Faculty Spotlight: From the Court to the Classroom, Carrie Heilman’s Competitive Spirit Pays Off

March 17, 2023 By Renee Grutzik, amn8sb@virginia.edu Renee Grutzik, amn8sb@virginia.edu

To Carrie Heilman, a marketing professor at the University of Virginia’s McIntire School of Commerce, teaching students and playing sports overlap considerably. 

In fact, Heilman has put into practice many of the lessons she learned as an athlete. You might hear her say her students are part of a team, rather than part of a class. One of her unique courses is measured in wins and losses rather than grades. And to explain business concepts, she’ll sometimes slip in a sports analogy.

To some students, she seems more like a coach than a professor – not surprising, considering how she spent her early years.

Athletics dominate the childhood memories of Heilman, who grew up in the Chicago suburbs. In high school, she played volleyball, softball and basketball. 

Her love for basketball earned her a full athletic scholarship at the College of the Holy Cross, a small liberal arts school outside of Boston with an undergraduate enrollment of just 2,500 when she attended. 

“My college was actually smaller than my high school in Chicago,” she said. “But I had a great experience with basketball. We were really good for a small Division I school, and we even made it to the final 32 in the NCAA tournament my sophomore year.”

Outside of her collegiate athletic career, Heilman loved mathematics and numbers, but wasn’t exactly sure how she would apply that interest after graduation.

“I thought about teaching math at the high school level, but I really didn’t know what I wanted to do,” she said.

Heilman decided to pursue a doctorate at the Krannert School of Management at Purdue University when she was just 21. One of the program requirements was to instruct a college course. On her first day, Heilman nervously stepped into a lecture hall and found a broad age range of students taking her introductory statistics class. Some were just a few years younger than she, but others were much older. 

“At the time, I had a 30-year-old student, and I remember feeling pretty intimidated,” she said. “He came up to me after class one day about halfway through the semester, and he said, ‘I just want to let you know you’re doing a really good job.’ 

“I remember thinking, ‘OK, I can do this.’”

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After graduating with a doctorate in management and a specialty in marketing from the Krannert School, Heilman accepted her first teaching position at Washington University in St. Louis, where she taught marketing. Six years later, she accepted an assistant professor position in the McIntire School of Commerce at UVA. 

“I came on a visit to the University of Virginia and ended up falling in love with it,” she said. “Who wouldn’t love Virginia, right?”

When she arrived here, Heilman taught in the Integrated Core Experience, a part of the undergraduate curriculum often referred to as ICE. She also taught brand management in the Master of Science in Commerce program. In 2013, Heilman took over the Promotions course, a two-semester program far from your typical business course. 

The class spends the year preparing to compete in the annual National Student Advertising Competition, where more than 150 schools compete by producing a strategic marketing campaign for an actual corporation. This year, the corporation is Indeed, the No. 1 job website in the world.

The course’s previous instructor left behind an impressive legacy, placing highly in the national competition for 10 consecutive years. Heilman recalls feeling apprehensive because she “had really big shoes to fill.” 

“Because the Promotions class revolves around a national advertising competition, with winners and losers, it motivates me to work extra hard to teach, mentor and support the students in order to set them up for success,” Heilman said. 

The class is open to all fourth-year undergraduate students at the University, not just McIntire students. Each year, only 30 students are accepted to the Promotions class. Much like a sports team, Heilman makes a careful effort to create a classroom culture of camaraderie, support and trust.

“I am a firm believer that you can’t walk through a wall for someone until you have a good relationship with them,” Heilman said. “And my students really do have to walk through walls for each other to be successful in this competition and to produce amazing work.” 

Each year on the first day of class, when her students have yet to become acquainted, Heilman tells them to look around the room. 

“I say, ‘Regardless of whether you know that person or not, they might be the person you live with after graduation, the best man at your wedding, or the godparent of your child,’” she said. “Every year, I tell my students that one of the most valuable things they will get out of the class is the lifelong friendships that they’re bound to make from the class.”

Katelyn Ragland, a fourth-year marketing major and one of Heilman’s current Promotions students, appreciates her emphasis on open communication. 

“Being on this team means you are required to communicate with one another constantly,” Ragland said. “Carrie stresses the importance of communication, which I think comes from her sports background. 

“She is very disciplined and holds us to a high standard, but also encourages us to hold ourselves to a high standard, too.”

Heilman has a competitive spirit ideal for a challenge like the National Student Advertising Competition, but her class is about much more than winning or losing. 

“Athletes know that repetition and hard work are the keys to success,” Heilman said. “Similarly, I can’t expect my students to learn something unless they try it, maybe fail a little, learn from their mistakes, and then try again.”

Heilman and her students placed third in nationals during her first year teaching the class. In 2016, 2020 and 2021, UVA won first place overall. Last year, the team placed second in districts. 

“I think the students this year are hungry and ready to do some damage,” she chuckled. 

Fourth-year student Tyler Yen, one of Heilman’s Promotions students, describes Heilman as a “special professor” because of her relationship with her students. 

“In Promotions, everything feels very official,” Yen said. “Carrie doesn’t talk to us like she’s the professor and we are the students. She makes us feel like an equal, like we are part of the team and can make real decisions.” 

Since 2018, Heilman has also served as the University’s faculty athletics representative, a position that bridges the gap between the athletic department and UVA’s faculty, while representing the University at meetings of the Atlantic Coast Conference and NCAA. In this position, Heilman certifies that UVA student-athletes are eligible to play. 

Additionally, Heilman’s faculty athletics representative role puts her in a position to coach and advocate for student-athletes in ways that will maximize their academic and overall experience while at the University. 

Outside of school, Heilman is the mother of four children who carry Heilman’s passion for athletics. Heilman’s daughter plays volleyball, softball and basketball, like Heilman did growing up. Heilman coaches her daughter’s softball team. 

“Just like a coach can’t play the game for her players, I can’t do the work for my students,” she said. “All I can do is prepare them to the best of my ability, but come game time, they are the ones who have to go out and perform.”

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