Engineering Leadership Instructor Sarah Holliman on helping Berkeley MEng students find their voice
The daughter of a college administrator, Sarah Holliman grew up on a college campus. Though she was destined for teaching and thought she would one day earn a PhD, she ended up in banking right out of college, a career that — while valuable in building management skills — more or less stifled her creativity. Hoping to switch into marketing, Sarah went back to school to earn her Master of Business Administration from the University of California, Los Angeles. Yet again, her career path veered in a different direction — consulting.
While finding a way to bring marketing into the fold and launching her own creative services consulting firm, Sarah remained interested in teaching. One day she ran into a friend and neighbor who worked at Cal and reflected on how she still thought about pursuing teaching. That chance meeting started the ball rolling. Flash forward to present day, she’s now teaching engineering students in the Berkeley MEng program about Organizational Behavior and Negotiations as well as Marketing and Product Management and having fun doing it. And during the pandemic, she took a role at Head-Royce, completing a pivot into education.
This is her story.
What would you say you like most about marketing and communications?
What I love about marketing and communications is that there are so many facets to it — your brain is firing at all times in different ways every single day. So it just allows you to express your creativity, in fun and meaningful ways.
Every project looks different. If I’m writing, it’s one thing, if I’m editing, it’s another, if I’m working on messaging for social media, that’s something else. I can also wear my graphic design hat, which is sort of fun, even though I am far from an expert. So that’s what I love most about it — the variety and ability to flex different muscles every day.
How did you emerge into the world of marketing and ultimately launch your own business?
After finishing my MBA program at UCLA, which was concentrated in marketing, I ended up not in marketing but consulting at Kearney, where I spent 13 years, the first five in the financial institutions practice. I had two kids during that time — I have four now — but after my second one was born, I started to realize that with so much travel, consulting was hard with a young family.
After a 14-month leave, a Kearney colleague and mentor asked if I would be willing to come back to help launch a business out of the firm, and that’s where my career in marketing started. After eight years there, I took a position with Sourcing Industry Group (SIG) for the next 10 years, where I served on the executive team as their chief marketing officer.
Cantaré is something that I founded in 2019 when a recruiter had contacted me about a job in a consulting firm. I loved consulting, and I loved marketing, but I didn’t love marketing at a consulting firm and wasn’t sure if I wanted to go back into it.
I ended up going to them as Cantaré, kind of as an acting CMO for the better part of two years, and that was a lot of fun. It was a great way to segue from something I really loved at SIG into something completely different and that’s essentially why I started Cantaré — it wasn’t something I planned to do to be honest with you. It was just something that allowed me to do more project-based work on my own and take on different clients. In 2021, however, I had the chance to completely pivot into education, so I put my Cantaré business on pause and am now fully immersed into academia.
What brought you to the Berkeley Master of Engineering program in 2021?
For many decades, I worked for companies that were headquartered in different parts of the country, so I was a remote employee much before remote working was a cool thing to do. I was out walking one day, and I ran into one of my neighbors who works in the engineering department at UC Berkeley. And I said, “Julie, you are living my dream. I always wanted to get a PhD and work with students and I never did it.” And she said,
“You know, Sarah, we need people like you.”
I was sure I was not a good fit and told her, “I know nothing about engineering. I know nothing about product development. You don’t need me.”
When she told me how the Fung Institute supplements the MEng program with leadership courses, I was fascinated. She said, “We need people who have communications, marketing, and leadership experience to give our students a more well-rounded education and teach them what to expect when they work at an actual organization.” She introduced me to Beth, I put together some sample curriculum, and the rest is history.
How do you connect your “day job” to the work you do teaching?
I really think of the Negotiations and Organizational Behavior class as a leadership class. It shares the skillsets people need to set them up for success when they enter a new career or company. What are the things that you need to know to be effective in your role, no matter where you are? How do you prioritize? How do you build relationships? All of those things are really important.
Marketing and Product Management also includes marketing yourself which is something I live every day in my role. We answer questions like: How do you communicate with people who are at a senior level and in a way that gets the message across?
In my experience, many students seeking this degree are more introverted and are afraid of public speaking, but no matter what you do in life, you have to be comfortable sharing your thoughts and opinions, so a lot of what I teach them is how to become comfortable just speaking up.
What do you hope students take away from your classes?
Part of my role in working with these students is helping them find their voice, helping them understand that their perspective matters and giving them many opportunities to feel comfortable speaking up. And that starts in class, knowing that you can raise your hand and that when you say something, we’re listening.
I don’t know that I have a superpower but if I had to name one, I help people find their voice.
It’s funny, because now I don’t mind getting up in front of a room full of 500+ people. However, when I was a student, I hated raising my hand, I was always too concerned about what others might think. Recognizing that I felt that way as a student, I want students to feel comfortable in my class, so I make participation a priority and give students many exercises where they have to share their thoughts.
I give them opportunities at the beginning of every class to reflect on what we talked about the day before. That’s an easy way to get them to feel comfortable because there’s no pressure, there’s no right or wrong answer.
So that’s a lot of what I want them to get out of it — that they have a voice.
Another thing I hope my students learn is that relationships matter. In both of my classes, we do a relationship circle where they are asked a question and they spend two minutes sharing, and there’s no crosstalk during that time period. It gives them an opportunity to express themselves, develop listening skills, and show empathy.
All of the skills that we’re working on — communication, listening, speaking, negotiation, prioritization — contribute to building those strong relationships. There are many things you can’t take with you from job to job but what you do take are those relationships, and they can last a lifetime. I keep in touch with people from every position I have ever had, and my life is richer for it!
What keeps you coming back to teach year after year?
Like I said, I always thought that I would go into education, I always thought I’d get my PhD, and I always thought I’d be on a college campus so this is absolutely satisfying that part of my life.
The bigger part is when I have a student that hadn’t considered a career in product marketing but after taking my class, can see themselves doing not just research and development but marketing of products as well. When I see an “Aha” light go on in their head — when there’s something they’ve learned that they’re going to take with them — it’s super satisfying.
In my daily life, when I wrap up a marketing or communications project, I can see the difference it may have made in our traffic to the website, or how many Instagram followers we have, or if an article has really resonated, but that is not nearly as satisfying as seeing a student nod their head that they’ve had this moment of clarity.
This moment where something really connected with them, that is what keeps me coming back, and what has finally grounded my career in education.
The idea that you can have a positive and lasting impact on a student and on their career, to me, is probably one of the most rewarding aspects of this role.