as well as an annual budget of over $700 billion.
Miller’s path to such a high-ranking position within the federal government began in the 1980s after graduating from Cornell University with a degree in economics. She started working for the U.S. government in Germany, where the best job she could find at the time was an accounting position. “They told me I was horribly overqualified, but this was as close as I could get to what I had studied in school,” she says. While it was not what she had hoped for, it became her introduction to the world of federal financial management, and she quickly found that she could make an impact.
When she learned that the Army would put her through the Defense Comptroller Program at the Whitman School, she knew she had to apply. “So many senior leaders, both military and civilian had spoken very highly of the program or had graduated from there, so I saw it as a great opportunity,” she says.
I think it speaks volumes when education survives the test of time in a changing world. I would easily say that this program gave me an academic foundation for the rest of my career.” — Kathleen Miller ’94 MBA
Miller was accepted and relocated to Syracuse to earn her MBA in the yearlong program. “It was not just the content of the program. It was the mixture of courses focusing on the needs of the defense program, as well as financial management,” she says. “So much good information came out of that experience that I still refer back to it today. I think it speaks volumes when education survives the test of time in a changing world. I would easily say that this program gave me an academic foundation for the rest of my career.”
She also has a fondness for the cohort who went through the program with her—both uniformed military officers and Department of the Army civilians like herself. The program was also integrated with some traditional Whitman MBA courses that included students in the private sector. “This was great because inside the DOD we get comfortable working with each other and doing things in a particular way,” she says. “Mixing things up really helped us learn important lessons in team building and collaboration.”
She completed the program knowing that her next assignment with the Army would take her to Virginia. About a year later, she received a call asking her to apply for a job with the Pentagon. She wasn’t sure she wanted to make the move to Washington, D.C., but, not one to shy away from a challenge, she took the position. For the next few decades, she held a multitude of notable roles with the Army, including the assistant deputy chief of staff and principal assistant deputy chief of staff, as well as acting director and deputy director of the Army Budget Office. She also spent three years at the Internal Revenue Service as the associate chief financial officer for internal finance and the acting deputy chief financial officer.
In what she refers to as “late in her career,” she received a call in May 2021 asking her to consider putting her hat in the ring to be a Senate-confirmed presidential appointee. “I was awed and honored, but I didn’t hesitate,” she says. “I could have stayed in my previous job as administrative assistant to the secretary of the U.S. Army, eventually retired from that position and been very proud of my career. But I saw this offer as an opportunity to come full circle back to where I started in the resource management field in what I suspect will be a very challenging time frame.”
In August 2021, she was confirmed by the Senate as the deputy under secretary of defense (comptroller).
She acknowledges that she ran into plenty of barriers as both a civilian and a woman but says she never let those factors stand in her way. “I was one who was never intimidated by barriers, even though I know I am an oddity in what is a more male-dominated field,” she says. “I’ve found that you can break down a lot of barriers with hard work, competence, imagination and emotional intelligence. People want other people around them who know the right answers. I always did 120% of my homework and had the confidence and imagination to understand how to be a voice that’s heard in the room.”
After only a few months in her new role, she is proud of the work she is doing to serve her country. “The work can be incredibly complex,” she says. “My role is to justify funding that supports the entire United States Department of Defense, everyone from the people to the training to the weapons systems. It is an amazing privilege to support our men and women in uniform, to help Congress understand our budget requests and execute the funding for the good of our nation. I never imagined, even a year ago, that I’d hold this position, and I am incredibly grateful to the president for appointing me.”
Uniting Creative Talent and Opportunity
Kelsey Davis ’19 (NEW), ’20 M.S. believes that talent is everywhere—but opportunity is not. This recent Whitman graduate is making great strides as the co-founder and CEO of CLLCTVE, an innovative platform that “fosters a diverse and inclusive environment and democratizes the content marketplace for all creators, regardless of race, sexuality, location or resources.”
CLLCTVE provides access to underrepresented talent in a way that allows us to democratize access to opportunity. It provides a deeper pathway for people who historically don’t have these opportunities available to them.” — Kelsey Davis ’19 (NEW), ’20 M.S.
While a student at Syracuse University’s Newhouse School majoring in television, radio and film, Davis started freelancing in video creation, working with major brands like Puma, Condé Nast and Coca-Cola. She began noticing that brands targeting a Gen Z audience could benefit from the talents of Gen Z creators, too. So, Davis began seeking out talented, creative students to work with her and soon founded CLLCTVE, a platform that connected creators with marketers.
Her idea got noticed, and she soon realized that this was her calling, making plans to pursue CLLCTVE as a career. After earning her bachelor’s degree, she decided to enroll at the Whitman School to earn a master’s degree in entrepreneurship and emerging enterprises, while using that time to raise capital for her growing business venture.
“Whitman gave me the space, an incubation year, to be in a position where I could test a lot of assumptions about my company and have the opportunity to actually work on my business while I ideated and created in real time,” she explains, noting that her master’s capstone project focused on the work she was doing with CLLCTVE.
“The goal is to help creators fuel their independent work-life journey,” says Davis, who has since relocated to Los Angeles to run CLLCTVE full time with co-founder Brendan O’Keeffe ’21 (iSchool). “CLLCTVE provides access to underrepresented talent in a way that allows us to democratize access to opportunity. It provides a deeper pathway for people who historically don’t have these opportunities available to them.”
CLLCTVE is making its mark. According to Davis, the platform has built a working team, raised hundreds of thousands of dollars in venture capital and currently hosts a community of more than 3,000 creators.
“The market is hungry for what we are building right now,” says Davis. “For creators, it’s a tool in their belt to connect with brands, get a job and, ultimately, get paid for doing what they love. For brands, it’s a way to connect with fresh freelancers, creators and an endless number of really talented, innovative people who might not otherwise be on their radar.”
It’s not only the company that’s attracting attention; Davis is, too, as there is no ignoring her entrepreneurial spirit and determination to level the playing field for people of all backgrounds. Recently, she was chosen as one of 12 Black-owned LGBTQ entrepreneurs in a 2020 Forbes article celebrating Pride Month, was named to Forbes’ 30 Under 30 in 2021 and has been highlighted in both Adweek and The New York Times.
“Humbly, I don’t feel surprised by that. I have always felt like God gave me the wisdom and purpose to go out and build a bridge and be a connector,” she says. “My dad always told me, ‘If you do good work and are a good person, you’ll succeed.’ I always try to serve and see how I can add value.”
“There are a lot of things that my community already knew pre-pandemic and pre-George Floyd, but world events created more urgency towards some of the realities that Black people were already living,” she explains. “These issues helped us, I suppose, as we continue to validate a lot of ideas that Black and brown founders have. Black founders can solve problems for 99% of the world. We have always lived with a higher sense of empathy and a consciousness of having to go against the grain. We’re problem solving all the time.”
These issues helped us, I suppose, as we continue to validate a lot of ideas that Black and brown founders have. Black founders can solve problems for 99% of the world.” — Kelsey Davis ’19 (NEW), ’20 M.S.
Davis plans to continue to solve problems and tap into her own creative and entrepreneurial spirit while helping others bring their talents into a larger spotlight. She intends to move CLLCTVE forward by continuing to grow her team and extend the product beyond Los Angeles and across the country, and there’s little doubt she will succeed.
According to Davis, “We want CLLCTVE to become the No. 1 place where people search for creative talent, and we intend to continue to build a product that will make a real difference in the lives of millions of talented creators, while also creating new spaces for economic inclusion and equity for everyone.”
JOSE R. QUILES
Pursuing Goals in Graduate Education
Growing up in Puerto Rico, Jose R. Quiles ’19 MBA always walked the hallway of his home where his father and mother’s diplomas were hung. He distinctly remembers a framed master’s degree diploma of his father’s that loomed particularly large, and that image represented a goal he wanted to achieve for himself one day.
Fast forward to 2009. Quiles moved to Tampa, Florida, trading the comforts of his home, his language, food and culture for the promise of a better life on the mainland. He traded his car for a bike he bought at the Salvation Army and left behind his family and childhood friends for the chance at greater career opportunities and a better life.
“Until then, I never knew how easy I had it. Now, I had to start over, but I was determined to make it. I needed to venture into something completely new,” he explains. “As a Latino in the United States, I had other layers and challenges to overcome, too, but I was determined to succeed. Failure was not an option for me.”
In 2011, he joined Citi in Tampa, as a retention specialist for Citi International Personal Bank. As he moved through the ranks at Citi over the next seven years, the image of his father’s diploma was never far from his mind, and eventually he began to explore MBA programs. He chose the Syracuse University online MBA program through the Whitman School for the flexibility he needed while working and raising a family, as well as to achieve the skills he required to further his career.
Shortly after enrolling in the program, Quiles joined JPMorgan Chase as a senior associate, regional implementation manager, where he oversaw corporate client implementations in Latin America, serving as one of the lead implementation managers for local, regional and global projects. The combination of experiencing another side of the business in his new role, along with the information he was learning at Whitman, was invaluable, according to Quiles.
As a Latino in the United States, I had other layers and challenges to overcome, too, but I was determined to succeed. Failure was not an option for me.” — Jose R. Quiles ’19 MBA
“Looking back, the MBA helped me with the skills I needed to succeed in the corporate world and prepared me for more senior-level challenges,” he says, noting that he returned to work at Citi in March 2020 in his current position as senior vice president, U.S. service department head and senior global service manager, where he works with corporate treasury departments to achieve excellent client experience. “The online format of the program was also very helpful. We live and operate in a virtual world, now more than ever; at Citi, I work, manage and collaborate with people from all over the world. The program really gave me a lot of the tools I needed to be successful in the current business environment.”
Quiles is committed to helping others obtain graduate education, too. He has served on the board of Prospanica (formerly known as the National Society of Hispanic MBAs), an association of Hispanic MBAs and business professionals, which gives support and scholarships to “empower and enable Hispanic professionals to achieve their full educational and social potential.” He was a member before joining his local board, and the opportunity to network with other Latinos who spoke the same language and had shared experiences made him feel that achieving his MBA was doable. He is also a founding member of Citi Parents Network Tampa Bay and involved with the Citi Hispanic Network. Both organizations are employee-led groups focused on building diverse cultures and communities.
Like his father, Quiles is also passing along the desire for education to his own children. One of his fondest memories of working on his MBA was when his young daughter, now age 9, would come downstairs to “rescue” him as he studied late into the night. “She’s already made it clear that she will be attending Syracuse University one day,” he says. “Sometimes, I see her looking at my diplomas and certificates up on the wall, just like I used to see my father’s, and she’ll say, ‘I’m going to have the same diplomas as Daddy one day!’”
Quiles’s mother, who was a teacher in Puerto Rico, had always been skeptical of an “online” program. “My mom finished her studies shortly after I was born. She valued education and knew firsthand how hard it can be to finish a degree, especially with a family of your own. It’s funny because she wasn’t sure this program was real. She had a hard time understanding the online format,” he says.
In 2019, his mother traveled from Puerto Rico to Syracuse to attend Quiles’ graduation. She loved everything about Syracuse University and was blown away by the architecture of the campus and all the new friends Quiles had made during his two years at Whitman. He proudly shows off a photo of him in his cap and gown, hugging his mom at graduation. Sadly, it was the last time he and his mom were physically in the same place, as she died recently. “Syracuse was the last place where we shared a meal with my mom. It was the last place where I saw her smile,” he says.
The connection I have to Syracuse and the Whitman School goes above an MBA or being successful in my career." — Jose R. Quiles ’19 MBA
“The connection I have to Syracuse and the Whitman School goes above an MBA or being successful in my career. The skills I gained, together with the memories and the friendships I was able to make during those two short years, will forever be the hallmark of my time at Syracuse,” he says. “And, I’ll never forget my mom, my daughter and my wife screaming and cheering for me at graduation when I received my master’s degree, which, like my dad’s, is now hanging on the wall, and which makes it mean even that much more.”
Preparing the Next Generation of Female Leaders
Jamie Vinick ’20 was breaking barriers before she graduated from the Whitman School. A double major in finance and marketing management with a minor in political science, Vinick attended a networking event where a powerful female banking executive was asked to speak. People threw out plenty of questions, but no one asked about gender in the workplace or the nuances associated with entering and advancing as a woman.
The Whitman culture breeds entrepreneurship, and I was deeply inspired and encouraged to pursue a less traditional career path.” — Jamie Vinick ’20
That inspired her to think about ways to authentically connect young women to each other in a noncompetitive environment that also encouraged conversation around topics like developing confidence, combating imposter syndrome, negotiating salaries and organically building a network. So, she started a club on the Syracuse University campus: The Women’s Network (TWN). She was hoping 20 people might attend, but, to her surprise, 180 turned out at the first meeting.
By Vinick’s senior year, she had launched chapters of TWN at five additional universities, including Cornell University and University of California, Berkeley. Since February 2020, The Women’s Network has reached 142 campuses and two countries, linking women to one another and to leaders across different industries, while cultivating a community in which members can build authentic connections.
“The Whitman culture breeds entrepreneurship, and I was deeply inspired and encouraged to pursue a less traditional career path,” says Vinick, giving a special nod to Whitman faculty members Ken Walsleben, professor of entrepreneurial practice, and Fatma Sonmez-Leopold, assistant teaching professor of finance, who she says, “changed the trajectory of my career.”
After Syracuse University classes went completely online in March 2020 due to the pandemic, Vinick figured she’d go back to campus eventually, but that didn’t happen. Instead, she used that time to “begin building leadership teams, hosting experiential virtual programming that enabled more collegiate women to connect, and launching more chapters of TWN.” She says that given how isolated lockdowns were, people were more in need than ever before of finding community and building connections.
Now based in New York City, she is committed to growing The Women’s Network and expanding its national and international presence. Part of her work includes hosting a podcast, Redefining Ambition, where powerful women share their obstacles, lessons learned, challenges and accomplishments. Found on Spotify and the Apple Podcast app, it recently wrapped Season 2 with more than 40 episodes.
Preparing for the next generation of leaders is part of our mission, and it’s a big responsibility to show people why and how today’s young women need to ascend and succeed in the workplace. I’m excited for the future.” — Jamie Vinick ’20
“The work we’re doing at The Women’s Network is something I’m deeply passionate about, and I know I will continue in some capacity,” she says. “Preparing for the next generation of leaders is part of our mission, and it’s a big responsibility to show people why and how today’s young women need to ascend and succeed in the workplace. I’m excited for the future.”
ELMER LUKE III
Differentiating Himself Through Curiosity in Investment Banking
Elmer Luke III ’15 has been curious about business and investing since childhood.
While earning a personal management merit badge as a Boy Scout, he was tasked with making a budget, understanding credit and creating and monitoring a simulated stock portfolio. As a teen, eager to learn more, he requested so many financial books from his local library—many of which had to be sent from other libraries around his home state of Ohio—that years later one of the librarians thanked him, saying his tremendous demand for books helped protect her job.
“Those were the things that really gave me the itch,” he says of the early interests that led him to a career in investment banking.
While Boy Scouts provided the spark, it was the collapse of the financial markets from 2007 to 2009 that really made an impact on Luke. It was an economic disaster felt around the world, with many financial institutions caught off guard and left scrambling to put the pieces back together, he says. He was absorbed by the dynamics and missteps of the crisis, and he clearly remembers watching a Whitman finance professor “speak eloquently” about it in a CNBC interview.
That interview first put Syracuse University’s Whitman School on his radar. When it came time for him to research colleges, he also discovered that the Whitman School offered opportunities like the Investment Club and the Orange Value Fund (OVF).
“Those were differentiators for me, on top of the other great factors like the faculty and the variety of classes offered,” he says. “Those organizations further fueled my curiosity in understanding how the financial world works.”
Once he enrolled in Whitman, it was the Orange Value Fund that became one of his main focuses. “Members of OVF learn how to think beyond standard corporate finance,” he says. “As a student, investing anywhere from a $3 to $5 million fund really forces you to understand corporate structure, future business prospects and valuation.”
“It’s about understanding a company, not only from management’s perspective but also from an investor’s perspective and finding pockets of value that others might be missing,” he adds. “Many companies are very good at understanding their own business models but struggle to articulate clearly what differentiates them from competitors and why they are attractive to potential buyers.”
That keen interest in thinking outside of the box has helped Luke succeed in his career. Today he is an investment banking associate at Stifel Financial Corp. in New York City. He had been working in industrials investment banking, but, ever curious to learn more, he switched internally to the financial sponsors group, which works with private equity funds.
“The switch forced me out of my comfort zone and allowed me to apply information gained from industrials to other sectors,” he says. “It’s a very different experience looking at technology companies and how they are valued.”
The switch forced me out of my comfort zone and allowed me to apply information gained from industrials to other sectors.” — Elmer Luke III ’15
As an African American, Luke has made strides in a profession where only 5.3% of investment bankers identify as Black or African American, compared to almost 70% white, 11% Hispanic and 11% Asian, according to a survey from career services firm Zippia. In recent years, financial institutions have taken notice and have begun to implement changes to create a more diversified group of employees.
“I think to stay in this field long-term you have to be passionate and dedicated,” he says. “You need to differentiate yourself, and what has differentiated me is a willingness to analyze things from various perspectives to gain a deeper understanding of situations. That has put me in a good position in my career.”
It’s about understanding a company, not only from management’s perspective but also from an investor’s perspective and finding pockets of value that others might be missing.” — Elmer Luke III ’15
Ultimately, Luke hopes to use his skills to become a trusted advisor to clients and a more sophisticated investor. One way or another, he intends to stay curious, keep learning new skills and make a significant impact in the business world.
Steering Young Women Into Careers in Tech
Sandhya Iyer ’20 (WHIT/NEW) didn’t used to think she’d ever be interested in tech.
“Coding wasn’t interesting. Tech was not for me,” she says of her high school mindset. “But then I realized I needed to stop thinking that way. Tech is everywhere, and there are a lot of career prospects in that sphere that woman can combine with other interests to be successful. The reality is that most people’s interests are going to intersect with tech at some point in their careers.”
To foster that change in mindset, Iyer is now CEO of Geek Girl Careers, a platform to help young women discover how their professional interests and personalities might align with opportunities in the tech industry. “I’m very passionate about female empowerment, sustainability and helping those in need, and at Geek Girl I get to combine all three in my current role,” she says.
The idea for Geek Girl originated with her father, Sundar Vanchinathan, who had worked for several decades in Silicon Valley and noticed the lack of guidance afforded to young women, as well as the shortage of women pursuing tech careers. Iyer used the tools of Geek Girl herself to help tie together her own interests, which led her to pursue a career in marketing communications. Together, father and daughter laid the groundwork for an initiative that would open more young women’s eyes to the career potential within technology.
Iyer took the idea with her to Syracuse University, where she earned her bachelor’s degree as a dual major in marketing management at Whitman and public relations at the Newhouse School. She continued to work on the idea, using resources from both Whitman and Newhouse, but it wasn’t until she graduated that she decided to pursue Geek Girl Careers full time. Today, she runs the company, while her father has stepped back into an advisory role.
Geek Girl Careers is the world’s first online career counseling platform that empowers women to discover their dream careers in technology, according to Iyer. Through an online personality assessment, skills development tools and career exploration, users are connected to career options that align with their particular interests and skills, as well as the knowledge they need to pursue those areas professionally. Geek Girl has also created tech-and career-related advice through a blog and weekly newsletter, as well as a regular presence on Instagram, TikTok and YouTube.
In June, Iyer launched a pilot program for Geek Girl with university partners that included Syracuse University, Georgia Tech, American University and Loyola University Chicago. Female high school students spend a month learning virtually about engineering, data science, design and business and what careers might look like in these areas of tech. The pilot allowed the young women to network with faculty and alumni from the participating universities and explore their interests more closely.
“They were all so excited to brainstorm together,” says Iyer of the pilot participants. “Seeing their questions and how eager they were to learn was awesome.”
Iyer credits her time at Syracuse University for giving her the courage to create a career around something she is truly passionate about. “Whitman provided me with the confidence to pitch myself and my ideas, and to build relationships that helped Geek Girl Careers to grow,” she says.
I really do believe that everyone, particularly those in my generation and younger, is going to work in tech at some point in their careers. Geek Girl is going to continue to be a part of closing the gender gap.” — Sandhya Iyer ’20 (WHIT/NEW)
“It gave me real-world-skills, like how to build a business plan, that I was able to use right away. I wasn’t intimidated because of what I had learned there, and it gave me the confidence to reach out to people for partnerships and not be afraid to ask for what I wanted.”
She also credits the experience she gained as part of Syracuse University’s Blackstone LaunchPad Future Founders 2021 Summer Fellowship for helping her further her startup’s goals. There she learned about raising funds and pitching to the media, while also interacting with others figuring out their own ventures.
Iyer has already seen the beginning of what promises to be a successful career; Geek Girl Careers has already helped a number of young girls, opening their minds to opportunities they might otherwise never have considered.
“I really do believe that everyone, particularly those in my generation and younger, is going to work in tech at some point in their careers,” she says. “Geek Girl is going to continue to be a part of closing the gender gap, so that women have equal opportunities and greater representation in the tech space.”
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