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People and Projects

Worldwide workforce

Say you run a magazine and Web site that need to move onto a new computing system. You only have a few info-tech employees, so you try to hire some new programmers. After months of searching, you can’t recruit enough help. Who ya gonna call? An outsourcer, of course—like Cognizant Technology Solutions. From its many IT centers in Asia, Cognizant offers the programming you need, at well under half the cost of a US service. You sign right up. That’s the story told InfoWeek, and countless firms tell similar tales.

No wonder Cognizant is one of BusinessWeek’s “hot growth companies” and a three-time Forbes pick for “best small company in America.”

Stephanie Halliday Kelly ’84, human-resources VP at Cognizant, credits its “‘glocal’ recruiting model: hiring the best from wherever they are.” About 30 percent of its workforce is local, working at clients’ offices, while 70 percent works from overseas, mostly India or China.

“The same technology that allows a working mom to write computer code from her home also allows that home to be in Chennai as easily as Chicago,” Kelly notes. Jobs done by Cognizant workers range from Web and software development to business analyses, insurance claims, biometrics, and management consulting.

What makes India a favorite source? In the past decade, Kelly explains, Indian businesses have allied with universities teaching science and technology so that “the needs of business guide the curriculum. In many ways it’s the antithesis of Skidmore-style liberal arts education.” But, she says, “when you add Indians’ driven work ethic, high regard for Western business principles, and English language skills, you have a very fertile talent market.”

In human resources Kelly loves helping to shape company strategy as well as handle practicalities like employee benefits and training. Her recent move with her family from New Jersey to California only renewed her conviction that “organizational skills are critical if you want to balance a rich career and a rich personal life.” —SR

What's the buzz?

Spread the word. Wannabe novelist Dave Balter ’93 is finally published. It’s not the romance novel set on a pirate ship that the psychology major imagined, and it isn’t going to be a literary classic. But Grapevine: The New Art of Word-of-Mouth Marketing is definitely worth celebrating.

Says business guru Tom Peters, “Hooray for Dave Balter’s Grapevine… Dave knows exactly of what he speaks, and has the numbers to prove it. For anyone interested in selling anything, circa 2005, this is indeed a ‘must-read.’”

Boasting 115 clients and more than 250 WOM campaigns, Balter’s four-year-old Boston-based company ( is the first to formally marry the power of people’s everyday conversations with product sales (a patent is pending). Balter says 15 percent of our conversations are about products anyway—a lightbulb statistic for him. He also says the secret to word-of-mouth is that we tend to tune out ads but listen to and trust each other.

To date 130,000 housewives, engineers, students—even CEOs—have signed on to enthusiastically talk up items ranging from Anheuser-Busch beer to Lee jeans to Estée Lauder perfume. These “volunteer brand evangelists,” who candidly identify themselves as BzzAgents, get early access to products, including freebies, and a few sales tips.

Agents then submit BzzReports detailing their conversations. Each report—9,000 per week—is personally responded to by trained staff. Though agents get no paycheck, the psychic pay is plenty for a self-selected group that spans age, ethnic, and psychographic spectrums. Says Balter, “BzzAgents like the idea of sharing their opinions—and being listened to—as well as being among the first to know about a product. There is some internal enjoyment factor at play, some human need that’s satisfied.”

Named to the “40 under 40” by the Advertising Specialty Institute in 2001 and one of the “top seven individuals changing the face of beauty” by Women’s Wear Daily in 2004, Balter has embraced being a “corporate flunky,” he says. “The real fun is that there is absolutely no road map for what we’re doing. We’re the first guys. And that’s as good as it gets.” —PM

West Wing: Reality TV

Someone at the White House has to coordinate the talking heads interviewed for all the TV news and talk shows. That would be Katie Levinson ’97. Since last April she’s been director of television in the White Houses office of communication, deciding what official or politician will appear on which of the dozens of on-air programs.

Levinson had done similar work—for the presidential inauguration in January 2005, and for the Bush campaign before that. It’s a daunting job, but she’s figured out what it takes: “A good sense of humor, a lot of energy, an ability to survive on not a lot of sleep, and a willingness to add a few wrinkles to my face.”

And when it comes to making assignments, being a choreographer helps too. Levinson is in touch with most TV new shows daily, to find out what their needs are. The White House, meanwhile, has certain messages it wants to get out—via certain messengers. At times “it takes some doing to sort out who’s the best fit,” Levinson says. And, television being the “extremely competitive business” it is, her job also involves “balancing the needs of different networks and cable outlets, and trying to have some equity in the way we do business with them.”

Levinson still gets a thrill walking through the White House gates each day. “I always say it warms the cockles of my heart when I go outside at 6:30 to do the morning shows and see all the cameras
lit up in the dark along the north lawn. It makes getting up early that much easier.” She gets to work around 6 a.m. and doesn’t leave until 7 p.m. She tries not
to come in seven days a week, but she’s
on call, via her Blackberry, even
on weekends.

Whether her day is calm or hectic depends entirely on the news of the day. Either way, Levinson likes the work, and who she works with. “It’s the most energetic group of people I’ve ever come in contact with,” she says. “And it sounds sort of doting to say it, I guess, but the President is really someone I believe in. Frankly, I don’t think I could do this job otherwise.” —MTS

Freedom fighter

Deborah Jacobs ’90 developed an early passion for civil liberties. Quite early—try second grade. That’s when she refused to stand for the Pledge of Allegiance, in support of a friend who refused on religious grounds. After a spell
in the principal’s office Jacobs went to
the library and got help looking up the law, which backed her up. She later learned that the requirement that students stand had been changed because of a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union.

Today, as executive director of the ACLU of New Jersey, Jacobs addresses advocacy issues including religious freedom, reproductive freedom, student rights, gay and lesbian rights, immigrant rights, and drug-policy reform. But the post–9/11 political climate has made her work more important than ever, she says.

Since September 2001 and the subsequent “war on terrorism”—including government surveillance, secret detentions and immigration hearings, stifling of free speech for people expressing dissenting views, military tribunals, national ID cards, and the Patriot Act—the ACLU has focused on “educating the public about proposed security measures that not only violate civil liberties, but are also ineffective in fighting terrorism,” Jacobs says. “We want to see checks and balances restored, to ensure our fundamental privacy rights, and to demand a transparent government that does not conduct its business in a shroud of secrecy.”

When she was hired for the New Jersey ACLU post in 1999, Jacobs, an English lit major, “approached the job like a CEO,” according to New Jersey’s Star-Ledger. Under her leadership, the original staff of four has nearly tripled and the budget has quadrupled. Membership too has grown—from 6,000 to 15,000. But Jacobs doesn’t want to stop there. “My goal is to double our staff and double our budget so that we can double our defense of freedom,” she says.

When the ACLU comes under fire—from those who accuse it of straying from its mission to protect Constitutional rights and promoting its own social agenda—Jacobs doesn’t flinch. The organization is not out to win a popularity contest, and she firmly dismisses any suggestion that it is out of touch with mainstream America. “Believing in civil liberties is mainstream,” she says. “It’s a fundamental part of democracy.” —MTS

Acting out school

She was a biology major at Skidmore, but since then, Beth Kurkjian ’96 has found steady work and a truly satisfying outlet for self-expression in the world of New York downtown theater.

Kurkjian did a lot of theater in her Skidmore years. She says, “I performed in a play every semester I was on campus,” concluding with a senior-year lead in Machinal. After Skidmore, armed with a biologist’s discipline and an actor’s nerve, Kurkjian sought out directors and experimental companies she admired, earning dozens of chances to perform; over the past ten years, she’s done more than thirty ensemble and original solo shows at such venues as the Kitchen, the Ontological Theater, PS 122, and the Whitney Museum Philip Morris Series. In between bouts on the boards, she earned a master’s degree in performance studies at New York University, where she is now polishing a PhD dissertation about genre-mixing original performance art—her own preferred medium.

Back in Skidmore’s theater department as a visiting lecturer this spring, she’s directing 18 to 21, a mainstage dance-theater production so original it didn’t even exist until Kurkjian and her student cast began creating it by exploring their personal takes on the college years. “I want the students to examine their own relationships to the college experience, how they reflect and push against certain archetypes,” she says. After exploring ideas from the likes of choreographer Pina Bausche and the Wooster Group’s Liz LeCompte ’67, they collaboratively developed the characters and script from writing exercises Kurkjian assigned “and physical exercises such as an ‘arm ballet’ of small moves they had to invent, memorize, and perform.”

What Kurkjian really hopes to leave with her cast is “the gift of knowing that you can start with nothing, no script—and make something.” —BAM