Samantha Klein is IBM’s first-ever Next Gen intrapreneur, a role that’s the corporate version of Lewis and Clark. She’s part of a team that spends their time identifying new frontiers while simultaneously innovating IBM’s brand to be more relevant, tangible and conversation-worthy with the Next Gen (millennial and Gen Z) audience. She founded IBM’s global millennial community, IBM Millennial Corps, which represents over 6,000 millennials across over 70 countries. Prior to IBM, Samantha was a Marketing Brand Manager at Li & Fung, where she orchestrated select marketing initiatives for some of the biggest names in retail, fashion and entertainment, including Saks Fifth Avenue, Neiman Marcus, Target, Walmart and Macy’s. She also worked at McCann Erickson as an Account Manager on MasterCard. Samantha is an Influencer Advisory Board member of sparks & honey, an agency within Omnicom that places emerging culture at the center of everything they do. In addition, Samantha was a participant on the inaugural Millennial Trains Project, a non-profit, crowd-funded transcontinental train journey, where she focused on researching the future of brick and mortar retail and the millennial consumer. She is a featured expert at the BigThink and has earned numerous industry accolades.
What is your role at IBM and how do you view the millennial mindset?
Millennials face the same challenges as everyone else. We’re all human beings, but the way we act is sometimes different.
On my company’s intranet each employee has a profile that includes a photo as well as general information such as location, phone number, job title, and who a specific person reports to. The one space on the employee profile that isn’t automatically filled is a section where each person is given the opportunity to tell everyone “What I am known for” in 255 characters or less.
If you spend even a few minutes looking through various employee profiles something becomes quite apparent; boomers stress their role and how they are driving transformation for the company, while millennials write about themselves and their passions as they relate to their work at the company and often add non-work-related insights about their lives.
When we do surveys of what millennials want – across the globe – there is one universal answer that keeps popping up. Millennials want to make a difference and want to do meaningful work.
Is this what the IBM Millennial Corps is all about?
In a way. I always tell companies that the best way to understand the millennial mindset is to ask the millennials working in your company. It’s amazing how shortsighted we can be, because we don’t take the trouble to reach out and create a bridge.
The generational gap can’t be bridged by traditional tools and tactics we have been using to “understand”, “market”, “speak”, “engage”, “connect” and “win” millennial customers. These methods are ineffective and will not increase your sales, regardless of how much data you gather and analyze. Even worse, you have likely lost sales due to them.
The secret to capturing the hearts, minds, and most importantly, wallets of the millennial generation is likely working with you. Your millennial employees are your most valuable and accessible asset when it comes to successfully marketing your business to the millennial generation.
Your own free focus group of millennials may be sitting 25 feet from you – not only are they available, but they WANT to be asked and to become involved. No one knows what the millennial generation desires or responds to more than actual millennials – you wouldn’t ask legal advice from a race car driver and you shouldn’t rely on non-millennials to provide you with their ideas on how to market your business to millennial customers or how to attract (and retain) millennial employees to your company.
Are there many initiatives that you pursue because they are driven by this desire to make a difference?
IBM is open to good ideas – no matter where they come from. I see this in the support from our senior management and our teams.
The key to a company’s future lies in its ability to foster teamwork within all of the organization – and that includes millennials.
I’d like to point out that millennials are often referred to as the “connected” generation for a reason – we entered our careers with the ability to be connected to our jobs 24/7 through smartphones, laptops, tablets, etc. Thus unlike other generations, we never separated work from our personal lives since work for millennials has always been anywhere and anytime we have a wifi connection. Our professional and personal worlds don’t start and end, but blend together.
And so do our relationships with one another. Because millennials are so used to the instant trust and accessibility of the internet we grew up with, we enter into and form effective teams quickly. As team members we expect everyone on the team, including leadership, to be just as accessible and responsive to us since we are all on the same “team”.
This appreciation for a self-fulfilling “team work mentality” is a definitive aspect of our personalities. It is why millennials join small, goal oriented startups predominantly comprised of other millennials, sharing a team approach and exhibiting little sense of any established hierarchy. Simply, millennials enjoy sharing the drive and desire to succeed with like-minded individuals, no matter what age or position.
So we see startups that are successfully disrupting industries dominated by large corporations because most startups consist of forward-thinking millennials who seek to shape the future.
So how does a giant company retain millennials and keep them engaged?
The answer lies in catering to the very nature of our generation by establishing a company-wide sense of inclusiveness via trust and a team approach — where everyone can contribute and be recognized regardless of their title, division, physical location or generation.
Millennnials are not patient souls. They want to be asked and they want their ideas to be heard. Nothing is worse than asking for feedback and then not responding to it. Better not to have asked. This is a mindset issue.
Understanding the underlying reasons for this pattern can help solve many corporations’ problem in retaining their best and brightest millennials, thereby insuring each company’s continued success and relevance.
I am filled with optimism when I see how dedicated and engaged so many of my fellow millennials are – both at work and outside in the world. And IBM is a great place to make a difference. We use technology to make a difference. Business can be a force for good. And I believe this will only increase as we go forward.
One example is IBM Health Corps, a global pro-bono program focused on tackling health disparities. We partner with health organizations across the world, contributing the time and expertise of teams of IBM experts for three weeks on the ground. IBM Health Corps teams use the company’s cognitive tools and analytics to help partner organizations expand health access and services and improve health systems and outcomes. So we bring our top talent and our leading cognitive technologies to help communities address health challenges such as primary care gaps, health worker shortages, and access to safe water and nutritious food.
There’s the Zika virus initiative that is a burning issue. We’re using the World Community Grid that allows anyone with a computer or Android device to donate their devices’ unused processing power towards research on Zika.
The OpenZika project on World Community Grid aims to identify drug candidates to treat the Zika virus in people who have been infected. The project will screen millions of chemical compounds against the target proteins that the Zika virus likely uses to survive and spread in the human body, based on what is known from similar diseases such as dengue virus and yellow fever. As science’s knowledge of the Zika virus increases in the coming months and key proteins are identified, the OpenZika team will use the new knowledge to refine our search.
We also have P-TECH, an initiative helping close the gap between the ambitions of young people in underserved communities to attain college and specific skills needed by employers in high-growth industries. What does that mean? It means IBM is having an impact on the future of education, not just talking about it.
What about your fashion background? Has that helped you in the business world?
(Laughs). Actually there are many things business can and must learn from the world of fashion. Fashion involves a great deal of creativity and execution – from scanning the horizon to understand trends and future needs, to designing, sourcing, and delivering a product that has a very short life span. All at a price that works for the consumer. In some ways I see fashion as a lens for management thinking. Increasingly, every business is in the fashion business – and I only am half-joking when I say that.
And speaking of fashion, we actually worked on a project that married fashion and technology. IBM worked with renowned fashion designer Marchesa to create a “cognitive dress” for the Met Gala red carpet. The result was a couture-level gown designed in collaboration with IBM Watson and modeled by Karolina Kurkova, There’s a great video about this human-machine fashion collaboration on YouTube. And the designer was chosen by our millennial group!
What’s next for you? How do you see the future for millennials in the workplace?
I love what I’m doing. And that’s what I see for companies that want to engage their millennials. Allow us to do what we love. It’s never “just a job” for us!
INTERVIEW by Christian Sarkar