Photos By Paul L. Newby II
You’re about to meet an exciting group of Business Badgers. Meet eight Wisconsin School of Business graduates with high-profile careers making an impact in their industries.
—SARAH VAN CASTER
Senior product marketing manager, Anaplan
Sarah Van Caster (MBA ’13) loves working in the startup world. The Wisconsin native describes her day-to-day life with San Francisco-based company Anaplan as fast-paced, constantly evolving, and always interesting.
“In the startup world, your job title is more or less irrelevant,” she says. “You come to work asking, ‘What is the task at hand and how do I deliver?’ It takes a certain type of crazy to be willing to live in that kind of environment every day.”
Van Caster completed her undergraduate degree at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa, and came to the Wisconsin School of Business to pursue her MBA in operations and technology management for what she describes as one of the best times of life. Her time at WSB allowed her to dive into the world of entrepreneurship, working with startups and incubators in Madison and Milwaukee.
As the senior product marketing manager, Van Caster leads all strategic marketing for Anaplan’s sales and marketing solutions.
“In the tech world, there’s no ability to stay stagnant,” she says. “It’s very motivating to know that in order to progress in my career and excel at my job I need to continue to learn and evolve my skill set.
“I love it because things are always changing,” she says. “It keeps you honest; it keeps you on your toes.”
Van Caster continues to use the skills she learned at WSB in her career. She recalls a particular change management course that taught her invaluable skills.
“I learned that, at any company, if you’re not managing change from a human behavior standpoint, you’re not going to be successful,” she says. “I still go back to that, even now with the launch of our new software. The skills I learned in that change management course have been applicable in any circumstance I’ve been in professionally.”
The MBA program made Van Caster realize she’s never been afraid of failure.
“It gave me the confidence to pursue whatever it is professionally that intrigues me because if I work hard and I’m passionate about it, it’s going to be successful for me,” she says.
Using the skills she has collected over the years and the knowledge from her experience in the startup industry, Van Caster hopes to one day own a startup of her own. Until then, she strives to keep learning as much as she can.
“Professionally, my continual goal is continuous learning,” she says. “I aim to be constantly learning not just about industry and external things, but also learning about myself.”
Laura Beussman’s passion for the arts world brought her to the Wisconsin School of Business, but it was her dedication to driving change that eventually landed her at Blackbaud as the director of product marketing for fundraising solutions.
Born and raised in Bryan, Texas, Beussman was in dance at age 4, piano at age 7, and was always singing. Her interest in the arts continued to wield influence well into the start of her career. After completing her undergraduate degree at Texas A&M, Beussman worked in nonprofit arts, primarily in accounting and finance. She soon realized, however, that what she really wanted to do was drive strategy in an organization, and came to Wisconsin to get her MBA in arts administration.
“What’s great about education and my MBA is that it’s a foundation that can’t go away,” she says. “Companies grow and shrink. Industries change and decline. There are going to be changes in how things move forward in the business world, but having that foundation is mine forever.”
From industry experience to a tight-knit cohort, Beussman recalls her time at WSB fondly. She even sang in a cover band made up of fellow MBA students called “Statistically Irrelevant.”
Beussman joined Blackbaud, a company dedicated to powering nonprofit organizations and their technology needs, in Austin, Texas in 2013 as a product marketer in the arts and culture vertical. There, she was able to combine her interest in the arts with her dedication to the nonprofit world.
“Getting excited about the work I was doing and energized about the impact it was having helped me grow my career and really drive it forward,” she says. “I’m passionate about what I’m doing and how it can impact other people.”
Beussman recently became director of product marketing for fundraising solutions.
“It’s very customer focused, which is great because I’m passionate about our customers and what our customers do,” she says. “Our customers are mission-driven organizations. We get to talk to them, hear what their challenges are, and what they need help to be able to do. Our technology helps them do more and serve more people, which is extremely rewarding. We’re not just marketing anything; we’re helping people change the world.”
Peter Olesen (BBA ’09) always knew he could make a lot of dough when he grew up. Layers and layers of it, in fact, sometimes filled with pecans, cherries, or cream cheese.
Olesen is vice president of O&H Danish Bakery, which is nationally known for its signature item, kringle. The fourth-generation business was founded by Olesen’s great-grandfather in Racine, Wisconsin, where O&H is still based and growing.
“We’ve been good about teaching our team members how to bake,” he says. “Now we are teaching them how to lead and to build a strong company.”
Kringle, a circular Danish pastry that folds various fillings into its 36 thin layers, has fans throughout the U.S. The flaky treat was named Wisconsin’s official state pastry in 2013, was featured on CBS Sunday Morning, and has loyal fans who order it online or buy stacks of it in person. During the busy holiday season, O&H makes 6,000 kringles a day at its 44,000-square-foot baking center that opened in 2016.
The company long had an established fan base and mail-order business. As foodie culture and social media emerged, demand for unique items grew, and so did O&H. That prompted greater focus on marketing, which is also in the family; Olesen’s brother-in-law Matt Horton (BBA ’05) is vice president of marketing.
“We don’t just sell bakery,” Olesen says. “Our customers invite us into their lives to celebrate their most special occasions and we weren’t really telling that story. We do now.”
Olesen majored in finance and real estate, and considered a real estate investing career. He began his career as a consultant for Blue Stone International in Chicago. The kringle was always calling, though, and in 2012 when an uncle retired, Olesen came home.
His real estate and finance background is instrumental in helping to lead the company’s growth and strategy as its popularity grows. His experience in every job at the company from sweeping floors to running a cash register comes in handy during busy times.
“Every day I’m thankful for the opportunity to serve our customers and put out a product that we are all proud of making,” he says. “I can’t imagine not doing that. It’s in my blood.”
Margaret Ntambi (BBA ’14) is a maximizer. She sees talents and strengths in others, and encourages them to push the boundaries of their own potential. Excellence is her personal measure and continued pursuit. She credits her Ugandan parents, who moved to Baltimore in 1980 to pursue their medical careers, with imprinting this value on her at an early age.
“I work hard because I understand how much they sacrificed to be where they are,” she says. “Even when their funds were tight, investing in education for their children was never compromised. They ensured that I would be successful and be comfortable in life.”
Ntambi pays her parents’ efforts forward every chance she gets. Her first internship was with the U.S. Department of State in Swaziland as a diplomatic intern with the foreign service. She went on to intern at Procter & Gamble twice before the company offered her a full-time position as a financial analyst. While at P&G, Ntambi also served as the diversity recruiting lead for UW–Madison.
“Growing up as a Ugandan girl in Madison had its challenges,” she says. “My cultural experience was different than most of my peers.”
Ntambi’s parents upheld their cultural ideals and her friends didn’t always understand the importance of those customs or her parents’ expectations for her. Her desire for acceptance was difficult to balance, she says, but after gaining more confidence and shedding insecurities, she feels more comfortable in all aspects of her life.
“I felt quite alone as I struggled to find where I truly belonged,” she says. “The spiritual journey I’ve pushed through to find my happiness has made me very conscious of others who may feel alone or as though they don’t belong. I’ve naturally become an advocate for people in this position by being a maximizer. I strive to uplift others from a place self-doubt to a place of self-assurance so that they can reach their full potential.”
Ntambi now works in Washington, D.C., as a corporate development transaction services (CDTS) analyst at Accenture. There, she serves on several leadership teams, working with company leaders to optimize team members’ interpersonal experiences. On teams that largely focus on technical mastery, she helps to figure out how members can learn material more quickly and work more confidently.
“If I see a weakness or strength in someone, I try to help them focus on things that make them feel powerful so that they’re confident in what they do,” she says. “Everything I do has to do with being inclusive and finding ways to make people feel their best.”
Managing director, Berkadia
Recently named one of Commercial Property Executive’s “2018 Stars to Watch,” Kimberly Cozza (BBA ’01) is living up to her title—and her childhood dreams—with a flourishing career and industry success to prove it.
Born in a suburb of Milwaukee, Cozza dreamed of becoming a successful businesswoman. “I grew up in the ’80s and Melanie Griffith’s character in Working Girl was a huge inspiration to me,” says Cozza. “I had that dream of being in a power suit in a high-rise corner office overlooking a big city.”
Cozza works at Berkadia in Chicago, where she started as the direct liaison for Fannie Mae, responsible for a third of the company’s mortgage banking network. In her first five years there, she helped grow the firm’s Fannie Mae volume tenfold. Now, Cozza is a managing director responsible for training, development, and production strategy in Berkadia’s Multifamily GSE Debt Origination department, a new position for the company.
“Moving into this new role, it’s more strategic,” she says. “The overall mission of growing production is defined, but the path to get there and to achieve that goal was completely left up to me.”
Cozza has also been instrumental in developing talent in the company’s international office. In 2016, she flew to India for a week to train the production operations team on multifamily and commercial real estate finance.
“It was obviously a culture shock,” she says, “but it was such a great experience to be able to work with people from a completely different background and still recognize the universal similarities.”
Cozza learned to value teamwork during her time at the Wisconsin School of Business, where she majored in finance and real estate. Most of her classes required it, which somewhat clashed with Cozza’s Type A personality and work style at the time. Now, however, she sees the value in learning to work in teams.
“Every position I’ve ever held it’s been completely essential to be able to work well with others, whether they’re colleagues or clients or superiors,” she says. “Growing up, I never wanted to rely on anyone to get the A or to ace the test, but the reality is life isn’t like that. That’s the best thing I learned from WSB.”
Larry Phillips (BBA ’13) wastes no time. In the five years since he graduated from the Wisconsin School of Business, the Chicago native has played a key role in creating Arthur J. Gallagher & Co.’s new diversity and inclusion strategy. The risk and insurance firm, based in the Chicago area, recently dedicated an entire team to support several of its top priorities: creating strategies to increase diversity within its workforce and building a strategic alliance with diverse trading partners.
“This is a great opportunity for Gallagher to be more client-centric and to bring in innovative ideas by bringing in diverse individuals,” he says.
Two years into his first role at the company, Phillips approached the director of talent management and acquisition, offering to help with recruiting efforts in addition to his regular responsibilities. At the time, the firm had no formalized diversity recruiting strategy. Before long, Phillips and several others at the firm gave the initiative an official platform.
Phillips grew up in Cabrini-Green, a public housing project in Chicago, surrounded by violence, crime, and gang activity. As a teen, Phillips became involved with Boys Hope Girls Hope, a program that provides scholarship opportunities to at-risk Chicago youth. The program helped shield Phillips from his neighborhood’s negative influences and provided him a family-like atmosphere.
His background fuels his passion for recruiting from diverse student populations, particularly at schools his company hadn’t traditionally visited.
“I share my story with them and say, ‘Look, the insurance business is not rocket science. If I can do it given all of the adversity I’ve been through, any of you can do it,’” Phillips says.
Phillips is now president of the junior board of Boys Hope Girls Hope and is still involved with the program. He also mentors five seventh-graders on the south side of Chicago through an organization called The Big Shoulders Fund.
“Having a good job and a good title is great, but when you die, you can’t take any of that with you,” he says. “What inspires me are the people who have made so many sacrifices before me or during my lifetime to make this world better for me and other people. I want to pay that forward and say, ‘Okay, what can I do?’”
Assistant vice president, Culture and Inclusion, Arthur J. Gallagher & Co.
Sometimes the best path to success is an unconventional one. Aaron Habriga (BBA ’09), who went from a machine gunner in Iraq to principal in a Los Angeles private equity firm, knows that more than most people.
And it’s that unconventional path that has made him a good fit for his chosen field, spending the last seven years within private equity, predominantly focused on investing within the health care services sector.
“People are increasingly looking for less of a cookie-cutter background in our world,” says Habriga, whose Los Angeles office overlooks Beverly Hills and offers a peek at the famed Hollywood sign. “More people are looking for a breadth of thought and experience.”
Habriga, a native of Plymouth, Wisconsin, is from a career military family whose service dates to World War I. He enlisted in the Marine Corps at age 17 and was soon an infantry team leader serving in Yusufiyah, Iraq, walking into town on a mission for which he and his unit were told to pack for three to 30 days, but stayed seven months.
Four months after returning to the U.S., he was on campus in Madison, using his knack for math and finance to pursue a business degree. In 2008, he was back in Iraq on a scout sniper team, working in the dark of night conducting surveillance and gathering intelligence.
“I actually miss it a bit,” he says. “It’s obviously more exciting than sitting behind a desk but also slightly more dangerous than working in private equity.”
He cut his teeth within private equity at his first job out of college, as an analyst with Pfingsten Partners. He then made job moves within Chicago and then to New York, with a stopover at Harvard Business School to pursue his MBA. But California had called since basic training and he returned to join Varsity Healthcare Partners, an emerging health care-focused private equity fund.
Habriga enjoys doing a deep dive into everything he sees, from observing inefficiencies in daily life to asking about software his own health care provider uses.
“The military, for better or worse, makes you hyper-aware,” he says. “Combine that with business school training and it’s either the worst of both or the best. It can drive other people nuts.”
As a young girl, Erin Strepy (MBA ’15) didn’t have much time for dolls. She was busy climbing trees, riding her skateboard, and tinkering with creative projects.
Now in her 30s, she plays with dolls every day because that’s her job. Strepy works for Mattel as global brand manager for Barbie, the iconic doll with a busy life as a fashion icon, chef, paleontologist, or any number of other endeavors.
“It’s a brand that’s under constant scrutiny,” says Strepy, who works in Mattel’s headquarters in El Segundo, California. “If Barbie does something, the media picks up on it. There are a lot of talented people working to make sure we stay within the guardrails of what Barbie is and what she isn’t.”
Strepy joined Mattel in early 2017 after starting her career working in agencies. One agency job had as its client a popular consumer brand with a team that included Wisconsin School of Business alumni, and the seed was planted for her to pursue an MBA with a brand focus and a goal of moving to the client side. She took a job with Unilever after earning her MBA.
“The Wisconsin School of Business was definitely two of the best years of my life,” says Strepy, who enjoys talking to prospective and current WSB students about her MBA experience and career. “I still have dreams about the Terrace.”
At Mattel, Strepy works with everyone from toy inventors to retailers as Barbie goes from the idea stage to the store shelf.
“It’s like you’re the conductor of the orchestra,” she says. “Everyone else is very talented, very creative and you get to seek out all of those different strengths to turn it into something bigger.”
Strepy works with about 200 items including dolls, clothing, houses, and with a new line of Barbies that features different body sizes and ethnicities. Customers are responding emotionally to a Barbie who resembles them, Strepy says, and she and her colleagues are building on that for next year’s line.
Barbie continues to evolve not just with the times but because the entire toy space is seeking ways to promote imagination in a digital world.
“I’m still learning a lot,” Strepy says. “You learn very quickly about the world around you when you work with Barbie.”
Global brand manager, Mattel