Spotlight Interview: Maggie Niehaus

Maggie Niehaus: MBA Candidate, Emory University

Atlanta

WFU Class of 2012

Major: English

Minor: Journalism

Maggie Niehaus left Wake Forest in 2012 and began a career with PR giant Edelman in her native city of Atlanta. Taking advantage of the onset of media’s digital era, Niehaus became a key player in the movement for the Atlanta practice. Currently pursuing an MBA from Emory University, Maggie caught us up on everything since graduation.

Maggie Niehaus left Wake Forest in 2012 and began a career with PR giant Edelman in her native city of Atlanta. Taking advantage of the onset of media’s digital era, Niehaus became a key player in the movement for the Atlanta practice. Currently pursuing an MBA from Emory University, Maggie caught us up on everything since graduation.

DeacLink: What did you study while you were at Wake?

Maggie Niehaus: I was an English major and a Journalism minor. After I decided to be an English major, my Dad, who’s an investment banker and very logical, said “that’s a subject, but that’s not a job.” So Journalism was the job-version of my English major. As an English major, I knew I’d be well-read, but unless you want to be an academic or go into creative writing, that isn’t a job. I was taking literature courses and things that were a little bit fluffy, and it was very hard to translate that to a career, and that’s where Journalism came in. It was taking what I was reading and how I was learning to write, and turning them into practice skills. My original post-grad game plan was to work at a magazine. I wanted to do something with my degree, but more on the editorial side rather than something like investigative or hard journalism.

DL: Since you’ve graduated, how has your career unfolded? Can you walk me through your path from graduation day to your most recent job?

MN: Magazines, as great as they are and as good for the soul as they are, are not necessarily the industry that you want to be in right now. Print isn’t what it used to be. Quite frankly they weren’t hiring when I graduated, and not interested in making their staffs bigger. Instead, magazines were looking for content from freelance writers, and without a lot of people on the payroll. I also didn't really want to live in New York, which was limiting. That kind of got me into the PR world.

I remember sitting in a journalism class, and the professor was joking that PR was the field for journalists that don't want to do journalism. To real, hard-core journalists, PR has a negative connotation. That’s not the case for me, because I never tried it as a real journalist, and the skills really do translate.


After graduation, I ended up at Edelman. I had a PR internship in consumer branding, where I was pitching media and writing press releases. From there my career went rogue. I really built my career at Edelman by following the firm’s growth and seeing where the company was going. I saw the company was moving in a more digitally-focused direction, so I began to make my pivot. While Edelman is a PR company through and through, I wanted to be one of the first people to get their foot in the door into the newly-emerging digital practice. I thought that this could potentially help me accelerate my career, and that is exactly what happened.

I went from interning on the PR side to working full time in the digital practice. It wasn’t a direct translation of my skills, but my career was very much more about the people I knew and getting people in my corner. I was doing good work, whatever that may have been, so when I went up for jobs on other teams, those people could vouch for me. That’s how I built my career at Edelman. A big part of it was getting in earlier in the digital practice, which then evolved into me building out a paid media team in the Atlanta office. When I joined, a lot of what I was doing was digital advertising, which was globally run, and wasn’t specific to an office. We were a pod of resources any global office could use. That led to me having great experience off the bat working with our office in the Middle East and Europe, which I would have never worked with otherwise. However, later they decided to build out a media team in each of their offices, and because I was located in Atlanta, I helped to start that team here. I was that team’s first hire in Atlanta, and I was just a year into my job. I took it and ran with it. In early days of media team in Atlanta, there were 3-4 of us, and this past May when I left, there were 12-14 members. Our unit quadrupled because the company saw value in bringing digital into everything they did. This allowed us to scale the team to the size of the clients we had.

My first clients were so small you never heard of them, but by the time I left, it was companies like Olive Garden and SeaWorld. My path was less about any formal training, and consisted of me identifying opportunities and knowing that I can learn quickly.  My theory was that I could figure it out last time, so I could figure it out this time, too.

DL: What led you to pursue an MBA? And how did you pick Emory?

MN: What prompted the search is that I had worked at the agency for five years. I was in this place where I was on track to be a lifer at Edelman, which is fine, but if I was going to leave and go client-side, it should be now. I had lots of friends go get their MBAs, and I never thought it was for me until I was thinking about what kind of jobs I would want if I were to leave Edelman and go client-side. Getting an MBA started to make sense. I was thinking about pivoting from the skills I had in terms of PR, communications, advertising, and analytics. I have done bits and pieces here and there, but if I wanted to do real big brand marketing, it required me to get an MBA. Also, part of that was I had never taken a business class. I did English and Journalism, which are great, but I couldn't go run someone’s P&L statement without being taught how to. You can get your MBA at any time, but it can be a seamless way to jumpstart a career pivot. My MBA is a way for me to explore other options that I don't know existed, but also to build my playbook of things I can bring to the table. In terms of picking Emory... I started by taking the GMAT.  I wanted to see if I could even do this. Before I started looking at schools and doing applications, I wanted to get a sense of what schools were feasible. And then, I knew I wanted to be in a city. I didn’t want to go to a business school in a college town, because I am from Atlanta and have spent my adult life here, and I wasn’t looking to suddenly be back in a college town. I also wanted to be somewhere business school is only one aspect of my life. I wanted to be able to have stuff outside of school. So with that in mind, I only looked at business schools that I could get into in major cities. Truthfully there weren’t a ton which fit for me. A lot of schools in my range were in places I didn’t want to live, so I applied to NYU and Emory, and got into both. I was thinking about finances and the kind of places I would want to live post-MBA and places I would live during school, and from there I picked Emory.

DL: PR is such an interesting career path. What advice do you have for readers interested in breaking into the industry?

MN: Read the news. That sounds silly, but learn about the stuff that people are interested in reading and thus writing about. That will help you tailor your communication skills. To translate the soft skills I learned at Wake, reading the newspaper is the endgame for PR. What kinds of stories are companies and brands telling, and how are they telling them? Also follow companies on Instagram and see who’s doing something interesting. I listen to trade advertising podcasts, like Yeah, That’s Probably an Ad by AdWeek, which dissects the most interesting commercials. In the end, it is about the stories brands tell. I think an English major translates well to PR because it's about reading, writing and telling stories, just different kinds of stories.

DL: What do you think Wake could have done better to prepare students for life after graduation?

MN: I think Wake could just help students realize that there are more careers out there than they seem to indicate. Business school is the same way. They talk about consulting and finance, but it doesn’t have to just be those two. At a place like Wake, lots of smart people go into consulting, finance, law, or medicine, but those are the paths the school talks about the most. There isn’t as much of a focus on the other things you could do. So maybe it’s finding people who have interesting stories and paths, and having those people share them. It’s making sure there is a broader representation of companies that come to school or panelists that speak on campus. I think it's a bit of vicious cycle; I didn’t engage closely with career services while at Wake which was on me… but there’s also no dedicated program keeping up with us after graduation so the connection can be hard to make after the fact.

DL: What is your favorite part of living and working in Atlanta?

MN: I think what I like the most is that Atlanta has the third-most Fortune 1000 companies in the country. It is a major hub and economic target, but you don't have to have the big city chaos that is New York. It is the best of both worlds. You can have big city feel or go to a suburb. I am from here, so I am really biased. I am a city person, and even Winston-Salem was too small for me… but if I am going to live in a big city, why not live in the big city I already am from? I felt like Atlanta has everything any other city could offer me, plus the bonus of being home. And the cost of living also really helps!

DL: What's the best kernel of advice you can think to pass on to current students and recent alums?


MN: Think outside the box. There are a lot of jobs that exist that you don't know about. Don't just follow your friends or family. Think about all of the possibilities out there, because something will be a perfect fit, so just be creative in your search process.

Spotlight Interview: Molly Griffith

Molly Griffith: Development

Atlanta

Senior Director of Development, College of Arts & Sciences, Emory University
WFU Class of 2002
Major: Studio Art

Molly Griffith graduated from Wake with a Studio Art major, and a desire to work with non profits. Now as Senior Director of Development at Emory University's College of Arts and Sciences, Molly gives us insight to her path since undergrad and what has motivated her along the way.

 

DeacLink: I know you were a studio art major at Wake. Tell me a bit more about that. How has your career unfolded since? 
Molly Griffith: When I was a student, the concept of development was not as professionalized as it is today. Now, there more academic programs in place for professionals interested in the development track. I remember being a student and thinking that I was not cut out for a corporate job. Wake was great at helping people get jobs at banks, but I felt a bit lost. I was offered a teacher assistantship in France following graduation, but I felt that I wanted to be working with nonprofits in some way. It wasn’t that I was intimidated by the private sector, but instead nonprofits felt more in line with my ethos and personality. Also, it tied back into the culture at Wake of pro humanitate. Nonprofits felt like the right place for me to be. 

I knew I wanted to be in Atlanta after graduation, and I started blanketing nonprofits with low-level job requests. I eventually landed a role as a receptionist for The Nature Conservancy. I was able to get the job because of a personal connection with the state director, going to show that who you know can pay off. Like it is for many development professionals, my personality allowed me to gravitate to a role in this field. I didn’t pick it, but it picked me. I worked closed with the Director of the Nature Conservancy and the Director of Development, and enjoyed it immensely. However, I wanted to get back into the museum world. Next I went on to be the Assistant to the Director of Museum Development at the High Museum of Art. This role really allowed me to touch a lot of things and learn more broadly about Development. Over the years, I have held every position you can in development, from behind the scenes work to face to face time. I changed roles a few more times, and ended up in higher education, where I feel the most connected.  

DL: Would you mind telling me about what you're doing at Emory?
MG: At Emory, I am the Senior Director of Development for College of Arts and Sciences. This means that I have a portfolio of donors, and I manage a group of development officers. My portfolio is mostly Atlanta based, and I am getting to work with the best candidates for support for the institution. 

DL: What surprised you the most about going back to work for the school? 
MG: It was a fantastic experience, and I loved working for my alma mater. One of the best things about switching from arts to high ed is that I found it to be an easier sell. I truly believed in the mission. But then to be able to represent your own school, that was really special. I did make a conscious effort to try and be sure that I could keep my alumni and student experiences separate from my professional one. It wasn’t always going to be the perfect job every day, so I wanted to keep those things separate. My career was wonderful there. Also, making the case to donors couldn’t be easier when you are representing your alma mater. Because you have years of memories to draw on, you never feel unprepared. That kind of authenticity doesn’t come with every position.  

DL: Do you think networking plays a key role for development roles? 
MG: I will say though that at the lower level, entry positions in Atlanta, you have to move around to advance. That is pretty pretty common though. Normally, people last eighteen months in a role before moving on. That leads to high levels of turnover among development staff, and that’s expensive for a nonprofit to deal with. The high turnover also opens up a lot more opportunities - there are lots of open development positions across various nonprofits at any given time. Instead of networking, people get in a position, realize they’ve hit a ceiling, and then start looking around. Sadly, there aren’t a lot of growth opportunities in most departments. Also, I would say the application process is much more common for getting a role than networking. I got my position at Emory through the HR website. 


DL: The development track seems to very popular with art alums. What do you think is the hardest part about breaking into the development field? 
MG: I wouldn’t necessarily say it’s challenging to break into the development field, but you do need to start at the bottom. Also, nonprofit work is not known for producing highly compensated individuals. You have to start pretty low on the totem pole, and that’s expensive. My first salary was $22K a year, and that was in 2002. I tutored and babysat on top of it so I could get by. Once you are in at a lower level, the next challenge is getting face to face fundraising experience, which can be really hard to do. One of the coolest programs is what Wake does with their advancement fellows. The recent graduates are able to start having those conversations early. If you are interested in development, consider a fellowship as a first step. There are very few nonprofit roles where people with little to no experience are able to represent the institution. The liberal arts background prepares the fellows really well. Most students are terrific communicators that can adapt in any situation. They also have a broad basis of education that can hold up to whomever they are speaking with. 

There has to be a willingness to bite the bullet early on from a salary standpoint, but then scrap to get the face to face experience. At my entry level role at at The Nature Conservancy, I was a liaison with the Board of Directors. If you are being trusted to communicate with biggest supporters of the institution, but can spin that to showing you can be trusted with important relationships. 

DL: What surprises you the most about the arts/cultural institution scene here in Atlanta? 
MG: I have been outside of the arts and culture arena for some time. However, I did spend five years on the board of Atlanta Celebrates Photography. I rolled off two years ago when couldn’t commit the time. I think there are two different art scenes in Atlanta. The first is the dominant Woodruff Arts Center/High Museum of Art scene. This is the traditional museum base that has a higher capacity donor base. It is the old guard scene for arts. Then there is this entirely fun, burgeoning, underground art scene at places like The Goat Farm Art Center and Art Papers. However, these groups are not supported in the same way. They have to be more creative about how they make their case for funding, and I like that part of it. Not to be negative about the High and other long standing institutions, but they don’t have the same dynamism at smaller nonprofits. 

I think many people are quick to dismiss the art scene here because it’s just the High Museum. The High also doesn’t have a well known permanent collection. If people don't know about Atlanta Celebrates Photography, smaller theaters and galleries, the Museum of Contemporary Art, people think there’s just one cultural behemoth, and Atlanta is much more dynamic than that. Think about Art on the BeltLine which speak to the growth of Atlanta. Like a lot of places, where artists go, growth happens. When you get creative young minds, you will see activity artistically and economically.  

DL: What advice do you have for students considering moving beyond the arts arena? 
MG: I have worked in places where I haven’t felt a connection to the emission, and it does make it harder to be successful from a fundraising standpoint. It is much easier to do when you truly believe what you are doing. One of the things I have really enjoyed is keeping a toe in the art world from an avocational instead of vocational standpoint. I have been able to engage the arts outside of my career, while still advancing my career. 

DL: What do you think Wake arts could do to better prepare students for life after graduation?
MG: I love the art department at Wake. I think one of the things that needs to happen is the introduction of graphic and digital programs, and a general design pace. I was a painting and photography student, but it was analog photos and oil painting. And let’s be honest, it is incredibly difficult to make a career out of those two things. Thankfully my family told me to study what I loved. It worked out in the end, but it is not the most responsible way to think about an education. The school should be thinking about ways to connect artistic people to careers like design or architecture. 

Also, I think it would be good for the school to bring the arts out of scales. Things are very sequestered, and should be further integrated into the broader curriculum. There is the one Management in the Visual Arts class in the business school, but that’s not enough. 

DL: What's the best kernel of advice you can think to pass on to current students and recent alums?
MG: Find someone that can serve in a mentor capacity. I think that a lot of students graduate and think they have done the hard part by figuring out what they want to study and then getting a job. But there might be a point down the road where you question the path you are on. As a result, it is important to find those mentors from a career building standpoint who can help guide you along the way.