Alumni Profile – Dennis Grubbs
Dennis Grubbs graduated from the Foster School of Business with an MBA in 2014. A lifetime Washington resident, Dennis also completed his undergraduate from the University of Washington. Post-MBA, he joined Starbucks as a Marketing Manager focusing on their loyalty program. Dennis spent over 7 years at Starbucks before moving to Taco Bell, where he is currently the Director of Digital Growth. We sat with him to learn more about his MBA experience and how it helped him in his career.
Why did you decide to do an MBA?
I wanted to move out of mortgage lending and I was thinking about different career options. I enjoyed the relationship building aspect of my work and to me marketing felt like a way where a company can establish a relationship with millions of people. It felt like an area I would enjoy and could also leverage skills learnt in mortgage lending into something more fulfilling. The MBA was a way to develop core marketing skills and focus on this career pivot.
I had actually applied to Foster in 2010 and wasn’t accepted into the program. But, being a lifetime Washington resident, Foster was the only school I wanted to go to. Moreover, the companies that I was targeting were all in this area – Nordstrom, Starbucks, Microsoft and Amazon. I did some class visits, spoke to current students, and it all just reaffirmed my choice. I was determined to get into Foster.
What was your MBA experience at Foster like?
My MBA experience was everything I hoped for. I was able to gain relevant experience, develop soft skills, foster new relationships and most importantly, made friends for life. The highlights for me were the class wide events like C4C (Challenge for Charity) Sports Weekend and trips to Whistler at the end of each year. In our second year, our classmate organized an entire scavenger hunt in the University District area. It was so much fun! You know, one of the challenges was to get everybody in Chipotle to sing the UW Fight Song. Another one was to get an ear pierced on the Ave. There were just a bunch of great challenges. We ended up celebrating at a classmate’s house that night. The camaraderie was really felt in the program.
Could you talk about your internship experience?
Coming to Foster, I was targeting Starbucks and Nordstrom. I had access to a ton of alumni at Starbucks and they were more than happy to do informational interviews with me. It helped me learn more about the company and get an interview. Unfortunately, they passed on me after the first round. It was really disappointing.
But Starbucks was still somewhere I wanted to work. So, I reached out to the recruiter at Starbucks and asked her if she could give me any feedback, not something that companies will do anymore. But she was kind enough to invite me down to Starbucks and give me tips on improving my presence and interview skills. She actually told me to keep in touch with her in case some permanent positions opened up when I was graduating. I took it upon myself to reach out about once a month, and let her know where I was at in my journey. By April, I still didn’t have an internship. She had a few positions open up so I interviewed with a couple of teams and was given an offer for the summer.
What was your outlook when looking for a full-time position?
I loved my time at Starbucks and was thrilled when I got the full-time offer. I didn’t interview with anybody else – not something I’d recommend. I knew I was going back because of the experience I had, and it was the company I wanted to work for. Additionally, I saw a huge opportunity in digital marketing, particularly in loyalty, where you’re building deeper relationships with your most passionate customers. I also felt that there were several directions I could take once I got there. So, even if the team didn’t work out, I could switch and still work on the same product.
During your 7 years at Starbucks did you get a chance to apply your MBA learnings?
This is always a really funny one. Early on, I remember pulling up Mark Forehand’s Brand Management book and using it as a reference as I was thinking through problems. I have still kept notes from his class. But even besides that I’ve absolutely used my MBA learnings – whether it is analyzing financial implications of different campaigns or just relying on marketing principles of the 4Ps. The program not only helped me get into the role I wanted, but the business foundations developed there have helped me progress in my career, including my recent move to Taco Bell.
Can you talk about your approach to career progression? Have your professional long-term goals changed since you graduated?
During my time at Starbucks, I was focused on loyalty but that spanned a number of different areas. Career progression there was about tackling bigger problems and building teams to solve them. I think it was very organic and sometimes you don’t realize it is happening. Thinking back to when I was graduating, I had aspirations of getting to VP level. I didn’t harbor any strong desire to be like the CMO of Starbucks. It was just my personal choice. Now, as I look at the career path at Taco Bell, I would say I’m not sure where I want my journey to end and that’s invigorating. I’ve got a lot to learn before I go any higher but I think my aspirations have risen a little bit since I graduated and particularly since moving to Taco Bell.
As you move into leadership roles, what is your definition of leadership?
I’ve looked up several leadership styles and as I try building my definition of leadership. It is largely based on humility and empathy. I really try to incorporate a democratic way, always wanting to know my team’s ideas and thoughts. I don’t think I spent enough time in school diving into this.
Today, what does your engagement with the Foster community look like?
The Foster network is always helping each other out with if someone is looking to make a career move or needs help in a certain area. I have probably at least 10 classmates that I am good friends with. One of them was the officiant at my wedding this year. Apart from that, as an alumnus I’m always looking at ways to get involved. I’ve been fortunate to get invited to a number of Welcome Weekend dinners where I get to meet admitted students and hear their stories. Occasionally, career services reach out and ask if I’m willing to meet with a current student. I’m always happy to do those things because I had a bunch of people help me out when I was in school and I want to pay it forward.
Do you have any advice for incoming students?
Prepare yourself for the MBA experience before you enter school. Because it really takes up two years of your life. You can balance it however you want, but I wanted to make the most of my two years so I jumped in headfirst. If there are any long travel plans, I would recommend doing them before you start so that you can devote yourself to the program.