FBLA Connect Interview – Dawn Larsen

Dawn Larsen is currently the VP of Technology Operations at Starbucks in Seattle, Washington. She was very involved in FBLA-PBL, serving as the 1987-88 PBL Western Region Vice President and 1988-89 PBL National President from Washington FBLA. Before Starbucks, she worked at Ernst and Young and Microsoft. Dawn agreed to sit down with FBLA National President Eu Ro Wang to share her experiences and her tips for FBLA members looking to go into business operations and technology.


What was your overall best memory in FBLA?

It would probably be winning the Washington State FBLA business math competition. It was definitely a surprise for me to win it, and it became a real kind of confidence booster for me as well as. It was the catalyst for what kicked off my next six years of FBLA and PBL involvement. It was definitely the thing that made me want to be more involved and it gave me the opportunity to have all sorts of great experiences. Travel the country and meet new people.

Do you have any advice for the common FBLA student looking to get involved on a higher level, running for national office, state office, or getting more involved in general?

The way I interpret that question is kind of just getting more involved versus necessarily serving as an officer, but for me, I would just say to just start small. When I was in FBLA, there was just lots of avenues to participate different ways, even as simple as going to FBLA meetings themselves. In my age, we did a lot of volunteering to raise money by selling donuts or manning the concession stand at basketball games, certainly signing up for competitions and attending conferences. I think just by doing any of those things you get to interact with lots of different people that you wouldn’t normally get to interact with, get different perspectives and learn new stuff. And so if you just start with something it will become a path and that will become another path, which becomes another path, and so on.

What did you major in college, and how did you choose your major?

I majored in accounting in college, and my thinking processes at that time regarding the decision was I thought it would be a good foundation for any career, not just an accounting career, but any career in business or otherwise. I also liked that it was a skill and there was a certification that went with it, beyond a GPA. It wasn’t theoretical, in other words, it was very practical. And I think I was good at it, so the combination of those three things is the reason I chose it.

Please briefly describe your career thus far.

With studying accounting, I went to work right out of college, working in public accounting. I did that for a year in Seattle, and then I was fortunate to move to Oslo, Norway with Ernst & Young and work as an auditor overseas. After about five years though, I discovered that public accounting wasn’t for me and I made a very large decision to leave it after that and I haven't really worked with it since. I think again back to that basis, of having accounting as a degree and a skill set, I transitioned from that to working at Microsoft, into business operations and system implementation role. And my first job at Microsoft was defining the business requirements for a financial revenue sharing system. So that was kind of how I transitioned, if you will, into Microsoft, and then from there I like to try new things and keep learning. So I worked in more like a business operations role for three, four years and then I transitioned to the technology operations side of the house which is essentially saying I was responsible for the 24 by 7 service availability of Microsoft services such as MSN.com and MSN search which became http://bing.com. After about five years I decided that I wanted to try to transition back to the business side and take both the business and tech together, and I led a business operations team for Microsoft cloud infrastructure and functions like our sourcing and procurement. I was in charge of that mechanism, as well as running the end to end rhythm of business for our division. My last role at Microsoft was really a combination of all those things. I was responsible for the end to end project management which included cost and schedule process and systems for the data center delivery portfolio, so delivering our physical data centers around the world.

What do you do now?

Today I’m the VP of Technology Operations at Starbucks, so with that, I lead our core operations services which includes service management our 24 by 7 instant response for our retail stores as well as our non-retail technology teams. Any of our corporate functions and then service quality and monitoring initiative, along with governance, risk and compliance accountabilities for all of Starbucks technology.

Why did you go into business operations or technology?

I don’t know if that was actually necessarily a conscious conscious choice as much as trying something new. I liked it and then was able to continue to grow my responsibilities and skill sets in that direction. I loved operations in general because I’m not personally somebody who likes to specialize, per se. And so with operations, I have the ability to see a bunch of different things that are happening at the same time. I get to work with different groups, I’m involved with broad face initiative, and I’m able to basically then take that and develop plans for operational support and then make it happen. The execution part of it is really important to me in terms of delivering something of value, and I think business operations or technology operation roles really allow me to do that.

If you're able to share, how did you find your job at Starbucks?

It really came down to networking. When I was looking for my next opportunity, I was reaching out to people that I knew, and I reached out to a senior VP that had been working here in Starbucks technology. I had worked with him years ago at Microsoft, and I simply reached out to him to get some advice on what to look for outside of Microsoft, and to get advice on starting an external job search because I had been at Microsoft for so long. He agreed to see me which was awesome, and it was then he handed me a job description, which he said “hey, you can do this job.” And I was like, “I can do that job,” so I interviewed for it and got it. I think the main thing there is that people are willing to spend time with you if you ask them.

Wow, that’s awesome. So when did you know that it was time to leave your job back at Microsoft?

That’s a good question because obviously, after being there for 22 years you know that was a big decision for me to make. For me, I think it came down to really examining my life and asking myself some pretty good questions about how I wanted to live the rest of it. One of the things I’ve been able to do when I was at Microsoft was to attend Kellogg at Northwestern University, and we had a program there where we were studying a poet philosopher named David Whyte, and we read this article called The Big Questions to Ask Yourselves Throughout Your Life. There were two questions that really stood out to me, and it was after asking myself these two questions that I did make a decision to do something different. The first question was: “Am I harvesting from last years season of life?” In other words, what that question means is ‘if I was a farmer and I tried to harvest what belongs to the previous season, I’d exhaust myself trying to do something that no longer existed.’ And I felt like I’ve been doing that the last years of my time at Microsoft. The second question was: “Can I be the blessed saint of my future happiness by making a bold and courageous decision now that my future self would look back and say, ‘wow, I'm so proud of you for making that decision and being thankful for what I did and opening new life experiences and exposure to great people?’” And so I decided that I could take that bold and courageous move, and really between the combination of those two, I decided that I needed to do something different in life and that’s how I ended up here.

What’s your favorite part about your job right now?

I love being in a leadership role, and one with a big challenge where I get to work with a team of people and great results. I’ll say also personally, you get to know the team’s own aspirations, and in the role I have within Starbucks, there's certainly a lot of opportunity within the space I'm working in to help people achieve some great stuff, and help Starbucks get to the next level in terms of how we look at people in terms of technology and the operations behind it.

What are some tips you would give to some students who would want to be you in their future?

Well I think like with the role I have, I’m just able to come into a role like this because I did have such a broad set of work experiences. When I tried different things, even though I worked at three companies in my career, I’ve done lots of different things within them.  think trying new things, and being open to new experiences, and not just saying “ok, well this is the role or the job I’m going to have for the rest of my life.” It’s possible to move using a core set of skills, and move in a different direction. I think as a result of the experiences I’ve had, I have the ability to see a bigger picture of how things relate, not just what my specific job might be but connecting dots so that I can then say, “ok, well this is really what the problem is” or “the opportunity is and then _______,” and therefore, work to develop a solution more readily. I’d say first and foremost, try to have a bunch of different experiences to continue to learn and grow from. Certainly, working hard helps you as well.

How has FBLA prepared you to succeed in your career and what skills did you learn in FBLA that you still use today?

First and foremost, it’s helped me have a sense of confidence about myself. Through FBLA and PBL, I was able to try new things and practice new skills. One that I use all the time is public speaking. When I first joined FBLA, I’d never done any of that, and so through FBLA I got to give speeches at other schools in front of the Rotary Club, and then eventually on very big stages with thousands of attendees. I use this skill everyday in my work life, every single day. Now, I feel comfortable talking in front of people and crowds, and know that when I’m up there, I have something valuable to say.

Thank you Dawn!