Stephanie Esau: EMBA Class of 2012

It was a 650-mile commute from Chicago. But once a month, Stephanie Esau hopped on a plane to the Northwest Arkansas Regional Airport, then continued on to the Sam M. Walton College of Business. Once there, she attended two Saturday classes as she worked toward her master’s degree.

Then there was life in the Windy City. By day, Stephanie worked full time as a category sales planner for the Grocery Business Unit of Kraft Foods Inc. At night, and on those weekends when she didn’t commute, she skyped with her Walton College classmates and shared ideas on Internet discussion boards as they worked together on projects.

Stephanie says she had always planned to attend graduate school after earning her bachelor’s degree in economics at the University of North Carolina in 2006. Though she spent her first years working for Kraft in Charlotte, N.C., about two hours from UNC in Chapel Hill, it wasn’t until she was transferred to Kraft’s Walmart office in Rogers that she acted on her plan. A coworker there raved about a program at the Walton College where students can earn their master’s degrees in two years by attending class, usually from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., one Saturday a month. One objective of her higher education pursuit was to strengthen her finance and strategy skills.

When I found the Walton College program with one Saturday a month, and I could travel throughout the week and still do what I need to do professionally, it was perfect.

Only three months after arriving in Arkansas, she enrolled, was ready to balance her career and school. She says she also knew that in all likelihood, she would relocate to Chicago to work at Kraft’s corporate headquarters before finishing her degree. That move happened in December 2011. She works as associate director of sales planning at Kraft Foods Group in Chicago now.

She says she has been applying what she learned at Walton College in her new position.

I took a corporate finance class. It was a great class. There was a lot of really tough material, but it helped me a lot to prepare for my current position.

Stephanie’s duties at Kraft include leading and collaborating with a cross-functional team that includes her counterparts in marketing, finance and production, to drive sales and grow the company’s products such as Kraft Macaroni & Cheese and Velveeta. “It’s a really fun job with a lot of team work and collaboration,” she says.

She says her father’s profession as a salesman with Goodyear Tire and Rubber Co. served as an inspiration for her to pursue business. Her family often moved every couple of years, living in various locations across the nation. After graduating from high school in Sacramento, Calif., she enrolled at the University of North Carolina, where she studied economics. When Kraft came to campus to recruit potential employees, she was hired.

Balancing a full-time job while completing her master’s degree wasn’t easy, she says. She says she couldn’t have done it without her husband, Matt. “He was very supportive, patient and understanding with my time demands,” she says. “The key part of it was having a good support system.”

There was also just plain, old-fashioned dedication, too. “It was being very diligent with my schedule and saying ‘no’ to stuff on the weekends sometimes,” she says.

It’s a great program. I’m definitely happy with the decision I made. I think it’s made me a better employee, too.