EPISODE 008
Six Degrees Of Opportunity
In this episode, Karen Hunter, an innovation expert with experience in Corporate as well as consulting for global brands like Coca-Cola, Kraft, Snapple, Sara Lee, and Kimberly-Clark shares some great wisdom about innovation that applies to both corporations and startups.  You'll never believe what sparked her desire to pursue her MBA.


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Host - Monique Mills:

Welcome to the Unpolished MBA podcast. On this podcast, we have conversations with tech startup founders and entrepreneurs and traditional corporate MBAs. Many say that startups equal the unpolished MBA because those without the formal business education are scrappy and do many things. Untraditionally to achieve business success. But anyone who has built a business from an idea can attest to the fact that the experience is another level MBA and there's nothing quite like it. The candid conversations shared here is helpful to both sides of the fence. One is not better than the other, just different let's jump in.


Host - Monique Mills:

Hi, I'm your host, Monique Mills. And in my work, I get to have great conversations with a lot of smart and interesting people. Some are tech startup founders and entrepreneurs and others are corporate employees. Here I'm sharing a conversation I had with Karen Hunter, an innovation expert with experience in corporate, but also as a consultant for global brands like Coca Cola, Kraft, Sara Lee, and even Kimberly Clark. She shares some great wisdom about innovation that applies to both corporations and startups, and you'll never believe what sparked her to pursue her MBA. Listen in as she shares her story with us.



Guest - Karen Hunter: 

I loved the idea of seeing an idea concept that had a real user need come to life through execution. And that was a lot of fun. The challenge with innovation in general is that it is a very fluid role within a lot of corporations. And so what happened with me was my department, which was packaging innovation got eliminated, and they brought all that work into the brand teams. And so I ended up going to Deloitte and I did some process innovation at Deloitte. I actually got my first global role with Sara Lee in a coffee and tea division. And the interesting thing is that the Sara Lee North America is a satellite office.

The headquarters for Sara Lee coffee and tea was in the Netherlands. And so we were the regional office basically, but it was my first experience and really understanding the cultural implications of working in innovation across different types of perspectives. Because when I think about North America innovations, it's very focused on a North American point of view. When you get outside of North America, all of the cultural references shift and change, right? And so really becoming empathetic, trying to understand what is it about this particular innovation that is going to be meaningful in this particular market? It's something that I had to learn. I didn't really know how to approach it. So really think about the elements of empathy that you have to bring into those relationships.


Host - Monique Mills:

You mentioned that you were Corporate, but you're an entrepreneur now. So tell me a little bit about that transition and what type of entrepreneurship journey are you on?


Guest - Karen Hunter: 

So I, some of it is deliberate and some of it is circumstantial. I first went out on my own in 2015 because I had this opportunity. I was at Kimberly-Clark professional andI was heading up global design for their B2B business, and it was an amazing organization. I had a great team. I loved the people I worked with, but I wasn't heading up innovation and I wasn't as deeply involved in innovation as I wanted to be. And someone who I knew at Coke, and this is the power of networking, reached out to me sort of just out of the blue and said, Coke is redeveloping their renovation process. They need to create an innovation tool and they need someone to help develop all the training materials and run the training for all the global teams. And so that scratched three major itches for me. 

One is I'm getting into innovation process. The other is mentoring and coaching. And the third quite frankly, is global travel and cultural exposure. So I, and but what Coke wanted was someone to do it as an LLC, as an independent. They weren't hiring it on as role. So I took a leap, I took a leap of faith and said, I want to do this. And I want to build up my practice as an innovation process expert on a global basis.


Host - Monique Mills:

In this part I ask Karen what its been like being a woman in corporate and having opportunities given to her because she's a woman or not given to her because of it and to understand what her experience has been. And then she also introduces the concept of six degrees of opportunity. So, keep listening.


Guest - Karen Hunter:

I consider myself a rabid feminist, but I've also never felt like I had any doors that were open to me because I'm a woman or doors closed to me because I'm a woman. And that may just be because of who I am. I'm not particularly a shrinking violet. I'm pretty straightforward in everything that I do. And I'm, I'm a little fearless. 


I really have no fear of reaching out to people on LinkedIn or through my network and say, Hey, can I get 30 minutes to chat with you and just understand more about what you're doing. And I'm a strong believer in what I call six degrees of opportunity. So I might have this discussion today with you and then a couple of weeks from now, you and I might reconnect and you say, Hey, you know, I know this person that would be interesting for you to talk to. And I might talk to that person and that person might link me to someone else. And then suddenly something comes out of that, whether it's a business opportunity or an opportunity for me to mentor someone. But I don't think of, I don't think in terms of every relationship is transactional. I think of relationship as a way to build up my network.


Host - Monique Mills:

I'd have to agree with that. Certainly. It's funny because with social media, it has kind of built up some of those people that are very transactional. It feeds right into it. And then for others, I would say, I fall into the same category as you is, its actually has allowed me to build relationships with people that I wouldn't normally have access to and build relationships.


Guest - Karen Hunter: 

Yeah. And I, and I feel like I'm one of these people, I feel like when someone immediately jumps into relationship with me to try to sell me something, particularly if I'm not ready to be sold, it's a turnoff and I don't necessarily want to talk to that person again. But if I have, if I show genuine interest in someone else or like this morning, I've read this amazing article on strategy and business. And I reposted it on LinkedIn. I didn't know the author, but I cited him and just doing those sorts of things because I respect what the person had to say. I wanted to recognize him as the author and potentially I could make a connection with him because he's a kindred spirit and I might learn something from him in the future. And that's my mindset. And then that might lead to an opportunity. It might not, but it still enhances my network.


Host - Monique Mills:

In this next part we discuss how the letters behind your name, a.k.a. certifications or degrees, can be important and then at other times not so much. While we keep seeing more the media talk about it not mattering as much and that companies don't care, we're equally seeing just as much with that being requested before giving someone an opportunity.


Guest - Karen Hunter: 

On the professional side, you're seeing more and more companies looking for specific certifications, whether it's PMP or agile or scrum. And they want people who have, who've shown that they're willing to go and do the work to get certified. And it's interesting because I think they're two very distinct camps. Some people think, Oh yeah, you absolutely have to have it. It shows that you're willing to commit to it. And some people think it's just a bunch of hooey and that it's letters after your name, but it doesn't necessarily make you any better than anyone else.


Host - Monique Mills:

So that's, that's the premise of this podcast.


Guest - Karen Hunter: 

Yeah.


Host - Monique Mills: 

So the whole premise is people. I will get messages through LinkedIn all the time: Oh you're a PMP. I'm thinking about getting my PMP. What do you think? I'm like, Hey, whatever works for you, I didn't have to get mine. It was just something I challenged myself to do. But honestly, I was doing project management for many, many years, at least a decade, before I even did the PMP. And I don't think you need it to be a good project manager.

So then I start getting a question about MBA from so many people. It's like, you know, they see you in the startup world, they see you as an entrepreneur and having corporate and all of that. And it's the same question. I'm like, I don't believe, having been on both sides, I don't believe that you need that to be an excellent entrepreneur. And just because you have an MBA doesn't mean you will be a good one.


Guest - Karen Hunter: 

I, 100% agree with you. I'll give you, there's actually a story around why I got my MBA. I have an undergrad in English and I was in graphic design for the first 10 years of my career. And so I didn't really even think about going back to school. And then I got a job with Pepsi in their graphics group and their packaging graphics group. And I met people in the packaging innovation team and I was fascinated by the work that they were doing. The insight work, the physical work around packaging was, was just absolutely thrilling to me. And they ended up having a role that was open and I interviewed for it and that I didn't get the role. The hiring manager was kind enough to come back to me and say, I I really liked what you had to say, but we gave it to someone who had an MBA because they had that financial acumen and that background.


Host - Monique Mills: 

Wow.


Guest - Karen Hunter: 

And I said to myself, I can fix that situation. So it was a real desire to not put up any barriers for myself on the corporate side. And so I, within weeks I had taken the GMAT. I was accepted in University of Connecticut, because I was living up there at that point. And then I came down to here. And I went to school at Robinson College of Business, through Georgia State. And I was working full time at Coke and working on my MBA at the same time. The beauty for me was everything I was learning in my MBA classes, I was going back to Coke and applying on a regular basis. So I was getting to practice at the same time I was studying. Now that being said that practice would have still been in my repertoire. So I still would have learned the tools, but I was learning a lot of the theory behind it as I went. For me personally, I love learning. I've taken tons of classes just because I'm a school nerd.


Guest - Karen Hunter:

And I feel like I can never, I would never be able, I can never replace being able to say I have an MBA. When I was in grad school this is what I learned. So, but it is, I do think it's a very personal decision. I actually had a conversation with someone just last week who was, who was saying, I'm not sure I want to go get an MBA. And I said, well, in your current role, can you create what would you want to learn from an MBA and then use your job to help you learn those things that you might normally pick up within an MBA? And corporations often give you those opportunities because you do have that broader experience and probably opportunities to take classes that you wouldn't as an individual.


Host - Monique Mills:

Yeah. That's so that's true. You know, I have a network of people who work for the big companies like you have. And I worked for Siemens, government, and all those things and I, and I totally believe that certain companies do invest in their people like that. And then others they would like for you to have it, but they're not willing to pay for it. So I was telling one of our recent guests that when I did my MBA at Georgia Tech all of us that was in my class and my cohort, we all paid for our degrees. Nobody's company paid for it. And they said that companies just don't pay for it anymore. You know, at the school, at the college, it was like, yeah, companies, we used to be packed, you know as far as like our recruiting efforts. They'd still turn people down. Of course but still, it was like, it was easier to get people in because companies were paying for it. And they stopped doing that back when the housing crash happened back in 2008.


Guest - Karen Hunter: 

Yeah. And I think that's a, it's an unfortunate thing because it's a big financial barrier.


Host - Monique Mills:

Huge.


Guest - Karen Hunter: 

Yeah. It's huge. Yeah. I don't know that I would have been able to do it if, if Coca-Cola, hadn't paid for my MBA and I feel incredibly grateful and blessed that I was. I had my entire MBA paid for and had a lot of support from my leadership team at the time to go and actually do the work.


Host - Monique Mills:

That's awesome.


Guest - Karen Hunter:

Yeah. I think that's a, that's a really important conversation to have with your management team to say, are you going to support me that I need to leave at five o'clock so that I can get to class or I can do my homework? Cause you know, we're all working lots of hours these days and it can be very difficult.


Host - Monique Mills:

Yep, absolutely. So you know, we were kind of talking about different pivots you've made in your career and now you're at a, another pivot from what you were doing pre COVID, right. to what you're doing now. So tell me a little bit about your current entity.


Guest - Karen Hunter:

So I'll give, tell you a little bit about the start of my innovation career. Like I had mentioned I was in project management and process. So very much about the giant Microsoft project timelines and very structured ways of doing things. Over time and through the exposure of the corporations that I've both either directly working for corporations or working as a consultant to corporations, my current perspective is that innovation is driven by a series of questions and answers that organizations need to ask in order to make sure they're working on the right things. So my current entity, Whetstone, is focused on the principles, practices and processes of innovation that meld with, with culture in order to effectively build an innovation practice. So I've gone from this this hyper structured, everything has to be checked off approach to a fluid approach that is based on the particular culture and what they want to achieve with innovation. And how does, how do all of the elements of structure and governance come together in order to enable that organization to be as effective as they can be.


Host - Monique Mills: 

And who would be your ideal clients for this?


Guest - Karen Hunter:

 So from a, at a broad scale, it would be either a mid sized company that doesn't have a really good innovation process in place or an enterprise larger company that maybe has an innovation process in place, but they've sort of lost their way or it's not working as effectively as they'd like. And so they need someone to come in and run diagnostics and really help them think about where do we need to be, where do we need to be leaning in and doing better in order to get where we want out of our innovation work.


Host - Monique Mills:

Yeah. Wow. So one of the things you've mentioned earlier in our conversation was about embracing failure and using that as a way to learn in corporate and in innovation teams. So do you want to elaborate a little bit more on that for the audience?


Guest - Karen Hunter:

Yeah, so I I will say I've got some, some personal experiences there. So coming into a company like Sara Lee Coffee and Tea did not have any kind of innovation process put together. And so I was trying to help put some of that structure in place and was doing it in the sort of the Deloitte way and was very structured and not really paying attention to what does that culture look like? And what does it mean to embed an innovation process into an organization if you don't have leadership buy in? So I was, I was sort of a one man band and it was really not successful at all because I thought surely everyone understands that this process is going to be great. And I didn't have the language and I didn't have the cultural awareness at that time to say, you know what, I need to understand what the culture is about first and then adapt to think about what kind of process is going to help this organization, this particular organization. So it was a big learning for me.


Host - Monique Mills: 

Very well said about the cultural part. I mean, you've mentioned that a few times in this conversation. And throughout your expansive career, it sounds like you've had many instances of having to address that or make it a large consideration before moving forward in your role.


Guest - Karen Hunter: 

Absolutely. And I think that that's something that you can't simply...Any organization has its own DNA and it's a unique entity and organism in and of itself. And any innovator who comes in and says, I have this process and I know it's going to work within this culture is being a bit blind to all of the other dynamics that need to go into what does innovation look like in this particular organization? And that's, and that's a bit of a test and learn because sometimes organizations need to, sometimes they need to trial processes and pivot off those processes. Because sometimes they don't, they work in theory, but then when they actually get out wild and into the field people are too busy or they're not connected enough or it's just too laborious and you have to figure out what is the right approach.


Host - Monique Mills: 

Yeah, absolutely. And when you're a consultant coming from the outside in, I'm guessing you're looking for that champion, hopefully that champion is the one that hired you, right. And can help make those influences internally, but as an outsider coming in and your role now, how do you handle that?


Guest - Karen Hunter: 

So I heard a great quote from Mark Gorlin, who heads up the company Roadie. You want to look for the person with the juice. So the one who is, who can actually get things done. You want to look for the person with budget. And hopefully those are that same person. And then you want to look for the person with passion. So if you come into an organization and you find someone who has a ton of passion, but no budget you may want to think about is this the right person to connect with because that person would be awesome to talk to, but you may never move forward with anything work-wise. You need to be able to have someone who can introduce you within the organization and who trusts you to go have conversations with leadership that doesn't feel like they have to stand over you the whole time.

And some of those early conversations about how you work together and what kind of relationship are you going to have are really, really crucial to understanding what is it that that you're going to be able to do once you get inside that organization. Almost every major cultural change solution requires adaptation as you go. It's design thinking and it's, and it's hard because you're learning every single time you go out and do an iteration. And so, you know, that it's never going to be perfect the first time out of the gate. It's theoretically, as good as it can be. But really think about how do you test and learn and test and learn on a process to make sure that the organization is open to adoption.


Host - Monique Mills:

Okay, that's it. All I can say is, wow. Karen is just impressive. I really like how she described herself as a fearless feminist, and also as a quote unquote school nerd, I love it. She's had an expansive career with a lot of success, but also with a lot of lessons learned. And I think the one that stuck with me the most was her statement about embracing failure. And to make sure you have cultural awareness about a company before trying to introduce new things, because awareness will help you be more effective within that organization.

And also she said, something that is very true is that each company is a unique organism in and of itself and what innovation looks like to them may be different than your assumptions. Now we do talk about embracing failure in startup ecosystems, but it's very rare to hear that statement in corporate environments. And then Karen's point about finding people within the organization with the juice, budget, and passion was awesome. That's some wisdom that we all need in our arsenal, whether you're in corporate or in a startup.


The Unpolished MBA conversation continues, and you can be a part of it by going to unpolishedmba.com. Thank you for listening.


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