For the next edition of our “Women in Leadership” series, we interviewed Mackenzie Stephens, a Sustainability Marketing Communications Specialist at Herman Miller. Stephens shares some of her experiences, such as a student athlete in college and the importance of cheering on fellow women. She is an Act I of her career, meaning that she is relatively new in her career.
How long have you worked with Herman Miller, and what have your roles been?
I’ve been at Herman Miller since the summer of 2015 where I started on the Employee Communications and Engagement team. This role involved working with internal communications across our broad employee base, which is mainly North America, but for over 8,000 international employees. A large part of my work consisted of graphic design, videography, and writing. That role began as a summer internship and soon transitioned into a full-time job offer.
After a few more years of experience, I moved into my current role as a Marketing Communications Specialist on our Safety and Sustainability team. This is a new role put in place to help Herman Miller share our sustainability stories with both employees and customers. My primary responsibility is to interpret all the sustainability work that we do from a design, resource, and community standpoint and bring those stories to life.
Did your degree and college experience prepare you for your career?
I went to Marist College in Poughkeepsie, New York, where I was a journalism major as well as a Division I volleyball player, which both absolutely prepared me for my role today. I had always planned on a career in journalism and being so close to New York City, Marist had great connections to big news outlets. They had a focus on multimedia journalism, so I learned videography, some graphic design work, and lots of writing. My dream job was to be a magazine layout designer, but after some experience in marketing, that’s what I ultimately pursued. However, journalism has really proved to be beneficial to making all my current stories stronger. I use it every day at work.
At one point, I had considered joining the Peace Corps or trying out for a professional volleyball team in Europe, but none of those seemed right. I didn’t necessarily want to be in New York City where most of my fellow students landed after undergrad, so I found myself asking, where do I go? I had some connections back home in Holland with people who worked at Herman Miller, and I asked if they had internships for post-grads. They ended up having a couple of opportunities available, I applied, and they offered me the internship. That ended up being step one.
What have been the biggest surprises or insight you have had in your working life?
In college, I was intimated by the corporate side of business, so instead, I focused most of my internships on newswriting and design. I had always liked writing and creativity much more. The best surprise was that the business world is not just accounting, math, and finance – there’s so much knowledge and skill that is vital to running a successful organization. I was happy that I could still pursue my creative passions in a corporate environment as opposed to working for a magazine or a newspaper. However, I’ve also grown in my career and think about going back to school to develop those other areas.
Has being a college athlete prepared you better for the business world?
Yes. I think the big thing for me growing up and playing sports was that I had a really difficult schedule to juggle, giving me time management skills. I was never able to procrastinate in any area of my life. For student athletes, it’s impossible to put things off because you have so much of your life that you must plan out: practice, homework, travel, games, and even time for fun. So, when I started my career, I rarely had problems with time management or motivating myself to get the work done. I’m a big believer in blocking out time on my calendar for myself, friends, and family. But I also make sure that what I needed to get done at work was being completed. Time management really translates to the working world.
Where do you see yourself going? Do you have a plan?
One of the biggest challenges that I face is the idea of knowing and timing what the right path is for me. I look at other women (and men) who hold positions or in a stage of life that I admire, and I want to know exactly how they got there. Often there are no answers. The steps they took probably will not be the same steps that I will take in my career.
What I’ve learned is that you cannot make a perfect plan, you must live and be present every day. For example, I originally had no intention of staying in West Michigan when I took that internship – I wanted to get out as soon as the internship was over, and just have it on my resume and move to San Francisco or Chicago. But Herman Miller changed my mind. It was everything I was looking for in a career, even the things I didn’t know I valued. I also met my fiancé, adopted an adorable puppy, and I’m still at Herman Miller today. I think embracing the idea that things are inevitable, and things are going to change, you can be fully present to make those decisions.
What does the phrase women supporting women mean to you?
I keep thinking about the idea of women supporting women on the volleyball court. As any athlete – you can get caught up in the competition with one another – earning starting spots, conference recognition or being the captain. But as I think back on the teammates that I admired most and that I thought did the best at women supporting women, it’s not necessarily the ones that have the best stats or who were starters, but the ones who cheer the loudest on the sidelines and the ones who worked the hardest at practice. Every day they showed up to make the team better, as opposed to just showing up to be the best athlete on the team. So, that group of girls always comes back to my mind. To relate that to the business world, this idea of supporting each other in and out of the office is a big moment for women in our organization and women overall.
What insights would you share with young women just graduating from college starting their career?
As a fellow young woman at Herman Miller, I have had the opportunity to mentor a couple interns, and that’s an experience I have learned to love just because I get to the see the company and the business world through fresh eyes again. Many times, the advice I choose to give is to not be afraid to ask questions. Whether you have worked for 40 years or five years, you were new at some point, and so asking smart questions is not something to be afraid of. Everyone at Herman Miller is patient and willing to work with you to answer those questions in the best way possible.
My other piece of advice is just to listen. Sometimes sitting and listening to the way that people interact or to the ways that people solve problems teaches you a lot.
What insights/advice would you share with those ACT IIs and Act IIIs ahead of you?
Have the brave conversations. If I feel like something doesn’t sit right with my values or the company’s values, I will act upon it. I spend a lot of time thinking: how can I have this conversation in a professional, mature way, but also get my point across? Sometimes during that thought-process, I stifle that empowerment by catching myself thinking, “You’re only 25. What gives you the right to have this conversation?” But then again, I think, if my voice isn’t heard or accepted, maybe this isn’t the right position for me. Thankfully, every time I’ve had those brave conversations, I felt heard and respected.
I believe it is important to give women a bold voice, and we cannot remain quiet in this moment. My advice to Act IIs and Act IIIs would be to speak their voice. I feel like there’s only so much time in this world, and if you don’t speak your opinion and bring a voice to what matters that you can’t complain about it. If we don’t take the time to make those decisions, it will be impossible to solve those problems.
One last thing is a thank you to Act II/Act III women. Without the work that you all have done to pave the way for females of all stages, the women in Act I would not have the confidence to feel that they can speak out. A lot of work has been done that has gone unnoticed. Thank you!