New Alumni Director: Times Have Changed, and We Must, Too
Renee Hirschberg wants to hear what alumni need now, and how Stanford GSB can help.
Renee Hirschberg joins Stanford GSB in November. | Rob Strong
It may sound counterintuitive, says Renee Hirschberg, but turning a motorcycle into a giant stiletto heel — as her team once did to promote the shoe department at a major retail chain — isn’t that different from what alumni relations professionals do. “The goal is similar,” she notes, “which is to help your customers imagine your product as a part of their lives.”
Hirschberg, who is joining Stanford GSB as senior director of alumni relations, has had two careers. She spent more than a decade in experiential marketing, working with companies like T.J. Maxx and Wrigley’s before moving into higher education. Since 2017, she has been director of alumni engagement and advancement operations at Dartmouth’s Tuck School of Business. Prior to that, Hirschberg was senior associate director of alumni relations at the MIT Sloan School of Management.
She arrives at Stanford following a nearly two-year search, delayed in part by the coronavirus. A lot has changed in that time, and part of her job, she says, will be to evaluate how the pandemic and larger societal trends should inform how Stanford GSB engages with its alumni. “I want to look at what we’re doing and what we’re not doing, what is bringing people to us, and who have we lost, and why.”
Raised in Dunedin, Florida, Hirschberg received a bachelor’s degree in English and creative writing from Florida State University and a master’s degree in higher education administration from Boston University. She begins her new job on November 15.
What attracted you to Stanford GSB?
I find it incredibly exciting to work with an institution that is on the cutting edge of changing the world. It’s an electric atmosphere. And the people are incredible. They are very collaborative and doing the unimaginable, yet so down to earth.
What should we know about you that doesn’t show up on the resume?
I am passionate about food. I’ve been cooking since I was eight years old. I’m German — with family on my dad’s side having lived for many years in Israel — and food has always been a big part of my family. Literally, when I’m having breakfast with my family somebody is asking what the plan is for lunch.
You operate a food Instagram account that once had more than 10,000 followers. What was the origin of that?
When I moved from marketing into higher education, social media and my food blog became a way for me to stay connected to my creativity. I’ve always prided myself, even before the Internet came along, on finding restaurants that are hidden gems, and sharing them with people. I can’t wait to find some new places in the Bay Area!
Before you moved into higher education, you did a lot of promotional work for consumer product companies. What motivated the switch?
I was the national staffing director for Ogilvy and Mather in 2008 when the world changed dramatically. I had a moment to pause and say, “Is this what I want to do with my life?” A friend of mine was working at Boston University in its executive MBA program and told me about a job opening. It was a lower-level position, but it was a great opportunity for me to pivot and learn the industry.
What are some lessons from the pandemic that apply to alumni relations?
It would be tragic to go back to doing things exactly the way they were done two years ago. I cannot wait to dive into all the data and see what the engagement numbers look like now that things have been virtual for two years. What are the wins, what are the losses, and what can we learn from them? For example, at Tuck a large percentage of the people who attended programs in the last two years had never attended a program before, so continuing to offer things virtually can be a great way to bring previously unengaged alumni back to the school.
At a practical level, what have alumni been saying they need over the past two years?
What I have heard most often is interest in career support, but even that has evolved. When everyone was in quarantine and some alumni businesses were failing, a small business directory was one of the things they needed the most to support each other. When layoffs started happening it wasn’t only career coaching but also resources to help with the feelings of loneliness and feeling disconnected from the world. It has been an opportunity to bring people together virtually and create close-knit groups.
What is the appetite for in-person events?
We don’t know yet and that’s part of the challenge. When planning events right now, you must try to gauge not only people’s comfort with in-person interaction, but whether they are willing to travel, whether they want to be inside a building with large groups of people. Different factions have completely different viewpoints. There is no formula to follow, which will make it important to have data to back up the decisions that are made. Until we have that data, we must be clear that we are experimenting.
How have technology tools and the proliferation of social media affected alumni relations programming?
Historically, alumni relations have been structured around regional lines, which made it possible for people to get together without a lot of travel or expense. That model has been completely disrupted. Participation now doesn’t have to be based on geography, and that opens up many more possibilities. Will programming in the future be based around industries, or interest groups, or something else? We don’t know yet, but we have the ability and tools now to try new things.
Are there particular challenges going forward that will require a different approach?
One of the most common conversations in the alumni relations field is about how to engage alumni who are in different points of the lifecycle. Retired alumni have very different needs than newly graduated alumni. When alumni are raising kids and don’t have as much time to volunteer or attend events, how do you make sure that you’re giving them something relevant to keep them connected and supported? Finding different ways to engage and support our alumni in every stage of the lifecycle is very important to me.
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