Faculty Spotlight: Darden Professor Combines Corporate Experience With Personal Touch in the Classroom

March 9, 2023
Kim Whitler standing at chalboard

Darden professor Kim Whitler’s students reap the benefits of her former life as a corporate executive. (Darden School of Business photo)

From writing and research to classroom teaching, there is much Kim Whitler loves about being a professor in the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business. But there is nothing she loves more than her students.

“The students are on roller coasters, and we in the faculty are on those roller coasters with them,” she said. “When they get the job, you celebrate with them. When they don’t get the job, you’re feeling their pain.”

Whitler came to the classroom after a successful career in the boardrooms of corporate America, including chief marketing officer at David’s Bridal and Beazer Homes and marketing strategy officer for PetSmart. She served as general manager of Aurora Foods’ breakfast division and served in the U.S. and Eastern European divisions of Procter & Gamble.

With two decades of practical experience at high levels, Whitler loved working in industry, but has found a different joy in academia.

“I’m part of their whole story. I know, personally, the ups and downs of graduate school. For many students, you see the marriages and the children,” she said. “Yes, I can impact people in the C-suite, but not this way.”

Her students feel much the same.

“It is hard to imagine my Darden experience without Kim,” said Alex Goodman, a 2022 Darden graduate and a senior manager for Marriott International’s Elite Benefits program. “She reframed my thinking around what marketing is and what a marketer is in charge of – growth.

“Outside of the classroom, and despite the pandemic, Kim took every opportunity to get to know me and my classmates, including attending our masked-up and socially distanced Halloween party, where I began my close bond with her.”

Patrick Fasano, a 2022 Darden graduate and assistant brand manager at Bayer Corporation, described Whitler as “almost like a unicorn.”

“She is the rare faculty member that had a long, established and successful career in the industry and has a Ph.D. and the full academic background and training that most of the other professors have,” Fasano said.

Keeping It Real

Fasano said Whitler effortlessly makes the theoretical very real.

“She has an unbelievable way of translating some of the more theoretical-based frameworks and strategic concepts into the real-life manifestation that you see happening on a day-to-day basis,” he said. “She really is a one-of-a-kind professor.”

Whitler said because she doesn’t have children, her students become her family.

“I take great pride in being part of their journeys and having an impact in small ways,” said Whitler, the Frank M. Sands Sr. Associate Professor of Business Administration. “This is the beauty of being on a college campus. There’s optimism and hope about the future and there’s all this energy that students have for learning and growing, and you can see the growth in front of you.”

Born in Normal, Illinois, and reared in the Prairie State, Whitler has lived across the country, including stints in Missouri, Colorado, Idaho, Indiana, Kentucky, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Georgia, California, Arizona, Virginia and around the world. If she loves being a professor – and she will confess that she does – she also loved her first career in corporate marketing.

“Marketing is about engineering growth for firms,” she said. “It’s a general management role that focuses on helping firms identify new sources of value that create sustainable growth. And so all of my work was about figuring out how to engineer growth for the firm.”

The how was different not only for different companies, but for different products under the same corporate umbrella.

“When I worked at Procter & Gamble, I went overseas to Eastern Europe right after the fall of the Berlin Wall,” she recalled. “I had nothing in common with my consumers, so I spent a lot of time traveling around the countryside, understanding the shopping environment and spending time in homes watching people wash clothes.”

That Personal Touch

From detergent to deodorant to beauty care to clothes, Procter & Gamble is a leader in personal and home care products across the world. Understanding how consumers lived, their needs, how they shopped, and how they used the products helped Whitler and her team determine how to market them.

“[Eastern Europeans] would spend up to a half day boiling their clothes on a stove to make their white clothes whiter,” she recalled. “To know how to best help them, I needed to really understand them. You can read about their lives or you can look at data, but it is different to walk into their homes and be with them to experience it and feel it.

“In an interview I conducted with the [chief marketing officer] of Oppo, a large Chinese phone company, he had a beautiful way of expressing this phenomenon – the insight lies behind the data. This was his way of saying that big data is important, but it doesn’t provide the rich insight you get when you go beyond the data to walk in somebody else’s shoes.”

That hands-on experience worked in the executive suite as well.

Karen Whitler with a large group of students outside Darden all dressed up for Halloween
Whitler enjoys building personal relationships with students. Here she celebrates with former students at a Halloween party in 2017. (Contributed photo)

“In my research, if I’m seeking to help solve problems that boards, CEOs or CMOs have, I need to connect with them and listen to them in addition to looking at generalizable data,” she said. “There is power, depth of insight, in combining data with qualitative insight. Procter & Gamble taught me you want both sides. The qualitative aspects provide the depth of insight, and the quantitative research provides empirical evidence that it is more than an anecdote – and both help provide deeper into what is true.”

Whitler was able to share that experience with her students, Fasano said. In fact, her lessons came in handy within his first two months of working at Bayer.

“I was doing a deep competitor analysis of the category I was now assigned to for my brand and I ended up developing positioning statements. That’s how she taught us,” Fasano said. “It was literally taking almost exactly to a ‘T’ what she taught us in her brand management class and putting it into a presentation that ended up underpinning a lot of strategy. It was very practical and something I put to immediate use in an executive presentation that I had to deliver in my first six weeks of work.”

Whitler is there even after the class is over. When Goodman found herself at the end of tough day working for a startup company, her husband recommended a call to the professor.

“She has a particularly adept way of listening through a situation, providing the hard truth when needed, and working with me to create a path forward. She did all of this over a three-hour phone call consisting of tough love, tears and lots of laughter,” Goodman recalled. “She helped me probably more than she even knows, and now I am happily in a wonderful role, thanks to her.”

Although she loved her career in the executive suite, Whitler had planned in her 20s to change careers for the second half of her life. She made the decision after her pastor gave her a book called “Half Time: Changing Your Game Plan from Success to Significance.”

The book ended up pushing her to work extra hard in order to retire in her 40s and reassess her life.

“I started asking, ‘What is it I want to do?’ So, I took some time off and spent 10 days on vacation and realized that just wasn’t for me,” she laughed. “Next question was, ‘What job do I want to do, and why, if money was not an object?’ I wanted to work forever, and so I searched for a job that didn’t feel like work, one that kept me intellectually challenged and one where I felt I could make a difference.”

A few stints as a guest lecturer, being around young people with hope, optimism and energy, and working closely with academics while in corporate America convinced her to return to college to become a professor. About 20 years after getting her MBA, she gave up her job and for the next five years spent her savings to gain a doctorate from Indiana University’s Kelley School of Business. She joined the Darden faculty in 2014.

Back at School

As a professor, Whitler has published 19 articles in journals, Harvard Business Review and Sloan Management Review. She also has written articles for Forbes magazine that have garnered over 4.5 million online views. In 2021, she published a book, “Positioning for Advantage: Techniques and Strategies to Grow Brand Value.” In 2022, she published “Athlete Brands: How to Benefit from Your Name, Image, and Likeness.”

“I’m extremely grateful to be at Darden,” Whitler said. “Throughout my time here, any resource I needed to help pursue research was supported. When I was asked to write the NIL book, I needed [research assistant] support. The dean and head of faculty didn’t blink and provided it, as well as giving me time to support our athletes.”

She also appreciates Darden’s emphasis on impacting students and teaching.

“We’re preparing the next generation of business leaders. It’s critical that I have a compassion for and an understanding of the world that we’re sending them into,” Whitler said.

“At many universities, receiving good teaching reviews is a signal that you aren’t spending enough time on research. I was specifically told this while getting my Ph.D. Not at Darden,” she said. “It’s one thing for universities to talk about impact, but it’s another thing to actually appreciate, recognize and reward it. I am simply fortunate that Darden hired me and that we have the leadership we do that encourages us to have broad impact through scholarship, teaching and helping support practicing managers.”

She gets no argument from her students.

“Though she has a wealth of knowledge and has an award-worthy CV, she humbly teaches, guiding students toward the answer rather than hosting a 75-minute oration,” Goodman said. “She really knows all of her students, understands their goals, and provides support to get them to where they want to be.”

Fasano agreed.

“There is no better advocate for the student interested in marketing careers at Darden,” he said. “She has a deep heart and really cares and wants them to be successful. I feel she has one of the biggest hearts of any of the professors I’ve encountered at Darden.”

For Whitler, it’s about having impact.

“As a C-level executive, you impact all the people who work for you and all the consumers’ lives that you touch,” she said. “You can have broad impact, but it’s not personal impact. I get emails with updates after they’ve left school and sometimes get handwritten cards from students. I never got a handwritten card from a consumer. Knowing that you’ve been even a small part of their growth, learning and journey is extremely rewarding.”

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Bryan McKenzie

Assistant Editor, UVA Today Office of University Communications