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Dartmouth College
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Alumni Stories: Kate Aiken '92

Window Shopping For The Right Career

by Rebekah Rombom '08aiken

The words “corporate recruiting” can strike fear into the hearts of Dartmouth students, but Kate Aiken ’92, Senior Director of College Recruiting for Gap, Inc., has an upbeat, laid-back manner and is completely enthusiastic about her company.

From her own experience and from her work recruiting for Gap, Aiken knows that even in an entry-level job, it’s easy for enthusiastic hires to find some success fast.

“If it’s in an industry that you love, you will mostly likely be given responsibility quickly and you’ll see opportunities open up for you…just by doing what you’re used to doing.”

Aiken saw this happen in her career when, in only her second job out of college, she was given the opportunity to build cable network Oxygen’s Human Resources department completely from scratch.

“It was a tremendous opportunity for someone my age, because that’s what was happening at the time,” says Aiken of the multimedia boom during which Oxygen was founded.

She came to Oxygen after completing a management training program at Liz Claiborne, after which she wound up working in HR.

According to Aiken, a government major, the choice to join Liz Claiborne came after a bout of ambivalence during corporate recruiting her senior year.  After attending an information session for Quaker Oats and “listening to a guy explain how he spent six months designing a recipe insert for an oatmeal box, which didn’t sound exciting to me,” Aiken decided to aim for interviews with every company that offered jobs in fields other than banking, consulting and consumer products.

She sent her resume to Liz Claiborne and magazine publishing giant Condé Nast, among others.

“I liked to shop, and I liked to read my fashion magazines, and I had worked in retail in high school but I didn’t know there were career paths in retail,” she says.

But after spending some time at Liz Claiborne, Aiken realized she had found her calling in retail.  When she sat in on a dress fitting at the company, Aiken says she became hooked.

“I fell in love with the industry because it was about making products I found compelling,” she says.

When the program ended, though, Aiken decided that she enjoyed interacting with people instead of garments, and moved into the HR department.

After leaving Liz Claiborne, Aiken went to Oxygen, and from there a search firm recruited her to join the HR department at Gap.

“It’s worth thinking about where your passion is,” Aiken says. “As I was getting ready to leave Oxygen…I was actually still looking into cable, but I thought to myself: when I leave work in the evening, I do not rush home and turn on the television.  I wander down Fifth Avenue and look in the store windows.”

While she says it was a bit jarring to move from the small Oxygen staff to a huge corporation where “it can be very complex to make things happen,” Aiken loves that her company’s products are recognizable in the real world.

“I may not be the target customer for Forth & Towne [Gap, Inc.’s new line] but my mom is.  I love that whether it’s my own perspective or friends or family, I can always relate to or get a perspective that relates to what we’re doing,” she says.

Aiken found her most recent niche in college recruiting because, she says, it seemed akin to marketing.

“It turns out I really have a passion for marketing,” she says, “I just didn’t see that building a recipe insert for six months is sort of how you get your foot in the door in consumer marketing.”

When searching for new hires, Aiken says she looks for candidates who have done their homework on the industry and on Gap Inc. in particular.

“Dartmouth students should think about the fact that there are going to be students from other schools –  like Cornell – who have majored in merchandising, textiles and apparel management,” she says, adding that with limited resources and tons of colleges with potentially attractive candidates, Aiken and her team usually focus on schools that have more of a balance between a liberal arts curriculum and business education.

Still, she says, Dartmouth is a great place to hone many of the skills necessary for a successful corporate career.

“We’re coming from a high-achieving environment,” she says, “where everybody is smart and everybody is getting good work done.”

But at the higher levels of one’s career, Aiken says winging it all-nighter style just won’t work anymore.

“Being smart will get you really far, but at a certain point you really have to deliver.  You need to start practicing actually delivering value to your company.”

Aiken cites collaborative problem solving and communication as two of the most important skills for her field, but the ability to respond to feedback is also key in retail.

“The customer gives us a report card every day,” Aiken said in a previous interview. “We know instantly whether we’re hitting the target or missing it. To do well at Gap you always have to have the customer in mind and be fast, flexible and able to roll with the punches.”

Last Updated: 6/21/12