First Person: Sheryl O'Loughlin, BBA '89

A Bend in the Road that Brings You Home

When I started as a freshman at the University of Michigan, I expected to major in psychology. I grew up with a strong social conscience, and a desire to do something to heal people, or at least to be there for them when they were hurting.

Then, one day during my sophomore year, my mother called and explained that while she was able to help pay for my undergraduate education, that’s all the support she could give me. There wouldn’t be money for graduate school.

The way my 20-year-old brain worked was this: I first thought of how tough it had been not to have much money growing up. My father died when I was young, and my mother had struggled mightily to keep us on solid financial footing. We weren’t poor, and I don’t want to overstate my hardship — we were fine. But money was always an issue, and I felt a fierce desire not to worry about it in my adult life.

When I hung up the phone with my mom, I thought long and hard. I believed that without a graduate degree in my field of psychology, I wouldn’t be able to get a good-paying job. (I’m not saying this would have been the case — but I was 20, and firm in my beliefs.) To make my plan work, I’d have to get a loan for my education, and live under debt and financial stress for another 10 years.

So, I made a decision that would seemingly alter the course of my life. I decided to leave liberal arts behind me, and join the business school. Thanks in part to the rigor and prestige of the school, I knew that upon graduation I could get a job in business that would meet my financial goals. 

This decision did not go over well with my best friend from childhood, who felt I was selling out. She hung up on me when I told her the news that I was going to business school. We didn’t speak again for years. Part of me thought she was right, that I wasn’t being true to myself. I wanted to heal the world, and yet I was planning to work for big business. Early on at Ross, though, I felt a spark. I saw that I didn’t have to leave psychology behind. I could focus on marketing, which was all about what made people tick. I had smart professors, and made good friends—like-minded people who were talented and interesting. Plus – the environment at Ross was intellectually stimulating and exciting

What started as a way to avoid student debt became a passionate and fulfilling career. I learned that almost all of my assumptions about business were wrong. By focusing on business, I wasn’t turning my back on psychology. I was just entering a different dimension of it. By going into business, I wasn’t closing the door on opportunities to help people — I was just finding a different way to do it.

When I was CEO of Clif Bar, I not only thought about how to sell more product, but also how to care for the environment and people in need around the world. When I co-founded Plum, our mission was to nurture kids from the high chair to the lunchbox and fight the childhood obesity epidemic. Now, as CEO of REBBL super herb beverages, we help our nonprofit partner, Not For Sale, in its fight to end human trafficking. We give 2.5 percent of the sale of every bottle to Not For Sale to support their efforts to rehabilitate people who have been trafficked. And we provide a livelihood to our growers throughout the world so they aren’t vulnerable to trafficking.

Throughout my leadership career, I’ve also held myself accountable to making the lives of those who work with me fulfilling, so that they find purpose in their work just as I have.

Social-mission businesses are becoming more and more prevalent. Students today have countless opportunities to do well and to do good. I believe that business can be the biggest source of positive change in the world. And so while Michigan Ross looked to be where my path diverged, it turned out it was just an alternate route to get me where I most wanted to be.

Sheryl O’Loughlin is the former CEO of Clif Bar, where she introduced the world to Luna bars; cofounder and CEO of Plum Organics; and current CEO of REBBL super herb beverages. She is the author of Killing It: An Entrepreneur’s Guide to Keeping Your Head Without Losing Your Heart, published by HarperBusiness, an imprint of HarperCollins.

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