Academics, Alumni Profile, Darden Community, Executive MBA, Full-Time MBA

Kathryn Thompson (MBA ’94) Helps Empower Girls to Believe ‘They Can’

By Maggie Dodson-
kathryn-thompson

In recognition of the United Nations’ International Day of the Girl on 11 October, we are thrilled to feature an alum who is carrying out the Darden mission of purpose-driven leadership. Kathryn Thompson (MBA ’94) is the COO for Girls on the Run International, an organization that promotes empowerment for girls aged 8 to 13 by teaching life skills through a curriculum that integrates running — but it’s truly about so much more!

As Thompson shares, growing and nurturing a network is key. The community of women at Darden is an important support network for women MBAs — from prospective student programming to student-run organizations like the Graduate Women in Business (GWIB) and Network of Executive Women (NEW) to the alumni chapters of Women@Darden.

Q: How did your post-Darden journey lead you to Girls on the Run International?

A: After Darden, I took at job at Springs Industries, a textile company headquartered outside of Charlotte, NC.  I had great experiences at Springs — eight positions over 13 years, including a stint in Los Angeles. During my time in Charlotte, I got engaged in the community and heard about Girls on

Girls on the Run Hosts “Game Day”

the Run in its infancy. Founded in Charlotte in 1996, I first heard about GOTR in the early 2000s through my volunteer work with the Junior League.  In 2007 I transitioned to Carolina Pad, a school/office supplies company and we were looking to do a “cause-marketing” collection.  Girls on the Run was the perfect fit due to the focus on girls in third through eighth grade, so we approached the organization and became a corporate partner. Fast-forward three years, and I was in transition looking for a new opportunity when I heard Girls on the Run was expanding. I reached out, interviewed, and made the leap to non-profit at that time.

Q: How does Girls on the Run empower the young women it serves?

A: Girls on the Run International designs programming that strengthens third to eighth grade girls’ social, emotional, physical and behavioral skills to successfully navigate life experiences. The Girls on the Run programs combine physical activity such as training for a 5k with an interactive curriculum targeting the promotion of competence, confidence, connection, character, caring and contribution. The curriculum reaches girls at a

Girls on the Run decorates a local statue in celebration of their 20th anniversary.

critical stage, strengthening their confidence at a time when society begins to tell them they can’t. Underscoring the important connection between physical and emotional health, the program addresses the whole girl when she needs it the most.

There are currently three programs offered:  Girls on the Run (third through fifth grade), Heart & Sole (sixth through eighth grade) and Camp GOTR (rising third through fifth grade) with multiple curricula available for each program.

Q: How has Darden set you up for success throughout your career pivots?

A: Some of my favorite classes, like Quantitative Analysis (QA) and Bargaining and Negotiating, come to mind. I still think of lessons learned in those classes! And Professor Jeanne Liedtka was a favorite. In fact I am currently taking her Design Thinking class online!

Q: What advice would you give your student-self knowing what you know now?

A: Some of these I did right the first time and some of these I learned along the way:

  • Find what you love and love what you do. Then it is not “work.”
  • Pay attention to the senior leadership team’s practices. What was their path to their positions? Do you admire who they are professionally and personally?
  • Pay attention to the industry. It is easier to succeed with a tailwind at your back. But there are certainly opportunities if you are good at navigating headwinds!
  • Take more risks. You may think you are taking risks but if you are not failing, you are not pushing enough. Plus … easier to risk when you have less to lose!
  • Selling skills are required no matter what role you are in. At a minimum you are selling your ideas. Learn to love to sell!
  • Networks are important. Nurture your network.

Q: What are some ways you support other women in business?

A: My situation is quite different now because I work in environment that is 95 percent women. In fact, we have to remind ourselves not to unintentionally exclude the men! It really is a role-reversal that we all recognize — even the men! Having said that, most of the way I support women is through networking and advising younger women. I try keep in touch, share my experiences, and support women I have worked with. In fact, I recently connected via Zoom with a group of women I hired and managed at Carolina Pad 10 years ago. It was so great to see how their careers had evolved.

Thompson participates in a virtual 5k.

Q: What sources of resilience do you draw on to persevere during challenging times?

A: I certainly lean on friends and family. I remember 15 years ago complaining to my father (MBA ’70) about the many challenges facing the textile industry and he said to me with the wisdom of someone who had seen more: “There will always be something.” Another way of saying “this too shall pass.” And really, it is those times where opportunity is also created. I think of that often and especially now with COVID impacting Girls on the Run which operates after-school programming. Necessity truly is the mother of invention! And a good sweat (run!) always makes you feel better. No one ever says they regretted working out.


Learn more about the community of women at Darden

Full-Time MBA Program:

  • Listen. Experience Darden podcast episode #77, featuring GWIB board members Maggie Edmunds (Class of 2021) and Rebecca Wellbourn (Class of 2021).
  • Watch. An engineer, an HR specialist and a Vietnamese national ⁠— learn how earning an MBA at the University of Virginia Darden School of Business is helping these three women pursue their purpose and why they believe the Darden MBA program is an incredible opportunity for women to advance their careers and ultimately achieve greater representation for women in the highest ranks.
  • Reach out. Contact GWIB leadership at GWIB@darden.virginia.edu or Director of Admissions – Women’s Recruiting Haley Whitlock Gyory at gyoryh@darden.virginia.edu. Gyory shared the importance of fostering a close-knit community of women at Darden: “At Darden, we strive to create an inclusive community that celebrates the intersectionality and authenticity of women and helps increase understanding around issues of gender equity. Women currently hold 55 percent of club leadership roles and create meaningful connections with alumnae, faculty and male allies in developing their voices at Darden and beyond.”
  • Engage. Attend a one-on-one women’s recruiting conversation or a prospective student coffee chat at a time that works with your schedule.

Executive MBA Program:

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