Adaptable by Design
BSBA Marketing ’84
Director of Global Recruiting, IDEO
By Liz Warren-Pederson
Nancy Nichols came to the UA as an undergraduate interested in earning a business degree at a school that was an easy flight away from her hometown of Los Altos, Calif., but she also aimed to fulfill her dream of playing tennis in the Pac-10. Although she practiced hard her freshman year, she didn’t make the team.
“The way I approach life is not to be so set in your ways that you miss new opportunities,” she said. “When tennis didn’t work out, I began looking at the academic side, and at building a community of friends.”
She already knew that she was interested in marketing; her father had a market research company that did site analysis for major retail chains. “In high school, I went to work for him, doing things like filing and copying,” she said. “Eventually, I started plotting retail chains’ competitors on maps, and analyzing traffic flows and demographics. One of the things I liked about the UA was its strength in market research and advertising.”
One of her marketing professors steered her toward an internship with a Tucson firm, Marketing Strategies. “They did reports for the real estate industry on commercial residential properties,” Nichols said. “They tracked apartment complexes and projected where the growth would be.”
Over spring break in her senior year, she interviewed with a financial services company and was hired to join its marketing department in June. “I took a month after graduation to travel around Europe,” she said. “Then a week before I was supposed to start, I called and found out that the entire marketing department had been laid off. I was laid off before I’d even started!”
She reached out to the head of the tennis program at Stanford, where she’d taught tennis over the summer. “He told me about a job that came up in the executive education program,” she said. “So my first job after graduation was as a marketing and program coordinator.”
Over the next 15 years, Nichols moved up at Stanford, working in program development with professors, and then as director of professional education. “The biggest chunk of the program was executive education,” she explained. “But one of the programs was the Stanford Conference on Design, which brought together architects, product designers, industrial designers, graphic designers, and more, from around the world for an annual conference.”
It was through this project and the Program on Managing Innovation that she connected with Stanford professor David Kelley and Bill Moggridge, both designers running their own firms. In 1991, Kelley and Moggridge merged their firms with a third designer’s, creating a new company called IDEO. From her role at Stanford, Nichols watched the company’s growing worldwide acclaim.
Then in 1999, IDEO reached out to her. “Bill and David called and said they were starting something called IDEO U, a series of innovation workshops,” she said. “They asked me if I’d run the program.” Nichols made the leap.
She stayed in the role for close to five years — through the dot-com bust — and then two changes prompted a shift in her role at IDEO. First, the IDEO U workshops were absorbed into the overall design process. And, said Nichols, “The economy began ramping up again, and we needed to bring on more people. They wanted someone who understood the culture to head global recruiting, and asked me to take on the role.”
Nichols hesitated; she enjoyed being on the client-facing side. But, she said, “I realized that I care a lot about keeping the passion bar high. We needed to attract and retain smart, engaging people.” Plus, she was in the unique position of having watched the company come together at its early stages, and the way the founders’ respectful collaboration formed the root of the IDEO culture. Since then, Nichols has hired some 350 people worldwide for IDEO, which also has offices in China and Germany.
Throughout her career, Nichols has found her marketing degree an asset. “I never expected to use my degree at a university,” she said. “At the time, I didn’t think about how a university is a brand in the world. I’ve found now that recruiting is also about marketing; you need to understand and articulate the brand, find the kind of people who fit the brand, and understand what motivates them.”
Nichols has two daughters — ages 14 and 16 — and said that as they begin to think about college, “I’ve been thinking back to my college experience, and why I made the decisions I did. I knew I wanted to go to a big public university, not just because it teaches you to navigate a complex place on your own, but also because there are so many opportunities.”
Watching the UA, she said that she’s proud to see where the Eller College has gone. “It’s really taken off,” she said, “and the emphasis on an entrepreneurial spirit and can-do attitude is the kind of thing employers are looking for.”