Sometimes the smallest questions solve the biggest puzzles. In the first year of her MBA studies at the University of Oregon Lundquist College of Business, Guru S. Khalsa, MBA ’09, began a consulting project for California’s Clif Bar & Company. Her group was developing a communications plan to highlight the company’s sustainable packaging practices. The project included consumer research, panel surveys, cost analyses and strategic thinking.
As the work evolved, Khalsa, now 30, began to see sustainability from a holistic perspective. “It makes sense from every angle,” she said. “It’s not just a feel-good practice. It makes smart business sense.” That sudden insight would soon shape her entire career.
“You really build strong relationships with all the students as well as the faculty. You get that face-to-face time.”
Originally from Norway, Khalsa completed an undergrad degree in journalism and communications from the University of Oregon and moved to Washington, D.C. to work for a startup record label and distribution company. She enjoyed putting her marketing and communications skills into practice, but she knew there were bigger prospects on the horizon: “I was ready to take my career to the next level.” She was also spending way too much time in her car. Commuting from northern Virginia made her yearn for open spaces and better quality of life.
Working for a startup company was exciting and collaborative, which pointed Khalsa toward a business education. She loved Eugene and eagerly returned to Oregon in 2007 to start her MBA. She was motivated, but unsure how to uncover her own interests and competitive advantage. “I went into the program with a broad goal of developing my skills and my career path in general,” said Khalsa.
When the packaging project grabbed her attention, Khalsa began to explore sustainability in earnest and ultimately, focused her studies through the Center for Sustainable Business Practices. She honed her research skills and learned how to analyze information, make solid recommendations, and present strategic findings in a compelling manner. That training has proven to be invaluable, says Khalsa, who completed her MBA in 2009.
Khalsa is now a corporate responsibility specialist for Columbia Sportswear in Portland, Oregon. She works on environmental responsibility projects—including waste analysis, green office and facility assessments, and energy best practices—and social responsibility issues, including labor compliance and manufacturing practices. Khalsa also spearheads communications efforts for her department, developing social media strategies, outreach plans, and narrative frameworks.
Not only does the position fit her talents, but she’s building a career with a positive social and environmental impact. Her work makes a difference. “That really means something to me,” said Khalsa, who gets slightly breathless as she describes the possibilities of carbon-neutral production targets and closed-loop manufacturing. She also serves on the leadership board for Net Impact—a global network committed to social and environmental sustainability, which she first joined at UO.
The MBA education built a foundation that Khalsa relies on every day. Developing strategic programs requires sound research and analysis methodologies. “I feel so much more confident in my recommendations than I might have before,” explained Khalsa. She also continues to mine the wisdom of her fellow graduates, who have stayed close and often share questions, issues and war stories from the “real world” of business: “It’s great to touch base and say ‘okay, so you’re negotiating your first raise. How is it going?’” Just two years after graduation, Khalsa’s come a long way from the frustrated commuter who wanted something more—and it all started with an energy bar.