EPIC Spotlight: Molly Rapert

The voice on Molly Rapert’s answering machine said she was a finalist for a university teaching job. The caller left his name but didn’t say from where he was calling.

Even more mysterious: Rapert had not applied for the job.

She had just come home from her market research analyst job with DoubleTree Hotels in her hometown of Tulsa, Oklahoma. Thinking it was a wrong number, Rapert returned the call. But it was no wrong number. She discovered the man had a name – Chuck Bilbrey – and said he had received a five-page recommendation letter from George Wynn, her former marketing professor at the University of Arkansas. Wynn told him, “This is what she’s meant to do, but she just doesn’t know it yet.”

Rapert didn’t. Public speaking terrified her. In fact, her tendency to be introverted was the deal breaker when she applied for a dream job as a brand manager with a convenience store chain.

But the teaching offer was too good to pass up. Rapert packed her belongings and moved to Harrisonburg, Virginia, to teach statistics problems at James Madison University. Out of the gate, she taught four class sections with 120 students each in a large auditorium. To overcome her fear of public speaking, Rapert removed her glasses so that she couldn’t see the students looking back at her.

After a few weeks, the nervousness was gone. Teaching was exactly what she wanted to do. Since 1991, Rapert has taught marketing at the Walton College, where she is associate professor.

She came full circle – one with plenty of twists and turns along the way.

When Rapert was an undergraduate business student at the University of Arkansas, she had no specific concentration in mind. As she sat in Marketing Associate Professor Dub Ashton’s Principles of Marketing class in an auditorium filled with students, she thought she was inconspicuous. That is, until Ashton addressed her.

“We had 300 people in our class, and I didn’t know he knew my name,” Rapert recalls. “It kind of scared me.”

Ashton addressed her regularly throughout the semester. Through those exchanges, he noticed that Rapert had potential in brand management. “So, I decided I was going to be a brand manager,” she says.

Until she received that message on her answering machine.

Rapert began working toward a doctorate at Memphis State University (now the University of Memphis) in Tennessee with the goal of teaching at the University of Arkansas. But as graduation neared, Rapert received disheartening news: There were no marketing faculty positions open at Walton. She reluctantly found work teaching elsewhere. As she was negotiating her acceptance, she attended a conference in Dallas and bumped into her old marketing professor at Walton, Tom Jensen. He informed her that a teaching position with the Department of Marketing became available just that morning. Rapert couldn’t believe this great news from a happenstance meeting.

Rapert’s world was reeling and she had to act fast. Through the flurry, she got her foot in the door and was hired.

Though she has had the same office since, the way students learned then was different. The students, who often dressed up for class, also worked in isolation and were not linked in as much as they are now. For example, class assignments were driven by textbook content, and there was little “real world” experience as Walmart, headquartered in nearby Bentonville, didn’t yet have as strong of a presence in Northwest Arkansas.

Internships were also a rarity then. Now, most of her students have internships thanks to Walton’s strong affiliation with Walmart, Tyson Foods, J.B. Hunt Transport Services Inc. and other companies based in the area.

Heather Nelson says she often forgets that she was one of Rapert’s earliest students at Walton. However, she doesn’t forget how many students wanted to take Rapert’s class.

“She was always laid back and easy-going, yet there was a fire inside of her,” Nelson says. “She loved her students, and she had a passion for the material that transferred to her students.”

Nelson has since co-founded Seal Solar of North Little Rock, where she also serves as president and chief operating officer.

Rapert says her early years of teaching at Walton were textbook-driven. That changed, however, after going to Ethiopia to adopt her daughter, who is now college-age. The realities of Rapert’s visit to the country didn’t at all reflect what she had read in preparation. It also made her think that what she was teaching in the classroom also may not reflect reality.

When Rapert returned from the trip, she threw out the textbook and drew up an advisory board consisting of her former students who became executives. They design projects and serve as guest speakers and advisors for her Marketing Management undergraduate class. They enable her students to experience real-world projects and have a dialogue with professionals to better prepare them for their careers. (Rapert also shares her experiences with the companies she consults around the globe.)

Jesse Lane, for one, appreciated Rapert’s approach. He was her student in the late 2000s and is founder and chief executive officer of the Bentonville-based Branches Mission Lab, which helps nonprofits with marketing, branding and fundraising.

“She just had a very different approach to engaging with the students and the real business world,” Lane says. “I really appreciated that because we were exposed to, and got to meet, members of her advisory board – executives from across the business community – and just hearing their stories and their real-life examples was such a helpful thing right before I graduated because you got a sense of what it was going to be like out there, if you will.”

Now, Nelson and Lane are among those who serve on Rapert’s advisory board.

Rapert sometimes discovers that her students are visionaries. She recalls an instance when representatives with a cellular telephone service visited her class before anyone had ever heard the word “iPhone.” Her students suggested the company put cameras in its phones. The company representatives balked at the idea.

Several years ago, a few of her former students surprised her with the creation of the Molly Rapert Walton College Alumni Society Scholarship to be given annually to an undergraduate Walton student. “That’s fun because, I feel, after I leave, that will still continue,” she says.

A bulletin board that takes up almost an entire wall in her office is filled with notes of appreciation from students who have sat in her classes through the years – a reminder of why she’s at Walton.
There’s something else she hopes will continue long after she’s gone: “If I made people think about the importance of teaching, that would make me happy,” she says.

Ask her for the secret to her success, and she’ll attribute it to managing her time well and being organized to the point that she even alphabetizes the canned goods stored in her kitchen. “I buy all the same brands because when I open my pantry, it’s all peaceful,” Rapert says.