Alumni Spotlights

Alumni Spotlight: Valerie Bonner

1. You graduated from Miami in 2010 with degrees in Sociology and Psychology. Can you describe what you've been doing since then?

Was it really 8 years ago? I feel like it hasn't been that long, but I've been keeping busy! In 2014, I finished my PhD in Sociology. While in grad school and for a little while after, I worked at NERA, one of the leading economic consulting companies, doing survey and sampling expert witness testimony work for litigation. Any time a lawyer needs a statistic, they need someone to testify to the validity of that number. I loved the work - it was fast paced with intelligent teammates and clients, and important work done with a lot of rigor. However, work-life balance was sometimes hard, and I didn't know if I wanted to do this kind of work for the rest of my life. So, hit fast forward, and 3 years later, I'm at Google doing survey research for our entire suite of consumer apps, platforms, and hardware products. Eight years ago, I don't think I could have told you that I'd be sitting in marketing at a giant tech company, with great views overlooking the Ferry Building and the San Francisco Bay from my desk, but I wouldn't trade it for anything.

2. Most people who get a PhD in Sociology go on to become a professor. Can you describe what attracted you about moving into the corporate world?

My father was a sociology professor at a community college. When I was young, I'd tag along to class with him. He was a great teacher - he was patient with his students, knew when and how to push them, and could explain complex topics multiple ways until the lightbulb came on. I admire his passion and raw ability to teach, and I knew that I didn't have those same innate skills. What I started to discover at Miami and solidified in grad school was my curiosity and knack for quantitative problem solving, which makes me a good corporate researcher. I had one positive experience outside of academia, as an intern at NORC at the University of Chicago, one of the largest and most respected survey research institutions in the US. That lead to another positive experience outside of academia, at NERA, which lead me to Google.

3. Your job as the Survey Research Lead at Google sounds exciting! What is your day-to-day work-life like?

I run a very large brand tracking survey at Google, covering dozens of Google products and countries. It might be one of the largest of its kind globally. It is too big for only one person to run, so I use my methodological skills to parachute in whenever there are technical problems. However, outside of that, most of my time is spent managing internal client relationships. Over 1,000 Googlers use data from my survey regularly, but they aren't researchers. So, they need help understanding what results mean for their lines of business, how can they leverage my survey for more insights, and what to do if results aren't what they expected. This involves a lot of video conference calls, emails and texts. Some days, I'm a methodological fire extinguisher, resolving survey emergencies and figuring out how to meet deadlines despite setbacks. Other days, I'm a storyteller, trying to tell a simple straightforward story to executive leadership who need to make hard business decisions.

4. What do you miss most about Miami?

Oh gosh! Too many things to count! The one big thing I miss the most was just that time in my life. Miami provided a supportive, fun, and stimulating environment for me to try new things and stretch my brain. Let's get real - what other time in my life can I take a class on the sociology of death or a class on the meaning of dreams? Looking back, I had a lot of fun, was very carefree, and started to figure out who I was. On a more practical level, I hope Bagel & Deli is still there! I worked very had my last semester to not eat the same bagel more than once, but sometimes I just need to repeat the old faithfuls like the Miami Bagel.

5. What one piece of advice would you share with our current Sociology majors?

Be open to trying new things. When I was talking to Google about a job, I was also talking to the Census. Google made an offer first, which goes to show that you should always be open to possibilities. I always thought I'd work for the government or a think tank doing women's workplace inequality work (that's what my dissertation was on after all). I was very hesitant to take a job at Google. It was across the country, my family and friends were in the Midwest and East coast, and I had never pictured myself living in California. I was going to work at a company that didn't just do research - what would my career trajectory look like and would there be other people like me? My dissertation chair's dissertation chair (that's like my academic grandpa) said that the Census is like the post office. He asked if I wanted to work someplace where there are set ways of doing everything, or if I wanted to try doing things differently and breaking things? I've never looked back - I'm thriving and extremely satisfied in the break-things camp.

Alumni Spotlight: Ethan Steinberg

1. You graduated from Miami in 2013 with degrees in Social Justice Studies and Sustainability. What have you been doing since then?

It's been a pretty fun ride for the last couple of years. I've lived in some great cities (Chicago, Tornoto, San Francisco, and New York) while working with lots of different companies, big and small.

I've worked with waste solutions, sustainability/supply chain analysis, car-sharing, cause marketing, software and sports. Being part of the team that worked on SuperBowl 50's net positive (sustainability) initiative was definitely a highlight.

The nice thing about SJS is that it can be applied in almost every setting, and as the world of impact investing and social venture continues to develop, the more applicable an understanding of social and ecological systems becomes. Businesses, nonprofits, etc. are recognizing where their weak spots are...For example, our business is completely designed around social justice and positive ecological outcomes, all the way down to how we are incorporated (as a public benefit corporation).

2. Your current work with Propagate Ventures sounds like a perfect extension of your undergraduate interests. Is that the case? Can you describe what your day-to-day work life is like?

It really is. My capstone focused on developing place-based, self-sufficient, solutions for systemic challenges in the local foodshed. With Propagate, we develop and manage agroforestry investments. What that boils down to is that we identify opportunities to add productive tree crops (fruits, nuts & timber) to farmland, with an acute focus on its ecological benefits as well as the economic gains that can translate to stabilizing rural-local economies. It's pretty similar to how a solar developer operates, but we plant trees rather than hooking up solar panels. My capstone project was one of the places where I really dug into identifying where business stakeholders can be part of the solution for social or environmental issues, and this is the type of work we do day-to-day. The only difference to my work today is that I've had a couple more years to identify the systemic challenges in the food system, and then was crazy enough to build a business set out to solve for those challenges on farms. 

Personally, I handle most of our sales and marketing work. This means that I spend most of my time working with people, and really getting to an understanding of they or their organization operates...What is their context? At the end of the day, it's about how to best place a solution that adds value. If we recognize that we cannot be of service to their work and add value to it, then we don't sell a solution.

A fair portion of this is applying what we discussed in class into very concrete daily examples. Identifying what are the macro and micro trends happening. There's been a lot of pressure on rural farm communities and the economics of food production is collapsing, meanwhile the climate has already hit a tipping point. So we look at who the stakeholders are in the industry (in our world that's typically Farmers, Consumer Brands, and Investors), what the constraints are, and where the white space is that allows for those groups to work together on something they each feel is valuable.

3. Your co-founder at Propagate is also a Miami alum, is that correct? How did you decide to go into business together?

That's right! Jeremy Kaufman and I met the first week of school, our freshman year. While I was focused with the SJS major, he was studying Entrepreneurship. Since day one, we always had a relationship where we could throw business ideas at each other, good or bad, and really feel comfortable digging into the challenges and opportunities. I'd say we've maintained a common thread around looking at the world through a holistic lens. That makes it particularly easy to be in business together, because we have a similar worldview. The catch is that we are particularly good at challenging the other to think differently or to work with a new framework.

Since we graduated, we've started and worked on a few projects/businesses together, so we know what we're getting into. Propagate has been the one we've really developed the most, and it's paying off.

4. What do you miss most about Miami?

I always found that the university, and the town, had a pretty strong community vibe so the ability to plug into the scene was straight forward...drastically different than a place like San Francisco or New York. What made that worthwhile was that my professors worked with me, rather than talking at me. So that culture of collaboration & learning rather than digesting information has stayed with me and is a core part of my day-to-day. I think in Oxford, that culture extends well past the classroom.

And, of course, I'd be silly if I did not say that I miss a good night out with my buddies on High Street or some grub at Bagel & Deli or Skippers.

5. What one piece of advice would you share with our current SJS majors?

Just keep iterating and learning. That's probably what I would have told my self. It's sort of the "take punches and get back up approach." I guess at the tend of the day, making sure that you're learning something new along the way, and not getting overly concerned with how fast something happens.

For me, I've found it useful, and fun, to look at things systematically. From my current perspective, the better one's capacity to work at a systems level, the better off you are in the workplace, because you make yourself an invaluable asset. There's a great quote from D. Eisenhower that I believe supports the claim to be a systems thinker..."If you can't solve a problem, enlarge it."

Alumni Spotlight: Denise Top

1. You graduated from Miami in 1993 with degrees in Sociology and Psychology. What made you interested in pursuing a legal career?

As a kid, I always wanted to be a lawyer when I grew up. My dad planted the seed early. I have a younger sister, who was a bit of a troublemaker, and I constantly came to her defense. My father would ask, "what are you, your sister's attorney?" My third grade class was given the assignment of writing a report on what we wanted to be when we grew up. I wrote mine about being a lawyer. It was three-hold punched, fully bound, and complete with a cover displaying the scales of justice. I didn't even really understand what being a lawyer was truly about, but I knew I wanted to help be a voice and advocate for others. I studied Sociology and Psychology during my undergraduate years because of my interest in helping people and trying to understand how I could best be of service to them. I graduated, did social service work for a few years and then landed a comfy job working in the buying offices of national retailers. In my late twenties, my dad suddenly died of a heart attack. He was 56 years old at the time; and I was fundamentally shaken by the concept of the fragility of life and our lack of control over it. I took a good look at myself and thought, "I'd bet get working cause the clock is ticking." My father's death was a jump start on life for me - I applied for law school and the rest is history. And, bonus: it turns out the sociology/psychology background comes in quite handy in dealing with opposing counsel and clients.

2. What kind of law do you specialize in and what do you find most gratifying about being an attorney?

I specialize in employment law and civil rights work. I spent the first decade plus of my career representing employers and got great satisfaction out of helping employers create and maintain an inclusive, fair, open work environment. In the last four years, I opened my own practice and have focused on representing employees in sexual harassment, gender discrimination, disability discrimination, race discrimination, age discrimination, whistleblower retaliation, and wage theft cases. I absolutely love the work I do because I get to help individuals while creating systemic change - or at least bending the arc of the moral universe towards justice (See Martin LUther King quote). It is a great honor and social responsibility to help aggrieved employees find their voice, stand up for their rights, and ultimately obtain justice.

3. Is there an alternate career path that you wish you could have taken as well, or plan to take in the future?

I was in my early thirties when I graduated from law school. Instead of following my interest (and heart), I followed my pocket book. For no reason other than self-pride, I required my first job out of law school to pay more than the corporate retail job I left to go to law school. This arbitrary decision eliminated the prospect of any public interest work, including working for the District Attorney or Public Defender's Office. I have always hoped to aspire to a judicial seat. Had I followed my heart (and not my pocket book), I would have worked for a District Attorney's office (I love, love, love trial and law and order) and the path to becoming a judge would have been a fairly straight and expected one. I still hope to become a judge one day and hopefully will achieve that goal, despite the twistier, curvier road presented by my chosen career path. Nonetheless, what I love most about this career goal is that serves as a constant reminder to conduct myself with the utmost professional courtesy and candor at all times.

4. What do you miss most about Miami?

This a is a tough question. I'd have to say seeing the fall colors on campus, late night trips to the Bagel Shop, and hearing local bands play at the Balcony. (Is that bar even still there?)

5. What one piece of advice would you share with our current Sociology students?

Follow your heart and trust the rest will come with time.