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Taking Flight As public information specialist for the airport in Austin, Texas, Kaela Harmon ’05 combines data analysis with creativity for the aviation industry.

Kaela Harmon ’05

Kaela Harmon’s passion for airports goes well beyond being fascinated with planes and travel. “An airport has its own dynamic flow,” she said.

Although she’s still new to a job as public information specialist senior for the Austin-Bergstrom International Airport in Austin, Texas, Harmon ’05 has spent the last five years working with airports and the communities they serve.

In that time, she has learned that airport advocates work to represent their host communities to the airlines. Routes, departure and arrival times, and connections are important to people who rely on airports for business and leisure travel. In Austin, as in her previous job with the Columbia, South Carolina, airport, she enjoys analyzing data and using it to craft creative messages. “We’re always working with the community so they understand our role. We’re marketing the airport to the community.”

She notes that an airplane is “a mobile asset.” Airlines can make decisions at any time about where to move and house their planes, what routes to add or drop, and where important connections will be made. That makes it incumbent on communities and airport officials to make a strong case for their air-transportation needs.

In Austin, Harmon is responsible for media and public relations, and she serves as a liaison for the airport and the airlines. On a typical day, she could be writing a press release about a new service, such as a recent announcement of a new nonstop flight between Austin and London, or planning and hosting an event. She also crafts talking points related to the airport’s public announcements and serves on a team of five to manage the airport’s social media accounts.

“The work is very dynamic. It’s a perfect blend of analytics and creativity,” she said.

In her hometown of Columbia, she was public relations and government affairs manager for the Columbia Municipal Airport, before being recruited by Sixel Consulting Group, where she worked for almost a year helping local airports make their cases for increased air services. She then did freelance consulting until taking the job in Austin in June 2017.

While in Columbia, Harmon was recognized for her work by being named to several lists, including 20 Under 40, 40 Under 40, Columbia’s 2014 Top Women of Influence and Influential Women in Business.

While helping with one of Columbia’s programs — Wings for Autism — Harmon realized she could take her passion for airports to another level. The program is a national effort for individuals with autism spectrum disorders or intellectual or developmental disabilities. Families practice the entire process of moving through the airport and boarding a plane, which helps relieve stress when they make a real trip.

Kaela Harmon ’05 promotes her children’s book.

The experience inspired Harmon to write and self-publish a children’s book, “Zoey’s First Plane Ride.” While other books focus on airplanes, Harmon wanted to “pass along my enthusiasm for airports.” She walks the reader through every step — checking in at the kiosk, checking luggage and explaining where it goes on the conveyor belt, walking the concourse, understanding airport signage, boarding the plane — all the way through to baggage claim.

“Airports can be overwhelming to children,” Harmon said, noting that the book has been well received. Some airports have picked it up to sell, and the airport in Roanoke, Virginia, purchased 100 copies to give to schoolchildren who toured the airport.

Harmon developed her talent for writing and communications through her major in broadcast journalism and communications. Her high school guidance counselor in Columbia was a W&L graduate — one of the first female, black students on campus — and introduced her to the university. Harmon spent six weeks on campus for a summer-immersion program, and after applying, she returned for a visit. Walking along the Colonnade, “I felt I really needed to be here,” she remembered.

She values the professors who inspired and mentored her. “Bob de Maria was one of those rare people who took you under his wing and pushed you to be better,” she said. Professors Dayo Abah and Claudette Artwick also stand out as important to her professional development.

“The journalism department was like a family. All the professors and administrators rallied around to help students to be well prepared and have a support system,” she said. “At W&L, you’re not a number but an individual who matters.”

While on campus, she was involved with the Minority Student Association and helped charter Delta Sigma Theta sorority. She continues to be involved by serving on an advisory board for the journalism department. As well as participating in quarterly meetings, she and other board members review senior portfolios, looking at them with a professional’s eye to provide constructive feedback.

As a young black professional, Harmon said, she never wants to lose sight of the fact that “I’m standing on the shoulders of giants. Many made sacrifices to give me opportunities.” She hopes to continue to lay a foundation for those who come after her.

A View from the Cockpit Capt. Clay Shaner ’04 left investment banking to fly the unfriendly skies as a combat pilot.

Capt. Clay Shaner ’04 air refueling in his F-16 on a combat sortie over Syria, New Years Day 2017

“Flying fighter jets is a visceral experience, but operating an aircraft as a weapon system is both art and science. You get to harness some of the greatest technology ever made to accomplish dynamic missions alongside some very talented people.”

While investment banking has its risks — mainly financial — Clay Shaner walked away from it to take on even greater risks as a fighter pilot for the U.S. Air Force.

Shaner, an Air Force captain, recently returned stateside from several months flying F-16s on missions over Syria and Iraq. He is currently transitioning from the Vermont Air National Guard’s 134th Fighter Squadron to begin training at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida. His new assignment is the F-35, the Air Force’s fifth generation joint strike fighter plane, which has been in design and production for the past several years.

“Flying fighter jets is a visceral experience,” said Shaner, “but operating an aircraft as a weapon system is both art and science. You get to harness some of the greatest technology ever made to accomplish dynamic missions alongside some very talented people.” He said his job is the most challenging he has ever had and will be even more so as he spends the next several years flying the new F-35 weapons system and instructing the next generation of fighter pilots.

As a business major at Washington and Lee, Shaner enjoyed the liberal arts and began a promising career in investment banking with Morgan Stanley. After nearly five years with the bank, Shaner couldn’t suppress the underlying urge to pursue his dream, even taking flying lessons prior to committing to the career change “to verify I’d love it as much as I expected. I did.”

Capt. Clay Shaner ’04

There was military service on both sides of Shaner’s family, but he is the first pilot. He joined the Air Force in 2009, and then spent three years becoming a combat-qualified fighter pilot, followed by the last five years of operational duty, including deployments to the South Pacific and Middle East.

“The F-16 was designed as a multi-role fighter, but its two primary functions on today’s global chessboard are providing precision close air support and air interdiction,” said Shaner. “That involves supporting the movement of friendly forces on the ground and destroying an enemy’s means of operation, such as communications, command and control, weapons and militants.”

Shaner has accumulated more than 900 hours flying the F-16, including several dozen combat missions, all of which involved kinetic strikes with precision air-to-ground munitions. Typical missions entailed more than eight hours in the cockpit, including multiple aerial refueling events between various dynamic tasks. His most recent deployment was in support of Operation Inherent Resolve, but he has also deployed to the South Pacific on a Theater Security Package.

Shaner volunteered for the F-35 assignment and is very enthusiastic about the opportunity. “It’s a stealth airplane. It can do several types of missions but excels in suppression of enemy air defenses.” His job will be to become an expert on the plane and help the Air Force refine its role and tactics for future deployments.

With his new assignment, Shaner will transition back to active duty after nearly five years as a Vermont guardsman. “The lines between active and reserve are more blurred now — a reflection of the USAF Total Force initiative,” said Shaner. He plans to remain on active duty for the next five years, and then might return to reserve status to allow more time with his wife, Lee ’02, and son, Steele, 1.

Shaner looks back with fondness at his time at W&L. In the Commerce School, he remembers Scott Hoover, the A. Stevens Miles Professor of Banking and Finance, who was “selfless with his time and passionate about explaining concepts. He generously mentored students and helped open job opportunities for many people, including me,” said Shaner.

His class with history professor Barry Machado taught him about the Vietnam War. He admired Machado’s overall subject knowledge and the demanding way he ran his classes — “forcing you to think and openly discuss difficult issues.”

A varsity lacrosse player, Shaner came to W&L from Maryland, near Washington, D.C, and chose the university for its strong academic reputation. On a campus visit, while still undecided, he said, “It quickly felt like home after a few interactions with random students on the hill.” He enjoyed his many friendships and the academic freedom of W&L.

Shaner hasn’t regretted his decision to leave the world of investment banking to pursue military service. “The U.S. Air Force is an amazing organization – just as impressive as Morgan Stanley,” he said. “I’ve worked with incredible people from a broad cross section of our great country, and I wouldn’t change a thing.”


She Talks to Animals For Christine Starer-Smith ’99, a love of animals led to a veterinary career and volunteer service at a remote Dakota reservation.

Christine Starer-Smith ’99

Christine Starer-Smith ’99’s love of animals developed early when she started saving baby bunnies as a child. Later, she brought her horse to Washington and Lee University and started the riding team.

Now a veterinarian at Banfield Pet Hospital in Virginia Beach, Starer-Smith says she had to succeed at University of Pennsylvania’s vet school — “I had no Plan B,” she laughed.

“Veterinary medicine is a wonderful career for women,” she said. It offers an opportunity for work-life balance, which the mother of two young daughters appreciates. “Your career inevitably takes turns that you can’t predict,” so she advises women to get a broad liberal arts education, and if they go to vet school, also to study broadly there.

Starer-Smith knows too well what she is talking about. Because of her love of horses, she joined an equine practice out of vet school and worked with the large animals for nine years. After being trampled by a horse and spending 23 days in the hospital with several surgeries, she turned to relief work for Banfield while recuperating five years ago. For the past two years, she has worked there part time, caring for dogs and cats, and she loves her flexible schedule.

While in vet school, Starer-Smith took two trips with Rural Area Veterinary Services, a program that combines community service and veterinary education to bring free vet services to underserved rural communities. Typically, these are isolated, poverty-stricken communities with no access to veterinary care.

Recently, she traveled again with RAVS, now affiliated with The Humane Society, to two communities on the Standing Rock Reservation in North and South Dakota. “We provided spay, neuter and preventative care services to more than 500 animals,” she said.

The group of 50, including 10 vets, three vet technicians, 30 vet students and support staff, transported everything they needed to set up a full veterinary hospital, including five surgical tables, anesthesia machines, recovery tables and supplies. “We set up in gyms and had primitive living conditions,” she said. Although they were from all backgrounds and geographic areas, “we worked together as a team,” she said.

On a Facebook posting, Starer-Smith noted that they had no running water, no showers and no flushing toilets. “I feel like I am on an un-filmed reality TV show,” she commented. However, she said being around the 30 students was invigorating.

Working in such isolated conditions gave Starer-Smith an opportunity to use some skills she doesn’t have to use in her day-to-day practice in Virginia Beach. Many of the animals weren’t vaccinated, and “We saw more contagious diseases, such as parvovirus, in some dogs.”

At home, she has the luxury of performing surgery on animals at the optimal time. In the Dakotas, animals needed surgery in less than the best conditions. Spaying older animals or performing risky surgery on a dog with new puppies gave her the opportunity to call on skills that she hadn’t used in some time.

She said the communities were very appreciative of their work. Many days, people lined up at 5:30 a.m. for the clinic that opened at 8 a.m.

A biology major at W&L, Starer-Smith remembers assistance she got from the pre-med counselor who helped her select science courses in the right order, starting in her freshman year, to make sure she was prepared for applying to medical school.

Another boost to her application was the opportunity to do research as a freshman with Helen I’Anson, professor of biology. “This got me a foot in the door; it helped get my application looked at,” she said.

Starer-Smith doesn’t downplay the challenges of becoming a vet. Getting through organic chemistry at W&L, the course load at vet school and cost of tuition were tough, but worth the effort.

Her passion is taking care of pets and helping owners foster a bond with their pets. “I look at every pet I treat by asking, ‘What’s best for this pet?’ ”

Christine Starer-Smith ’99 and Abby

She also looks at each pet as if it were one of her own. She and husband Eric share their home with Abby, a yellow lab therapy dog, and Dixie, a Jack Russell terrier. Starer-Smith takes Abby to her daughters’ school weekly to help second graders learn to read, and they also visit assisted living facilities.

And, as if traveling to remote areas to provide pet care, treating animals at Banfield, raising two daughters and two dogs weren’t enough, Starer-Smith recently fostered a kitten that needed to be fed every two hours. It seems the little girl who wanted to save bunnies is grown up but still can’t resist an animal in need.

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Outperforming Expectations Ansel Sanders ’04 seeks innovation in solving public schools’ challenges.

Ansel Sanders ’04

Ansel Sanders ’04 doesn’t see problems in public education. He sees challenges that have solutions.

Whether it’s filling the gap of teacher shortages, teaching kids to learn by applying engineering processes or moving a low-performing school up to the top-25 percent, Sanders has applied innovative and creative solutions to help students, teachers and schools outperform expectations.

Currently he is president and CEO of Public Education Partners, an organization established in 1985 by business leaders in Greenville, South Carolina, to be a friend and partner to Greenville County’s nearly 78,000-student school district. Half the students there receive free or reduced-price meals, and in some subjects, teachers are leaving quicker than they can be replaced.

In Greenville, as elsewhere, middle and high school math and science teachers are in short supply, and Sanders’ group sought short-term solutions to fill the gap.

Thinking from a policy and practical point of view, the group decided to seek professionals who wanted to teach but didn’t want to take time to go back to college for certification. “We wanted to recruit and retain talent,” and so partnered with the school district to develop a program called GATE (Greenville Alternative Teacher Education). The first in South Carolina, the program provided a local alternative teacher-certification program.

“We started small,” said Sanders, and the first goal was 10 teachers. They met that goal, and schools hired 10 new math and science teachers for the 2016-17 school year, creating positive buzz along the way.

“Demand grew and our second cohort expanded to 18 new teachers.” Those 18 began teaching in fall 2017 and include a microbiologist and a NASA employee. Some GATE teachers moved to Greenville just for the program.

Sanders’ talent for public school innovation developed soon after he left W&L. Stopping first in Baltimore, he worked for Teach for America as an eighth grade English and language arts teacher. While in Baltimore, he co-founded Athletes and Authors Summer Academy, which taught positive values shared by academics and athletics. As a former goalie on W&L’s lacrosse team, the concept was a perfect match for him.

While in Baltimore, Sanders and his classmate, Helen Hughes, reconnected. After they “kicked the tires” on a number of places up and down the East Coast, Sanders moved to Greenville so he and Helen could be closer to where Helen, a budding real-estate developer, could join her family’s real-estate development company. They got married in 2008.

“I loved the classroom, but was curious about working one level up and gaining leadership skills,” he said.

That desire led him to a job as assistant principal at a middle school in Greenville, but it wasn’t long before another challenge presented itself. The system’s superintendent called looking for leadership for a new school prototype — what public education could be in the 21st century.

After months of planning, A. J. Whittenburg Elementary School in Engineering opened in 2010, with Sanders serving as program director. The school was the first elementary school in the state with a focus on engineering.

“Students are taught to think critically and test solutions with a peer group,” Sanders explained. Starting with just K-2, the school has added a grade level each year and is now PreK – fifth grade. With professional engineers consulting on the curriculum and visiting classrooms, the school soon became so popular that the few spaces available for kids outside the neighborhood are now assigned by lottery.

Sanders said that traditional subjects, such as reading, are taught with an engineering focus. “Think about Humpty Dumpty and his fall from the wall,” Sanders said. “Students learn to read, but also develop ideas to prevent Humpty from cracking. Some students decided to pad the ground to provide a soft landing, while others decided to make a Velcro seat to he wouldn’t fall in the first place.”

Not one to be complacent, Sanders decided in 2012 to pursue a doctor of educational leadership at Harvard University. So, the family — now including a daughter — moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts, so he could begin the three-year program designed for practitioners who were expected to return to the field as systems-level leaders. “I wanted to build my leadership capacity to make transformational improvements in the educational sector,” said Sanders.

After two years, Sanders was sent to Memphis, Tennessee, along with the family — now with two daughters — to fulfill a third-year residency program with Achievement School District, where he was charged with helping to move Tennessee’s lowest-performing schools into the top-25 percent in the state.

When the year was up, Sanders and Helen had to decide whether to stay in Memphis, move back to the Boston area, return to Greenville or perhaps set out on a new adventure. Although he deeply enjoyed and appreciated working with the principals, teachers, parents and students in Memphis, “We decided to come back to the place that gave us a shot and that wrapped its arms around us personally and professionally.” So, the family — now with three daughters — moved back to Greenville.

Sanders remembers his time at W&L as “an incredible experience.” His lacrosse team compiled an overall record of 51-14, won the conference twice and competed in the Division III national championship tournament twice, making it to the Final Four once. “As a goalie, I learned so much. It solidified my values and taught me what it means to fail fast but fail forward,” he said. “Being able to navigate through failure and complexity and having a resilience to persevere I attribute to the game, my teammates and coaches.”

He active in the local alumni chapter, and Helen is serving her first year on the university’s Board of Trustees.

There was never any doubt that Sanders would pursue a career in education. He remembers the adults who influenced him the most. “They were teachers. My fifth-grade social studies teacher was inspirational. I wanted to emulate his zest and enthusiasm.”

Sanders says he is even more motivated to support schools now that his three young girls — 5, 4 and 2 ½ — are now either of or nearing school age. “It’s more personal,” he said.


Crystal Doyle ‘09L Promotes Access to Justice with Global Firm DLA Piper

“All of our lawyers in the U.S. are expected to do pro bono work, and I get to help them find matters that connect with their values while helping to bridge the access to justice gap in our country and around the world.”

Crystal Doyle '09LCrystal Doyle ’09L

Crystal Doyle‘09L isn’t shy to say she loves her job. That’s because, in her role as pro bono counsel at DLA Piper, she gets to work with the lawyers and resources of one of the largest, most recognized corporate law firms in the world to promote access to justice through pro bono work.

As pro bono counsel, Doyle develops national and international pro bono projects focused on assisting immigrants, promoting women’s rights and combating domestic violence and human trafficking. Based in Chicago, she also maintains her own small caseload of humanitarian immigration matters and oversees all aspects of the firm’s pro bono work in Austin, Baltimore, Dallas, Houston and Minneapolis.

It’s a big job, which Doyle admits is “a bit all over the place,” but she couldn’t be happier. Her work inspires her because she is able to spend her days in ways that matter. “I get paid to help people – amazing.”

She said her colleagues are a really good team. “I deeply respect them. They are friendly, smart and mission-focused.” The team is one of the largest full-time pro bono teams at any law firm in the world, with support for the program coming from “the highest levels of the firm,” said Doyle. “All of our lawyers in the U.S. are expected to do pro bono work, and I get to help them find matters that connect with their values while helping to bridge the access to justice gap in our country and around the world.”

The issues that resonate most with Doyle have always revolved around serving marginalized communities, especially immigrants. She began this work in her role as pro bono specialist at Shearman & Sterling LLP’s New York office before law school, where she was able to assist lawyers working with immigrant clients on family and immigration matters. “I loved the work,” she said. “It’s what convinced me to take the plunge and go to law school.”

W&L Law turned out to be the perfect place for Doyle to study law and prepare for her future. Although she was accepted to several top 14 law schools, Doyle chose W&L because of a generous scholarship and, more importantly, the “quality of the classroom instruction and the feel of the place.” When she visited with other accepted students, she realized “it seemed to be the school I wanted to be at. Everyone was so warm and welcoming, and current students took a lot of time to talk to me and share their experiences.” Many of those students became her friends and mentors when she arrived on campus. “It wasn’t all just a show to get us to sign on.”

She was also impressed with the honor system, the beauty of the campus and surrounding landscape, and most of all, the professors. “We were able to attend a standard first-year class, and the quality of the classroom teaching just blew me away. I had visited a lot of schools and had not seen professors bring the material to life in quite the same way.”

Doyle reminisced about favorite W&L experiences that prepared her for a public interest legal career, including participation in the Shepherd Poverty Program; a summer fellowship that exposed her to the work of public defenders in London, Kentucky; and a year-long externship with an immigrant rights organization in Charlottesville that Prof. Mary Natkin arranged for her.

Doyle was involved in Moot Court as a 2L – both in the mock trial and appellate competitions. As a 3L, she was on the Moot Court board and coached a team that competed on the national level. She credits the mock trial program with preparing her for her first trial as a junior associate at Fried, Frank, Harris, Shriver & Jacobson LLP, a corporate firm in New York City, where she started her career as part of the firm’s pro bono fellowship program. During the trial, Doyle represented a survivor of horrific domestic violence in her action for divorce from her abuser. “It was a complex matter, and my notes and textbooks from W&L were my bible for preparing to present that case.”

In addition to practical experiences, Doyle also developed her knowledge of international law while at W&L. She worked under the supervision of Prof. Mark Drumbl to draft a comparative analysis of gender-based asylum for her student note for the Civil Rights and Social Justice Journal, where she served on the board as a 3L. She also fondly remembers attending international human rights law classes with Prof. Drumbl and Prof. Joanna Bond. “It’s such a big part of my current practice, and I’m so grateful to have gotten such a solid foundation from them.”

Besides the academics, Doyle also valued the sense of community at W&L. “Everyone says that law school is cut-throat, but W&L was actually one of the most collaborative, community-oriented experiences I have ever had. It surprised me.”

For example, when she was sick early in the first semester and missed some classes, her classmates “spontaneously sent me their notes so I would not fall behind.” Another time, during orientation, a classmate broke his leg and couldn’t drive or walk. “My small section organized a volunteer schedule to make sure he could get to school and run errands, even though we all barely knew each other. Those experiences really stayed with me.”

Outside of practicing law, Doyle enjoys playing piano and guitar, and actually met her husband, a software engineer, when both played in country cover bands in New York City. The two now make their home in Chicago when she is not traveling the globe for work. “I never thought I would spend so much time at airports, but it’s absolutely worth it.”

Ryan Decker ‘09L Helps Empower Entrepreneurs with Airbnb’s Legal Team

Ryan Decker '09LRyan Decker ’09L

Whether you want to experience the local flare of London, spend a few nights in a castle in Ireland, find a room for a night in Nashville or take a cooking class in your hometown, Airbnb can accommodate your wish. The 11-year-old company has experienced phenomenal growth by connecting hosts and guests with its four million online listings.

Paying for your stay or experience is also easy using the company’s website. “Payments are a key part of the Airbnb platform,” said Ryan Decker ‘09L, who serves as payments counsel at the San Francisco-based company. “We have a large payment infrastructure” that keeps up with transactions in 190 countries. Decker has been with the company since July 2015 and also provides strategic counsel on commercial partnerships, such as with PayPal, payment processors and banks, as well as product development and legal compliance.

In order to move money in and out of Airbnb’s platform, Decker has to understand financial rules and regulations around the world. He provides product counsel advice to Airbnb regarding legal implications of consumer-facing elements throughout every step of the payment process.

He calls this the “fun stuff” because he gets to dive deeply into the product teams to push out new and interesting features.

His path to Airbnb included work as an associate with the firm Paul Hastings in Washington, D.C., where he was part of the antitrust group, specializing in litigation and merger control matters. After he transferred to the firm’s San Francisco office, he began working with clients on payments issues.

His first stop after law school, however, was not the traditional clerkship or junior role in a large firm. As a third-year student, he had been part of the school’s Liberia practicum. For the fall semester after graduation, he became a Law Fellow for the program, serving four months in the African nation. “I was drawn to the unique challenges of the legal system in Liberia,” he recalls.

“It was a once-in-a-lifetime chance to be a scrappy recent law graduate trying to make a difference,” he said.

His job was two-fold. He coordinated and taught classes for students at the University of Liberia School of Law under the direction of W&L professor Speedy Rice, who was based in the U.S. He also facilitated a program under a United Nations grant that helped provide access to magistrate judges for detained individuals in the country’s main prison in Monrovia. Prior to the grant, many of those individuals who couldn’t afford bail had to wait in jail while their cases “floundered.”

“I helped start and build the program and managed the U.N. funds,” said Decker. With the assistance of 12 Liberian law students, the program identified the detained individuals, set up the dockets, and assisted the prosecutors, defense attorneys and judges.

“It really helped me learn how to get things done and to work creatively,” said Decker. He also had to work with other U.N. agencies that shared common goals but often could be challenging to work with.

After the fellowship and almost six years at Paul Hastings, Decker now finds himself working in a job that allows him to delve deeper into a topic he truly enjoys. The opportunity with Airbnb was there because of the growth of the company. “They developed a large payment infrastructure. Every transaction has a payment component. That is core to Airbnb’s product.”

He likes to think of the company as “empowering entrepreneurs to utilize their underutilized resources and talents.” The company lists homes all over the world – some are second homes, some are rooms in the host’s primary residence. Some people list their home just a couple of times a year when they are on vacation, he said.

Recently added to the company’s offerings are “experiences.” An experience could be in your own hometown or across the world. Want to walk the Hollywood hills, learn to surf or explore a city with a local photographer? Airbnb offers those and many more experiences.

Also new he said is the launch of more flexible payments – where guests can pay half the cost of a stay up front and the other half just prior to the trip. “Payments functionality has to support new business ventures such as that,” Decker said. “It can be complex to manage.”

After receiving an undergraduate degree from Wake Forest, Decker decided to attend W&L Law School for several reasons, including its location on the East Coast, putting him near his hometown of Baltimore, Maryland, and Washington, where he hoped to work. He also said his decision was based “on the feeling” he got from the school’s environment. “It is smaller and more focused both socially and academically.” When he met some of the other admitted students, he felt they shared the same values. “Professors were a tight-knit group. They were intellectually smart and interested in furthering legal education and getting to know students.”

While at W&L, he served as an editor of the Law Review and was an honor advocate, helping both undergraduates and law students accused of an honor or conduct violations prepare and present their cases to the Executive Committee, Student Judicial Council or Student-Faculty Hearing Board.

In class and while working with Prof. Rice on the Liberia practicum, Decker learned that Rice “maneuvered through NGOs and local government with ease.” He took several classes from Prof. Lyman Johnson, who Decker said “challenged students to think creatively and find solutions that were both practical and creative.” Prof. Sam Calhoun was good at challenging first-year students. “He was demanding but had the right level of rigor and caring. He taught us how to study and be prepared – bringing out the inner law student.”

Married to wife Danielle and expecting their first child, Decker is motivated by Airbnb’s mission of allowing anyone to belong anywhere. “Through our platform, we facilitate going deep in the culture and truly living in a city.” He also values the company’s ability to empower individuals to generate revenue, which often helps them stay in their homes or provide financial flexibility.

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If the Shoe Fits As head of brand communications for Adidas, Alegra O’Hare ’94 advises young women to 'break barriers.'

Alegra O’Hare ’94

Selling sneakers in today’s global markets involves more than pretty displays in stores. For Alegra O’Hare ’94, vice president of global brand communications for adidas, “there is a quantity of risk involved. We try to challenge ourselves and break the status quo.”

In 2016, that meant partnering with Alexander Wang during New York Fashion Week to promote products on social media that customers could purchase from trucks strategically placed around the city. “We flipped retail on its head,” O’Hare said. The trucks sold out, with lines of people still waiting to make a purchase.

In 2017, it meant working with the family of Frank Sinatra to launch a campaign for Adidas Originals to the singer’s iconic tune, “My Way.” The campaign, “Original is Never Finished,” helped the brand win four Cannes Lions awards for beautifully produced, buzzworthy advertising and become the best-selling sneaker in the United States.

O’Hare joined adidas in 2007 in Italy, and later took on more responsibility with the south European market. In 2014, she moved to the company’s headquarters in Germany to lead communications, including content creation, media, public relations, and social and digital platforms. Her staff of 52 works in Germany, with O’Hare spending 60-70 percent of her time traveling to Shanghai, South America, Europe and other parts of the world.

O’Hare and her staff launch about 80 campaigns per season, with two seasons a year. They are responsible for creative development, reviewing and finalizing campaigns, production, providing merchant tools, media buys and roll-out.

With a degree in psychology from Washington and Lee, O’Hare decided after a couple of internships in the field that she wanted to pursue a different career path and tried an internship in marketing and advertising. Her first job was with Sara Lee personal products, where she started as a marketing assistant and worked up to a position in brand and product marketing. She then worked for Danish luxury AV company Bang and Olufsen, then an Italian watch company in Milan, and finally, VF Brands, where she was marketing manager for the jeans division.

She believes that studying psychology, especially consumer behavior and analysis, has helped advance her career. “Psychology is definitely useful in influencing consumers,” she said.

O’Hare grew up in Chicago— and yes, she is related to the O’Hare of the city’s airport — but she is quick to point out that she gets no perks from the family tie. Half Italian and half American, she lived in the city’s North Side. When it was time to select a college, O’Hare decided she wanted to experience a small, liberal arts college in a beautiful part of America. “I fell in love with W&L,” she said. She also liked the university’s history and its proximity to Washington, D.C.

Alegra O’Hare ’94 was named an MVP of the sports marketing world.

O’Hare is making a name for herself in the consumer brands world. AdWeek recently named her one of 35 “most powerful women in sports winning over the next generation of fans” in its second annual list of the MVPs of the sports marketing world. She said the recognition was “unexpected and empowering,” especially in a male-dominated industry. “It is great to see all 34 other women who are able to bring forth leadership and a point of view. There is more work to do. We have a duty to represent women.”

One way O’Hare does that is by participating in adidas’ women’s mentoring circle. As one of the program’s leaders, she meets periodically with 20 women for round-table discussions about the company and how to steer through the politics of corporate life. “The circles give women the opportunity to talk more freely and share commonalities,” she said.

Diversity and inclusion are hot topics for today’s young people, she said. Sustainability also is important to them, as well as to the company, which makes sneakers from recycled ocean debris.

Her advice to young women is to be more demanding, such as asking for a raise or more leadership opportunities — not waiting for things to just happen. She wants young women to break barriers. Too often, women are waiting to achieve perfection in one area before taking on new challenges, she said. She pointed out that often women are raised to think that way, while men are not.

As O’Hare and adidas continue to break barriers, she looks toward a post-digital age. “Companies are either playing catch-up or thinking beyond. We’re thinking about integrated retail and digital experiences,” she said. A few weeks ago, for instance, the company put up posters with a Chatbox number. New York City consumers could text to buy a product directly, and it was delivered to them by bike messengers. “It had never been done,” she said.

That type of innovation keeps her motivated. “I get to work with a fantastic team and to leave a lasting legacy for the company.”

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Long Live the Glossies Jeff Hamill ’81 has built a global career in advertising with popular Hearst magazines.

Jeff Hamill ’81

If you have ever read Good Housekeeping, Cosmopolitan, Elle, House Beautiful, O the Oprah Magazine or Esquire, you’ve seen the work of Jeff Hamill ’81.

Hamill has worked for Hearst Magazines since 1982 and now serves as executive vice president for advertising sales and marketing for the company’s 21 domestic and 300 global magazine titles. As the senior sales officer of the largest publisher of monthly magazines in the world, he oversees sales teams based in New York, London, Atlanta, Chicago, Detroit, Dallas, San Francisco and Los Angeles. Hearst is a large, diversified corporation that also owns TV stations, cable networks, newspapers and other information and service companies.

“I have always enjoyed selling advertising to clients. I love the process. At its base it’s storytelling — a way to provide a rationale for them spending dollars with us,” he said. Even in today’s instant, all-access digital market, Hamill said it still comes down to creating compelling stories that consumers relate to.

While his division’s core business is still monthly print magazines, all of the titles have large websites and social media channels. Hamill’s group sells ads for all titles and platforms, offering integrated marketing solutions for clients. His work is more enjoyable because the magazines are “loved by consumers.” Working with such leading brands as L’Oréal, Procter & Gamble, Johnson & Johnson, GM, Toyota, Kraft and others, Hamill and his teams create custom content and marketing for them.

On a daily basis, Hamill is involved in contract negotiations and helping sales teams craft proposals, and he often meets with senior-level clients and their agencies around the country. Attaining this level of responsibility was a process that took him from a management-training program in 1982 to such positions as managing the Redbook office in Chicago for two years, directing ad sales for Cosmopolitan during the last years of Helen Gurley Brown’s tenure as editor in chief, and helping invigorate the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval — the strongest symbol of product quality — as the magazine’s associate publisher.

Hamill said that Hearst has been a wonderful place for him to spend his career. “It is a large corporation but privately held, and that has been good for me.” A mentor he met while at W&L “introduced me to magazine publishing, and I found an industry that suited my skill set.”

Through the years, Hamill has seen many changes in the magazine industry, most notably the addition of digital content. “Everything changes constantly. With digital media, we really fight for the consumers’ time. The consumer still has only 24 hours in a day.”

The biggest challenge in recent years has been to evolve with consumers’ habits. “Magazines have to put brands in all places that consumers want content,” Hamill noted. That can be websites or social media, such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest and others.

Unlike the newspaper industry, which has seen significant declines in print circulation as digital content increased, Hearst magazines have not been totally disrupted. Print circulation is still strong, but the company has added new editorial teams to provide digital content for all of the titles. “In print, we still produce 300 pages or so of content a month, but the same title requires 40 to 50 pieces of content a day in the digital platforms.”

While advertisers are shifting their dollars to digital in the news arena, “We’ll never be without glossy, print images in magazines,” Hamill said.

A native of Durham, North Carolina, Hamill chose Washington and Lee over hometown university Duke. The decision was sealed when he visited campus. “I got a great impression, a strong vibe. I felt like I fit in, and I really liked it,” he said.

Jeff Hamill (right) and his wife, Susan (left), visit campus often to support their lacrosse-playing children, Parker ’17 and Hudson ’20.

Now living in Darien, Connecticut, and working in New York City, he visits the campus often because his two youngest children are students — Parker is a senior and Hudson is a first-year. His daughter, Alexandra, graduated in 2013 and is living in San Francisco.

Alex played lacrosse at W&L and brought her sister, Parker, with her to a summer lacrosse camp when she was a ninth grader. She immediately caught the attention of the lacrosse coach, who began recruiting her then. Parker is now captain of the women’s lacrosse team, which is No. 2 in the nation.

Following in his sisters’ footsteps, Hudson was an accomplished high school athlete and All-American lacrosse player who had a choice of colleges. “He had been to W&L so many times, he loved the campus, the academic rigor and the lacrosse program and made his own choice on W&L,” said Hamill.

As a student, Hamill felt some pressure to follow a path into the c-school. However, a talk with his father, who advised him to study what he was really interested in, “freed me to study American history.” He remembers professors Holt Merchant and Barry Machado as faculty who most influenced him. He still sees Merchant, now an emeritus professor of history, when he visits Lexington for lacrosse games.

Friends made through membership in KA fraternity have remained close. “They were critically important to life at W&L, and we are still very connected,” he said.

Hamill has come back to campus to participate in the AdLib Conference, a celebration of advertising and the liberal arts. He also gave a presentation in Professor Alicia Swasy’s mass communications class about how mass consumer media has changed in the digital age. “I gave a similar presentation to what I do for senior clients,” he said. Students’ questions were “perceptive and smart.” He plans to return to the class in the fall.

Hamill also serves as an alumni interviewer for prospective students. He remembers how valuable it was to meet and talk to a W&L graduate himself when he was deciding whether to enroll.

W&L, Hamill says, gave him an advantage in his career because of the honor system and the speaking tradition that are a part of the university’s culture. As he advanced in his profession, “I wanted to build a reputation of dealing with customers honestly.”

Being able to speak with people face to face in an era of texting “is as important as ever,” he said. “I find W&L grads to be poised, sure on their feet and good communicators.”


Taking Flight Kaela Harmon ’05 makes the case for airports to by combining data analysis with creativity

Kaela Harmon ’05 promotes her new book.

“The journalism department was like a family. All the professors and administrators rallied around to help students to be well prepared and have a support system,”

—Kaela Harmon ’05

Although she’s still new to a job as public information specialist senior for the Austin-Bergstrom International Airport in Austin, Texas, she has spent the last five years working with airports and the communities they serve.

In that time, she has learned that airport advocates work to represent their host communities to the airlines. Routes, departure and arrival times, and connections are important to people who rely on airports for business and leisure travel. In Austin, as in her previous job with the Columbia, South Carolina, airport, she enjoys analyzing data and using it to craft creative messages. “We’re always working with the community so they understand our role. We’re marketing the airport to the community.”

She notes that an airplane is “a mobile asset.” Airlines can make decisions at any time about where to move and house their planes, what routes to add or drop, and where important connections will be made. That makes it incumbent on communities and airport officials to make a strong case for their air-transportation needs.

In Austin, Harmon is responsible for media and public relations, and she serves as a liaison for the airport and the airlines. On a typical day, she could be writing a press release about a new service, such as a recent announcement of a new nonstop flight between Austin and London, or planning and hosting an event. She also crafts talking points related to the airport’s public announcements and serves on a team of five to manage the airport’s social media accounts.

“The work is very dynamic. It’s a perfect blend of analytics and creativity,” she said. She also has enjoyed the relationships with industry colleagues that she has formed.

In her hometown of Columbia, she was public relations and government affairs manager for the Columbia Municipal Airport, before being recruited by Sixel Consulting Group, where she worked for almost a year helping local airports make their cases for increased air services. She then did freelance consulting until taking the job in Austin in June 2017.

While in Columbia, Harmon was recognized for her work by being named to several lists, including 20 Under 40, 40 Under 40, Columbia’s 2014 Top Women of Influence and Influential Women in Business.

Harmon did not set out to work in airport public relations. She was working for a small museum in Columbia when she saw an advertisement for the job at the Columbia airport. She applied and accepted the job, which set her on her current career trajectory.

Kaela Harmon ’05 at the Columbia, South Carolina, airport.

While helping with one of Columbia’s programs — Wings for Autism — Harmon realized she could take her passion for airports to another level. The program is a national effort for individuals with autism spectrum disorders or intellectual or developmental disabilities. Families practice the entire process of moving through the airport and boarding a plane, which helps relieve stress when they make a real trip.

The experience inspired Harmon to write and self-publish “Zoey’s First Plane Ride” for children. While other books focus on airplanes, Harmon wanted to “pass along my enthusiasm for airports.” She walks the reader through every step — checking in at the kiosk, checking luggage and explaining where it goes on the conveyor belt, walking the concourse, understanding airport signage, boarding the plane — all the way through to baggage claim.

“Airports can be overwhelming to children,” Harmon said, noting that the book has been well received. Some airports have picked it up to sell, and the airport in Roanoke, Virginia, purchased 100 copies to give to schoolchildren who toured the airport.

Harmon developed her talent for writing and communications through her major in broadcast journalism and communications. Her high school guidance counselor in Columbia was a W&L graduate — one of the first female, black students on campus — and introduced her to the university. Harmon spent six weeks on campus for a summer-immersion program and after applying, returned for a visit. Walking along the Colonnade, “I felt I really needed to be here,” she remembered.

She values the professors in her major who inspired and mentored her. “Bob de Maria was one of those rare people who takes you under his wing and pushes you to be better,” she said. Professors Dayo Abah and Claudette Artwick also stand out as important to her professional development.

“The journalism department was like a family. All the professors and administrators rallied around to help students to be well prepared and have a support system,” she said. “At W&L, you’re not a number but an individual who matters.”

While on campus, she was involved with the Minority Student Association and helped charter Delta Sigma Theta sorority. She continues to be involved by serving on an advisory board for the journalism department. As well as participating in quarterly meetings, she and other board members review senior portfolios, looking at them with a professional’s eye to provide constructive feedback.

As a young black professional, Harmon never wants to lose sight of the fact that “I’m standing on the shoulders of giants. Many made sacrifices to give me opportunities.” She hopes to continue to lay a foundation for those who come after her.

Joelle Phillips ’95L: From Acting to Law, to the Head of AT&T Tennessee

Joelle Phillips '95LJoelle Phillips ’95L

Uncas McThenia looked over the collection of students on their first day of class – his contracts class. He posed a question, then glanced at the roster students for a name and settled on Joelle James (now Phillips). It was the first day, the first question, and adrenaline-fueled students turned toward their classmate.

She was nervous, but Joelle Phillips steadied the butterflies in her stomach with practiced calm.  Before deciding to go to law school, Phillips planned on a career acting and spent a year touring with a children’s theater.  Law school was new, but managing stage fright wasn’t.

The similarities between acting, practicing law and her current position as president of AT&T Tennessee are not lost on her.

“I was surprised by how much of my theater training was useful as a law student,” Phillips recalls. “I was accustomed to memorizing lines, and reading cases reminded me of reading plays and looking for the underlying theme.”  Best of all, free from the paralyzing stage fright some students felt as they faced the Socratic method, Phillips could relax and listen – not just to professors but also to other students.  “My classmates were smart.  I learned so much from their perspectives.”

Phillips found the same type of camaraderie with other students that she had enjoyed as a cast member. She was pleased to find it after law school among law associates and her AT&T team members.

Her progression from actress to bankruptcy lawyer to corporate attorney led her to the top position at AT&T Tennessee. President since 2013, she joined the company – BellSouth then – as a general attorney in 2001. Under her leadership, the company undertook a multi-year campaign to reform state telecom laws. Success enabled the company to enter new lines of business and set the stage for big investment (more than a billion dollars for capital expenditures over just the last three years) in infrastructure to support new technologies in the state.

Phillips’ focus on regulatory reform began before she arrived in the C-Suite. She describes it as a product of her experience as the company’s attorney and her training at W&L. “As a regulatory lawyer, it seemed absurd to apply rules fashioned for old technology to new and different technology.  Rules designed for monopolies did not align with today’s competitive ecosystem of players,” she says.  “Sometimes the best thing a lawyer can do is recognize that the law needs a change.”

Lately much of her time is spent on state education policy, with a focus on the talent pipeline. Jobs with AT&T used to be mechanical. “We trained technicians to make physical connections using manual tools.” Today, those same technicians need digital skills, installing and repairing service with software and coding skills.

The need to keep building skills and expertise extends to Phillips personally as well. “To be strategic, I need to be informed on what’s next,” she said. To that end, she reads a lot to keep up with technology that is continually advancing.

With nearly 6,000 AT&T Tennessee employees, Phillips has adopted a management philosophy that draws on what she admires most about the famed research and development arm of the former AT&T monopoly – the former Bell Labs. “It was an amazing place that produced 12 Nobel Prizes,” she said. Phillips focuses on two of the labs’ rules: mix up the specialties (creating teams of people who have different skills) and leave your door open (accepting assignments from other teams beyond one particular silo). “As I think about harnessing talent and driving innovation today, I try to remember the magic that Bell Labs made by encouraging diverse teams to collaborate and help one another.”

The daughter of an engineering professor at Auburn University, Phillips has adopted the personal and professional qualities she saw in her father and other engineers. “Engineers are optimistic people; they assume there is a right answer,” she said.

She uses that background to tackle challenges today. She starts with the assumption that “there is a way to get this worked out.” She also emphasizes the importance of being prepared. While people think some lawyers are just naturally good on their feet, “it’s because they did their homework,” she said. “Preparation enables you participate in the moment, to be ready when a colleague has an inspired idea and needs your help to bring it to fruition.”

Joelle Phillips with Tennessee Governor Bill Haslan.Joelle Phillips with Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam. As chair of the Business Alliance for the Drive to 55, Phillips works with Haslam and other state leaders to expand Tennesseans’ post-secondary attainment rates.

Phillips sees W&L law faculty creating the same type of cross-disciplinary opportunities and benefits that she admires in the scientists and engineers of Bell Labs. “The faculty was both interested and interesting,” she remembers, “not just in their own course work or specialties but also in the other areas we were studying. By talking with us about all the areas we were studying, they helped us to find the patterns in the law”

“We often hear the concept of ‘thinking like a lawyer,’ but I think the faculty at W&L helped instill a lawyer’s instinct as well.” Over time the students developed an instinct based on the patterns revealed by W&L faculty.

Faculty also helped Phillips chart a career course. Prof. Alan Ides recommended her to serve as a law clerk to Judge Rhesa Hawkins Barksdale on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit.  That recommendation carried extra weight because Ides and Barksdale had both clerked for U.S Supreme Court Justice Byron White.

Phillips also recalls good advice from professors Brian Murchison and Laura Fitzgerald Cooper about choosing between practice areas. Both professors highlighted the difference between studying the law and practicing and encouraged her to talk with practicing lawyers about  how their specialty looked day to day. “It was great advice. It helped me realize that I wasn’t actually interested in practicing trust and estate law. I just loved listening to Ned Henneman talk about it.”

After her clerkship, she joined the Atlanta firm Long, Aldridge & Norman. After marrying Brant Phillips ’97L, the couple relocated to Nashville where she joined Waller Lansden Dortch & Davis. At both firms, she specialized in business bankruptcy litigation, so she was surprised when a headhunter insisted she was the right fit for an opening in the in-house regulatory litigation group at BellSouth.

The headhunter was right. Phillips moved up through the legal department and became the first female to serve as president of AT&T Tennessee. Today as one of Tennessee’s most high-profile business leaders, she is an outspoken advocate on education policy, which she believes is key to the state’s prosperity. As chair of the Business Alliance for the Drive to 55, Phillips works with Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam and other state leaders to expand Tennesseans’ post-secondary attainment rates.

Still interested in the arts, Phillips serves on the board of the Nashville Repertory Theater. She loves that the theater has become an “incubator” for playwrights. Recently, professional playwright Christopher Durang came to Nashville to work on his latest play, while mentoring aspiring playwrights through Nashville Rep’s Ingram New Works Festival. Phillips looks forward to the festival’s growth, making Nashville the “Sundance” for new theatrical works.

Does her work with Nashville Rep make her wonder about the road less traveled?  She laughs as she considers her unlikely career path, but she sees a consistent theme.  “My work places me in the center of a very creative enterprise.  It’s about innovation, communication and surprising changes.”

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