Connecticut College Magazine · Summer 2004


Camels in the new New York

Camels in the new New York

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Camels in the new New York

Camels in the new New York
Makiko Ushiba ´94

Despite an economic drought, young Camels are proving they have the staying power — and the innovative spirit — to make it in
New York’s business world.

Tracy Teare ’87 checks out their progress, three years after 9/11.

Making it in New York’s business world is a feat in its own right, and even more impressive when you achieve success as a relative youngster in turbulent economic times. Yet that’s just what many recent Connecticut College graduates are doing. Despite the economic slowdown that began in the summer of ’01 and then nose dived following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Connecticut College alumni found a variety of ways to cope, retaining jobs and indeed often furthering their careers. Their stories are varied, but they share common themes of strength, determination and optimism.

You can’t keep a Camel down

Though every New Yorker still feels the effects of the 9/11 events in economic terms, some felt the blow more directly. Caroline Samsen ’87, lost her job in credit risk management in investment banking with Credit Suisse First Boston in October ’01. Though some of her colleagues are still out of work, she was rehired five months later by PricewaterhouseCoopers for a special project that eventually became full-time work. “It was certainly no thanks to the economy,” explains Samsen, but my experience and the ties I’d made added up to a good fit.”

The jolt came later for others, like Jennifer Scott ’94, former special events manager for the Observation Deck at the World Trade Center (who by a stroke of luck hadn’t yet reached work that September day). Scott’s employer ARAMARK was able to keep her on the payroll at their Meadowlands facility in New Jersey. The job wasn’t ideal, but it was a paycheck, until 14 months later when she was laid off and spent six months out of work. “I came really close to giving up and moving home,” says Scott. “But thanks to a Connecticut College connection with Joe St. Cyr ’87 who knew what I was capable of, I got an interview that led to a job as the special events manager at Grand Central Terminal.”

Other Camels held on, despite layoffs all around them, until the economy started to recover. Mach Arom, ’89, now the executive creative director at Foot Cone & Belding Interactive, knew from the previous recession that marketing dollars would be the first to go. Sure enough, jobs vanished left and right, and though Arom kept his at Ogilvy, he still felt the pinch.

“The interactive field was burgeoning then, and it just went on hold for two years. All the seed money to develop new technology dried up, and as a result, creativity hibernated, too,” he explains. “I was lucky to be at a stable company at the time, because many people I know left New York, changed their focus or tried to hang on with freelance work.”

Survival was the name of the game for big and small companies alike. Jonathan McBride ’92, a College trustee who had just launched Jungle Media Group in early 2000, had to completely re-think his young business plan in the wake of 9/11.

“Suddenly all bets were off,” recalls McBride, whose company publishes five magazines that target young professionals. “It was tough, but we didn’t think about giving up. We focused on doing everything in our power to get to the other side of the stormy, uncertain business environment. This meant honing in on where we were headed and those things we could control, instead of worrying about all the circumstances that were out of our hands.”

Tight times also brought a sea change in how some approached their careers. Jim Moran ’92, then managing director at the British design firm Attik, cringed when so many fellow employees took the brunt of the financial crisis. That propelled him to start his own firm in May 2002, in the face of uncertain times (see sidebar page 21).

The strategies of survival

Today, even with the economy back on an upswing, the effects of the attacks and the recession continue to reverberate throughout the New York business world. To keep a job, further a career, and move a business forward requires an array of strategies and tactics. Everywhere, money is tight, and people are making do with fewer resources on a number of levels. Businesses that could once look a full year ahead to see how their fortunes might lie now get only a snapshot at a time.

“That means we have to be much more careful with our dollars,” says Marisa Farina ’93, associate publisher of marketing at Time Out New York. “We’re fortunate that local businesses need to advertise with us, but national advertisers are planning month by month, not a year at a shot now.”

“On a personal level, I’m handling projects that were once done by two people, now with a streamlined budget, and I don’t know if that will change anytime soon,” says Makiko Ushiba ’94, manager of graphic design at the Whitney Museum of American Art. The museum had to close its doors one more day per week and eventually laid off some staff to cope with the significant drops in attendance, donations and membership. On the bright side, the cutbacks have inspired many to work smarter and have sparked creativity. “You figure out ways to take on the challenge, and make the best of the situation,” adds Ushiba.
Indeed it’s a recurring theme.

“The conservative environment forces you to be more creative, not just on the concept you’re selling, but how you sell it,” explains Arom, “We’ve had to learn to package things with more strategic underpinning. It was easier before, but now we’re better ad people as a result.”

Businesses also have been forced to set themselves apart from the rest. “To stay alive in this market, it’s more vital than ever to make your product stand out,” explains Scott, special events manager at Grand Central Terminal. Despite Grand Central’s strength as a unique venue, the group made a deliberate effort to pursue the corporate event marketing business in particular. And the effort doesn’t end with landing the business. “Then you’ve got to provide outstanding customer service and make sure that everything that is supposed to happen happens, with absolutely no surprises,” she adds.

In many sectors, there are positive signs of growth, reflected by an increase in hiring and looser budgets. This shift brings a new set of challenges, but compared to years of cuts, they’re the best kind to have. “Recruiters didn’t call for three years, but now everyone’s hiring again, and everyone is trying to poach your talent,” says Arom. “Competition will start to increase, now that there’s a buck to be made,” adds Moran.

The strength of liberal arts
in lean times

Most alumni are quick to credit Connecticut College with many of the basic skills that have helped them succeed in turbulent economic times. “A lot of the business stuff you can figure out if you’re smart, but it’s much harder to come by the people skills and leadership skills that I developed at Connecticut College,” says Farina. “Knowing how to take a range of opinions and mold them into something that works has been more valuable to me than a business degree.”

Building consensus starts with listening. “Connecticut College was always about that,” says Moran, who paid sharp attention to clients, peers, and competitors to formulate a unique business model for his communications agency. “I got the basics of communication at the College, and it’s so key, because if you can’t listen and respond, you’ll have a tough time in business.”

Others have come to appreciate the flexibility their education affords them more than they ever thought they would, like Ed Freiberg ’92, whose career has spanned public interest law, television production and now restaurant ownership (see sidebar). “That’s the beauty of liberal arts,” he says. “You get a broad base that won’t leave you pigeonholed.”

Flexibility is handy when you see a business opportunity or want to make a career change, but it’s downright essential when an unforeseeable event like 9/11 shatters every assumption in your business plan.
“You don’t learn how to react to macro changes like that in business school,” says McBride. “My experiences at Connecticut College — which taught me to be open to different ideas, be willing to admit when I was wrong, and take responsibility for making positive change — were essential to making it through those lean years.”
At a time when it would have been more than understandable to look on the bleak side, Connecticut College graduates drew on another lesson from their college days: that getting involved makes a difference.

“Student prerogative is such a part of what Connecticut College is all about,” points out McBride. “You learn that outcomes matter, and you get pushed to become part of the solution. It teaches you a level of pro-activity and confidence that you need and keep throughout life.”

Keeping a balance

Nearly three years later, the perspective shift forced by the 9/11 attacks still shapes the way many approach work and life in New York. Warnings and security updates are constant reminders of what happened and what could happen again. “What was a hard skin gets even tougher,” says Ushiba. “But you have to plan emotionally and get over always being worried and scared. You can’t change it, so you try to move forward, work hard and appreciate what’s here in both your job and quality of life.”
Many strive to keeping an eye on the bigger picture. “The challenge for me is to grow my career without causing upheaval to my family,” says Samsen.
“Personally, you work harder, but you have to work smart and balance your life,” adds Moran. “The 90s were incredible for business, but now I look at what’s important to me in life as well.”

A tale of two opportunities

A weak economic forecast means it’s time to hunker down, play it safe, and hope your job and business survive. Unless you’re Ed Frieberg ’92 or Jim Moran ’92, that is. Then you see an opening while others are slamming doors shut.

After learning the ropes in TV production, branding, and design in firms big and small, Moran and a partner launched CO-OP, a cutting-edge branding and communications agency with alliances to other small, related businesses, in the spring of 2002. But the leap — precipitated when Moran and other top managers at his then employer did not see eye to eye on dealing with the financial fallout of 9/11 — signaled much more than a desire to go solo.

“Everyone said you’re crazy, the economy is dead. We knew it would be tight but it was also a great time to start. I knew that if we came up with a sound, unique model, we could establish ourselves and ride out the storm. Then when the economy came back, we’d be in a position of strength while others would be just ramping up,” explains Moran, whose clients include Madame Tussauds, Imax, Major League Soccer, and A&E. “Now we’re getting calls every day from new and existing clients.”

Business is also humming at Freiberg’s Cafe Luise, a small restaurant that serves up a fusion of French Caribbean and French Asian fare in Manhattan’s up and coming lower east side. “In a strange way, 9/11 inspired me to do this,” explains Freiberg. “It makes you want to live life harder, and stronger, and better, and go after what you really want.” Freiberg, who had years of behind the scenes restaurant experience from the times when he needed two jobs to make ends meet, spent seven years in television production prior to this venture.

“My business partner had a great space, and as a born and bred New Yorker, I hated spending $75 on a mediocre meal,” he says. Oddly, running a restaurant has parallels to Freiberg’s former work. “It’s still producing, essentially. Now it’s atmosphere and appetizers instead of script and scenery, but it’s all about creating an experience,” he explains. And though he uses skills from his Connecticut College education every day to communicate clearly with staff and customers, Frieberg ultimately lives by the advice his father gave him when he was 24. “’You don’t have to have one career,’ he told me, ‘Just always do your best.’ That gave me confidence to try a variety of things,” says Frieberg. “No one likes to fail, but it’s a necessary evil that helps you learn.”

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