Alex Kilkka

Alex Kilkka

M.S. in Commerce 2012 (Marketing & Management), University of Virginia

B.S. in Economics and Communication Studies 2011, The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

After: Accenture, Emerging Technology Innovation Analyst (Arlington, VA)

Now: Austin Data Solutions, Founder & CEO (Austin, TX)

Leveraging liberal arts with business

I’ve been blown away by how practical the business education has proven to be. As an economics major, I learned a lot of compelling theory about how markets work and how people respond to incentives. What it didn’t teach me, however, was how to harness those forces at the institutional level. How do employees respond to different compensation structures? How does a company learn about a particular market and use that knowledge to launch a new product? Business education was the missing playbook that helped me translate big-picture economic ideas into real-life action.

Most memorable class: “Project Management”

“Project Management” with Ryan Nelson was my favorite class at McIntire. I had no idea that such an extensive body of knowledge existed for how to execute projects, big or small, for the greatest chance for success. Each week introduced a new set of practical skills, including estimation, negotiation, root cause analysis, and scope management. And Professor Nelson’s hands-on approach to dissecting successful and failed projects - like the infamous Titanic disaster - made the class all the more compelling.

Preparation for launching a start-up

I found the M.S. in Commerce Program to be very forward-thinking in its curriculum. While we did study “old-school” business theories, we were also immersed in the tools and ideas necessary to thrive in the digital age. From analytics and SQL to multichannel commerce, I felt that the Program quickly got us up-to-speed on what was happening here and now in the business world. This made the transition to the workplace all the smoother and helped me contribute to the success of my work team from day one.

The value of Commerce Career Services

Commerce Career Services was an enormous help in the job search. Not only did the staff bring in top-tier firms, but staff members also held resume workshops and practice interviews and even facilitated a trip to San Francisco for those interested in entrepreneurship. They were incredible.

What makes the job great

There are many enjoyable aspects to running a start-up, but perhaps the most rewarding is seeing the direct connection between my actions and the company’s bottom line. If I make a product change or improve a process, the feedback is usually immediate and clear.

Challenges on the job

I sometimes miss the structure that comes with attending school or working for an established company. In a start-up, especially early stage, so much can change from day to day. It takes a deliberate effort to build routines and properly manage your workload without a detailed syllabus and hard deadlines.

Advice for future students

For students interested in start-ups, you should try to take away as much as you can from the Program. At a start-up, you have to wear many different hats. Sometimes you find yourself running analyses, other times presenting to potential clients. Fortunately, the M.S. in Commerce Program gives you an extensive overview of many different aspects of business. So pay attention. Each class is in the curriculum for a reason and may prove to be incredibly useful down the road.

Most memorable GIE company visit

A common theme on the East Asia trip was how the Chinese perception of time is on a whole different scale than that of America. One of the companies we visited in China made spices. The founder, a middle-aged man speaking through a translator, told us it was his goal to create a “100-year company.” I loved this notion and its contrast to the flash-pan start-up scene in Silicon Valley. And it made me think deeply about how one would go about designing an institution with such longevity.

Biggest take-away

The most important thing I took away from McIntire is that tomorrow is not going to look like today. Established companies will fall at the hands of disruptive start-ups, China will soon be the world’s largest economy, we will be competing for jobs not only with internet-connected workers on the other side of the world, but with artificially intelligent systems as well. But with big changes come big opportunities. The sooner we understand this, the better prepared we’ll be to thrive in tomorrow’s economy.

Life after graduate business school

When I lived in D.C., I volunteered with the business-improvement district in my neighborhood. We conducted surveys of residents to identify unmet needs and used the data to attract businesses. It was a great way to apply many of the skills I picked up at McIntire to make a tangible impact in the neighborhood.

Favorite Charlottesville activity

UVA has a rich student life on Grounds. I loved finding student-run improv shows or slam poetry competitions whenever I needed a study break.