How a Veteran of Silicon Valley Pivoted to Head Up Clemson’s Business School

For two decades, Wendy York helped internet and tech startups find their footing and grow. She founded a database marketing company and sold it to a national advertising agency. Eventually, she moved into venture capital, managing a private portfolio valued at $100 million.

She says that across her many jobs she has had “six distinct careers” but her skill set remains consistent. “What I usually bring to the situation is the ability to see a way to get to where they want to go, or to create a new process and to build the teams around it,” Ms. York says. “I’m very much a general manager.”

In 2008, she found herself without a job after the tech company where she was working downsized. Exit package in hand and in her early 50s, Ms. York paused to take stock. She had always balanced work and parenthood: While pregnant with triplets and on bed rest, she managed the sale of a company over the phone. But now her older daughter was in high school and her triplets were in third grade. “I realized that time was going to fly by,” she says.

She volunteered at her younger daughters’ school, treating the responsibility like a part-time job, until they were in fifth grade. The experience transformed her professional outlook.

“It was the first time in my adult life I had seen how much of an impact I could make that was measured in non-monetary means,” Ms. York says.

She began exploring a shift to nonprofit management, but earning money was still essential. As her savings dwindled and she interviewed for jobs, she repeatedly heard that she was overqualified. She applied for unemployment benefits for the first time.

In 2012, she spotted an opening for a managing director to oversee executive education at Stanford Business School and saw a chance to use her experience as a springboard into higher education. She took a $100,000 pay cut from her most recent tech job and began work two weeks before her children’s health insurance ran out.

“Those are the times you put your big-girl shoes on, you put your pride in your purse and you get to work,” she says.

In six and a half years at Stanford, she led a reorganization of several parts of the business school and built an enterprise linking faculty members with programmers who do statistical legwork for their academic research. Occasionally, she was contacted about jobs at other universities but she didn’t want to make her children switch schools. Also, none of the positions were enough to lure her away from Stanford’s employee tuition assistance program as her triplets approached college.

However, in the spring of 2018, a recruiter called about becoming dean of the business school at Clemson University in South Carolina. Ms. York was intrigued—and the timing seemed right.

Her younger daughters were headed to college that fall, at schools closer to Clemson than San Francisco. Her offer letter was dated May 22—her triplets’ birthdays. She took that as a sign. In 2018, after more than 20 years in the Bay Area, she packed up and moved to South Carolina.

Bringing in a nonacademic to lead the business school was a risk for Clemson, says Ms. York, who is also the first woman to hold the role. “They were brave to make that choice,” she says.

After years of helping organizations envision the future, Ms. York says she has identified the key to navigating her own. “Knowing that I can make a difference is critically important to me,” she says. “If I’m not making a difference in something, it’s time for me to find the next thing.

Reboot Update

Name: Wendy York

Age: 62

Location: Clemson, S.C.

Education: B.A., Stanford University; M.B.A., Harvard Business School

Former Job: Executive at early-stage internet and tech companies; venture capital

New Job: Dean, College of Business at Clemson University

Aha moment: Volunteering at her daughters’ school

Most important piece of advice for changing jobs: “Pivot is one of my favorite words….It’s this ability to assess the situation and see what options you do or don’t have, and then pivot to the next opportunity.”

Write to Kathryn Dill at [email protected]

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