Gabriele Zedlmayer: A Georgia State Trendsetter Returns Home
Of all those destinations, though, few are as dear to her heart as the one that started off her round-the-world jaunt: Georgia State’s campus in downtown Atlanta.
“It is a warm feeling to come back,” she says. “There are not many places I have gone back to after many years and thought, ‘Wow, this is something truly special.’ I’ve always loved Atlanta — I’ve loved the people, the Southern hospitality, the fact that I was given chances I wouldn’t have gotten someplace else.”
Zedlmayer was the keynote speaker at the Robinson College of Business’ inaugural Global Business Forum last fall. As Hewlett-Packard’s vice president for sustainability and social innovation, she was able to offer numerous insights from her own experience as to how technology and a focus on social responsibility can help today’s business students further their own careers.
A Warm Welcome, Far Away From Home
Zedlmayer smiles as she recalls how her own business training began early, courtesy of her large family — she was the fourth of six children, five of them girls. “Early on, if I wanted to get anything done, I had to use good persuasive skills, good negotiation skills,” she says. “I had to learn to be persistent.”
She followed in the footsteps of an older sister who had earned a scholarship in Germany and used it to attend Agnes Scott College in 1975. “I thought this was a great idea, to come to the U.S. and get exposed to a different culture, a different educational system, a whole new way of life,” Zedlmayer remembers. “And people here were so friendly and welcoming. I decided I wanted more of that experience, so I wanted to study in the U.S. more than just the one year.”
Georgia State provided an affordable place for her to continue her studies, so she came her to earn a bachelor’s degree in foreign languages, graduating in just a year and a half.
“There were not that many international students in ’79, not like today,” Zedlmayer recalls. “And the experience at Georgia State was somewhat different from Agnes Scott, because it is a much bigger place, and I had to find my way around. But I had fabulous professors who really took me under their wing and showed me how to get around in this place. They really explained to me, this is what you need to do, here are some additional opportunities you can pursue.
“The personal relationships I was able to build in spite of this being such a big place really made such a big difference for me. I had to prove myself, but Georgia State gave me the opportunity. I don’t know that every place would’ve done that.”
Global Travels and New Frontiers
Zedlmayer went on to earn her M.B.A. in Miami, but she says she didn’t necessarily have a plan for what she was going to do next. “Thirty years ago, you could go into business without having a real master plan in place — you started with a multinational company and built a career there. I don’t think that exists for young people going forward,” she observes. “Now it’s a time you really have to invest in yourself. Now you have to have more of a plan, but it’s also a flexible time, a time that requires openness to change. I think employers increasingly look for people who shape their own jobs and shape the skills that prepare them for those jobs.”
Zedlmayer worked for Eastern Air Lines for a while in the United States, then returned to Europe to work for a startup called Compaq. She describes it as “a golden time” and “the ride of a lifetime,” but also as “a bit of a shock” when Hewlett Packard acquired Compaq in 2002. Instead of panicking, though, she started researching what was different about HP’s environment and corporate culture. “Sustainability” was a term that kept popping up.
“Sustainability was really part of HP’s DNA,” she says. “When it came to environmental and social programs, I knew that was the job I wanted. So I started working toward getting that job.”
Today Zedlmayer leads a team of experts around the world in working with customers, governments and nonprofits to create sustainable solutions to various social and environmental issues. Some of them have immediate business implications, while others, such as education, affect HP more in the long term. But they’re all vital, she says, both to HP’s continued to success and to the good of society as a whole.
Inspired by the way technology has transformed her own career, Zedlmayer has made science, technology, engineering and math education a particular passion of hers. “It’s our responsibility to make STEM education something that kids love, that inspires them, that they can play with,” she says. “The future of economies around the world depends on whether we can get more kids interested in STEM education. The more work we do with personalized learning, the more we will keep the children with us.”
As sustainability only increases in importance for companies around the world, Zedlmayer is thrilled at the opportunities HP has given her in that arena. “It’s not just an opportunity, it’s a must. It’s something we have to do today,” she says. “I’m glad to be in a space that I think is going to be absolutely critical going forward.”
Encouraging Words for the Next Generation
That passion for education was one of the reasons Zedlmayer jumped at the chance to return to Georgia State for the business forum and connect with today’s students. “I think my heart, in a way, is a little bit in education because it is so absolutely fundamental to the well-being of people.”
Like many Georgia State graduates who have gone on to great success and influence in the business world, Zedlmayer says she frequently hears the question “How can I get your job?” “Go the extra mile — do extra beyond what you’re being told,” she answers. “Really utilize technology and be smart about creating the networks that will help you take the next step. When it comes to networking, I find you have to be very specific as far as who you want to meet and what you want to meet them for. Don’t just try to collect as many business cards as you possibly can. It’s quality that counts in building these networks.”
Zedlmayer cautions students that her rise to the top wasn’t always smooth: “I have made some lateral moves that didn’t seem like they were really doing me much good at the time, but still, you have to use that time and make the most of it and get back on track.” In one such instance, where she was asked to make a lateral move into communications, “I went to my boss and said, ‘I’ll take this job, but I want one new task I can grow into. I want to learn more about customer relationship management.’ I did, and that was a great learning experience.”
Fortunately, she got support from both her family and her Georgia State professors that gave her the confidence to overcome any obstacle or barrier. She closed her appearance at the Global Business Forum with a similar bit of confidence-building advice.
“That’s one of the most important pieces of direction I want to give my own children or the students I come in contact with: try,” she says. “Don’t ever take no for an answer.”