The MBA program at Stanford Graduate School of Business, Stanford GSB, places a clear focus on fostering positive change, as evidenced by its motto: “Change lives. Change organizations. Change the world.” One MBA graduate, Cheryl Davenport, has lived by this motto.
Wanting to work for a larger scale organization that takes social and environmental impact seriously, Cheryl ended up at Nike, a company that prioritizes investing in the planet. As a strategy head at Nike North America, Cheryl Davenport has the opportunity to leverage its full suite of business assets to drive social change, but it is her MBA from Stanford that has equipped her with the education, skills and network needed to relaunch her career in a new direction after almost a decade in in growth strategy and management consulting.
In this edition of Real Humans: Alumni, we learn how the Stanford MBA helped Cheryl Davenport reinvest in herself to pursue a new adventure in the West Coast, and how her business school education provided her with even more than she expected. Read on for her full story.
Cheryl Davenport, Stanford GSB ‘15, Head of Strategy at Nike North America
Hometown: Afton, Iowa
Undergraduate Institution and Major: The University of Iowa: Economics
Graduate Business School and Graduation Year: Stanford University, Stanford Graduate School of Business Class of 2015
Briefly describe your pre-MBA work experience: 8 years, growth strategy and management consulting
Why did you choose to attend business school? Which factors influenced your decision? Prior to Stanford, I spent eight years in growth strategy and management consulting. I started my career with Monitor Group (now part of Deloitte) focused on organic growth strategy with most of my work relating to market research and growth in consumer and pharmaceutical industries and B2B pricing strategy. I then joined a boutique firm, Mission Measurement, and built the corporate and government practices in this social impact strategy and impact evaluation company.
Business school was a reinvestment in myself that I was so grateful to be able to afford in terms of both time and cost. I thought about its value in two chunks: first, the value of the two years in school where I could focus on learning, reflecting, and getting exposed to new people, ideas, and careers. Second, the postgraduate value in terms of how it might launch my career in a new direction and give me long-lasting value through the education, skills, and network. In hindsight, I underestimated just how much fun it would be and how the non-academic experiences like clubs, start-ups, trips/travel, and just socializing would really enrich my life both at the GSB and beyond. I value my friendships and memories from the GSB as much or more as my education and the impact on my work. When I applied to business schools, I was not actually certain I wanted to attend. It was only after knowing where I was admitted and attending admit weekends that I was sure it’d be a truly meaningful experience worth disrupting my otherwise happy life and steady career. I’m glad I made the choice to go as I enjoyed the experience immensely and continue to value it today.
Why Stanford GSB? Which factors influenced your decision? Stanford spoke to me due to both its focus on social innovation and the coursework, experiences, and culture focused on self-awareness and vulnerability in leadership. It proved to be a great fit on both of those aspects. Plus, I had never lived on the West coast and my husband and I were both game for an adventure!
What internship did you participate in during business school? Which factors influenced your decision? During my summer, I joined a start-up seeking to make end-of-life / in-home care easier via a technology-enabled service to place caregivers. I also did a month-long experience working at a social enterprise in El Salvador. During my second year, I started another company (with a team, and in Stanford’s “start-up garage” course) focused on end-of-life planning. All three were meaningful experiences that got me outside of my comfort zone and allowed me to work on a problem that was meaningful to me. They also helped me realize that I wanted to go to a later stage organization for my full-time role after school.
Why did you choose to work for your current company? Which factors influenced your decision? I came to Nike for a combination of professional and personal motivations. Professionally, I wanted to work for a larger scale organization that took social and environmental impact seriously, and one that leveraged its full suite of business assets to drive social change. Nike met these criteria for me and continues to so on issues related to racial equity, democracy of sport, and environmental impact. The company leverages not only philanthropy but also its supply chain influence, retail footprint, and massive brand voice to influence industry and culture alike. I’m proud to work at Nike. I’d be remiss not to admit: I was also moved by the beautiful campus, the cool brand and the sweet kicks… I just imagined that I would have a lot of fun working at Nike, and I have! Personally, I knew that I’d be starting a family soon and wanted to be in a position job and location wise to do that while accelerating my career. My husband grew up in Portland and we have a huge network of family support in Oregon, and the cost of living is lower than the Bay Area. Those things made it possible to welcome two boys into our family while earning two promotions, all in five years. It’s been a wild ride!
How did your MBA experience prepare you for your current career? The education I received during my MBA really elevated my level of self-awareness, my ability to lead with vulnerability, and my commitment to promote diversity & equity and drive a culture of inclusion. These are the most meaningful skills and lessons that I apply to my work daily, especially in the past year when we’ve seen a cultural awakening on social injustice and systemic racism and when everyone has been faced with so many new challenges fueled by COVID. It’s been especially important in my role at Nike as the company looks to not only play a catalytic role in society but also to accelerate diverse representation in our workforce and make our culture more inclusive. I have learned so much from my courageous colleagues lately, and I credit my MBA experience for helping me even be capable of shifting my mindset and being able to absorb some difficult feedback. I also learned a lot about the start-up mentality, design thinking, and “sprint offenses.” These are helpful to me as taking a “test and learn” approach is so important during times of significant change and when the business and operating environment is unpredictable. It’s been super relevant at Nike in the past ~three years as we shift to a digital-led, more vertical marketplace and as we seek to stay on the front foot while COVID massively accelerated changes in consumer behavior and marketplace landscape.
What advice would you give to a current MBA student? What do you wish you would have known? Is there anything you would have done differently? As high achievers, MBA students are inherently driven to perform well and benchmark themselves relative to their peers. My advice: shift your mentality totally during business school. Instead of optimizing for best performance, optimize for learning and novelty. I wish I had had the courage in my time at the GSB to take all the hardest classes, to spend time with the folks most different from me, and to work on projects / businesses that felt scarily out of my wheelhouse. I got closer to that by the end of my two years, but I wish I had done it more and from the beginning. Your grades are not important and looking naive in a class discussion is a worthwhile trade-off if you end up learning something totally new. Business school can be such a luxuriously freeing and expansive experience where you really grow a ton with almost no downside to pushing your boundaries… GO FOR IT!
How has COVID impacted your industry/career plans? Oh my goodness — in every way! In my industry, consumers shifted their behavior dramatically toward digital and integrated “online-to-offline” shopping and engagement journeys. We expect these behavior changes to be sticky and persist long-term. COVID disrupted sport participation and changed what it means to “do sport” and “watch sport.” We expect – and hope for – a return to team sports and will seek to drive that for the benefit of society. COVID dramatically shifted our ways of working, too — I’ve been working 100% from home for a full year and it will be months yet before I return to the office. And, I expect that our ways of working will return to a “new normal” rather than Pre-COVID norms. I welcome that as I think it will make our work more flexible and inclusive. This informs, then, my career plans, too: I no longer expect my career opportunities to be completely boxed by geographic location, as one example.
Learn about more business school alumni like Cheryl Davenport by exploring our Real Humans: Alumni series.