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Evan Williams: Making Global Connections

UMD Alumnus Evan Williams  
Evan Williams in Cape Town, South Africa. His passion for new experiences led him to establish a scholarship to help UMD undergraduate marketing students study abroad. Photo courtesy of Evan Williams.  

Ask Evan Williams where he'll be in ten years and he'll probably laugh. Not because he thinks it's a silly question, but because the past ten years looked nothing like what he'd originally planned. Williams believes having an imagination and taking calculated risks are critical components to success.

The Warren, Minn., native came to UMD open to possibilities. He took a wide range of classes, gleaning insights from many. In Professor Michael Sunnafrank's interpersonal communication class, "I learned how to listen to people and understand their point of view." In Intro to Theatre, "I learned how to be memorable when you only have a minute or two to make an impression."

His family always encouraged him to see people as individuals. "With my grandfather, it didn't matter where you were from or what you looked like, if you need help, he helped you," Williams said. His father was an attorney and had seen racism against Mexican Americans who had come to Warren. "My dad was always direct: 'You will treat them as friends. You will not use racist slurs, even if you see that happening around you.' I did make friends. I got beat up a couple of times for it too. It taught me empathy, because I saw the struggle they went through."

At UMD, Williams became friends with many international students, notably Mutinta Chilala, a young woman from Zambia. "Through her, I spent most of my free time with the Black Student Association. I was always interested in diversity, in seeing different perspectives," he recalled.

Williams majored in marketing. "A big part of that developed because of the skill of the faculty, people like Praveen Aggarwal, Stephen Castleberry, Linda Rochford. Their classes were so inspiring," he said. After graduating summa cum laude in 2002, Williams went on to earn a Master of Marketing Research from The University of Georgia.

Market research fascinates him. "I like to understand what motivates people. It's marketing with an element of psychology, unlocking what's behind their choices." Early on, he resisted the temptation to view everything from a statistical standpoint. "My approach was different. For me, it's the combination of science and art."

He worked for Kraft Foods in Singapore for five years. When a new corporation, Mondelez International, formed, Williams moved to Japan as the manager of consumer insights and analytics. "I love my company. We are the world's biggest startup. They give me the ability to experiment and try new things."

His passion for new experiences led him to establish a scholarship to help UMD undergraduate marketing students study abroad. "Going to another country, even once, changes a person's perspectives forever."

Williams credits UMD with helping him to think differently than some. "That's a big advantage to a UMD education: out-of-the-box thinking, strategic thinking. In Japan, people are educated to think more laterally. Americans tend to educate people to solve problems."

When hiring people, he looks for individuals who are talented on multiple levels. "They should be good at analysis, but they should be great at coming up with new ideas," he said. "I look for people who can create ideas, who can create newness. Once you have that, you're an asset."

He has come back to UMD and spoken to students in Professor Stephen Castleberry's classes. "He mentored me and helped me a lot." Williams gives back because of the support he received. "I know at UMD you are not just a number. If you want to go somewhere, you can do it at UMD."

Williams encourages students to resist the urge to overplan their careers and instead focus on doing what they enjoy. "Ten years ago, if someone had told me, 'You're going to live in Japan and sell chewing gum, I wouldn't have believed them,'" he laughed. "Be curious. It's curiosity that will lead to great things.

Those Who Can, Duluth

Written by Kathleen McQuillan-Hofmann, 2013

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