What CIA Taught Kayla Murdock ’22 About Leadership, and How it Helped Her Earn a Promotion
In the early days of the pandemic, Kayla Murdock ’22 decided it was time to do something about her longstanding interest in graduate school. An assistant manager at Whole Foods, she was well-acquainted with the dynamic world of retail and wanted to give herself the tools she needed to move her career forward. Her journey began with a simple Google search; it ended with an MPS from the Culinary Institute of America’s prestigious master’s in Food Business program.
Like many of her classmates, Kayla elected to pursue her graduate studies at CIA because it offered something unique in the MPS world: a highly tailored focus on the food industry. With COVID-19 raging and her schedule brimming with extra time, CIA’s sterling reputation and the program’s alignment with her own interests were enough to convince her. “I had heard great things about CIA and just decided to take a chance on it,” she says. “I ended up having a great experience.”
Mastering Key Food Industry Principles
Food Business students choose one of two program tracks in their second year of study: the Restaurant/Foodservice Track or the Food Product/Concept Track. Kayla sprung for the Food Product route, building on the knowledge and skills she’d already developed in the grocery industry. Her favorite class was Manufacturing, Co-Packing, Supply Chain, and Legal Contracts, in which students explore the complex systems that bring food to their table.
“I loved Professor [Helene] York’s teaching style, and had a lot of fun playing supply chain detective during the case study assignments,” she recalls. “We are still experiencing a lot of supply chain disruptions in the grocery industry, and I draw on the lessons from this class to understand which links in the chain are still broken/breaking in the wake of the pandemic.”
In her current role at Whole Foods, Kayla routinely draws on the lessons she learned in classes like Differentiation, Branding and Packaging and Sales, Marketing and Distribution, in which students deconstruct what it takes to create a memorable food brand. “I can now critically evaluate a CPG product, deducing its target audience and the problem/friction point it aims to address,” she says. “This helps me to evaluate which products are most likely to succeed in my particular community, and informs the way I merchandise and position different products.”
As the manager of a 20-person team with responsibility over hiring and retention, Kayla frequently returns to the skills she developed in her Ethical Leadership course. These are especially important in a chaotic labor marketplace, where company leaders face an increasing challenge to make the workplace worth coming to. “I draw on our Ethical Leadership course often and try to make sure that I am giving each of my people individualized attention and coaching,” she explains. “I also try to strengthen our team by creating frequent collaboration opportunities; I believe that we become a stronger team and more fulfilled as individuals when we accomplish goals together.”
Turning Ideas into Reality
In their capstone seminar Food Business Playbook, students apply the totality of their studies to the development of a food product or venture. Through field work, market research, customer interviews, and even test runs of product or menu offerings, they develop a high-quality business plan that exhibits mastery of their chosen domain. This is much more than a final project: for some students, it’s the springboard to the next phase of their food industry career.
For her capstone project, Kayla devised a CPG brand called “Pick Mix,” which she describes as “a line of low-carb, low-calorie snack mixes made from freeze dried garden vegetables.” With flavors like “Burrito Bowl” and “Pizza Party,” the brand employed bright and colorful graphics against a black background, offering a delightful experience to snackers of all ages.
“As an avid snacker myself, I always felt that the ‘salty snack’ category was short on low-carb options; almost everything is made from corn, grains, or tubers,” she says. “I thought that Pick Mix could appeal to young children, college students, and adults who are health-conscious but still enjoy a snack with entertainment value!”
Taking the Reins of Your Food Business Education
Kayla has little doubt that the Culinary Institute of America’s master’s in Food Business program helped advance her career. In fact, she knows for a fact that it very literally took her to the next level. “Toward the end of our program, I secured a promotion from the assistant manager to manager level,” she says. “I was able to draw on several program teachings during my interview and am confident that my enrollment and performance in the program helped to differentiate me from the field of competition.” With one year as a manager under her belt, she’s planning to apply for her next promotion in early 2024.
For culinary industry professionals looking for the next stage in their own journey, Kayla stresses that CIA offers a relevant and adaptable program no matter your experience. “Our cohort was diverse in perspectives and professional backgrounds,” she says, noting that she was the only student in her cohort from the grocery industry. “CIA has done a great job of making the master’s in Food Business applicable to a wide range of fields within the wide world of food; each of my classmates was able to interpret the material differently based on their experience and their professional goals.”
She recommends approaching the program with an enthusiasm for taking initiative and self-directing their own studies. “There are infinite ways to tailor this program based on your personal and professional objectives,” she said. As students figure out how to harness the curriculum toward their own goals, she encouraged them to maintain active discussions with classmates and faculty. “It is a very collaborative environment, and everyone will add something of value to your learning.”