“In my first meeting with the Stanford GSB Career Management Center, they asked me what my goal was, and I said I wanted to work ‘at a company.’ I knew that I wanted to move out of investing. I loved the strategic part of it, but I felt that something was missing. I wanted to roll up my sleeves and execute,” says Celina Johnson, MBA ’08.
She surely never dreamed where she’d eventually wind up: Johnson is now COO of San Mateo, California-based Man Crates, a company that sells gifts for men, enclosed in wooden crates that recipients have to open with a crowbar; gift cards come in concrete bricks that must be smashed. She’s having the time of her life.
Johnson, who’d been working in the private equity industry, realized that it was time for a change. “Other colleagues liked thinking and talking about markets and currencies. I liked thinking and talking about SKU productivity and management teams and operations initiatives,” she says. “I knew I wanted to do something that was going to be more hands-on.”
To try to figure out just what that something might be, Johnson headed for Stanford Graduate School of Business. While there, she kept an open mind. She acquired entirely new skills in entrepreneurship courses like Managing Growing Enterprises.
While she felt confident in her financial knowledge, people management was new to her. “A lot of people believe you’re born a good manager. But my time at Stanford convinced me that you really can teach people this stuff. I learned!” she says.
The course that shaped her view of people management was Interpersonal Dynamics, or, as it is better known, “Touchy Feely.” The class features small-group discussions in which participants practice giving and receiving personal feedback. Johnson credits it with teaching her how to be more open and vulnerable.
“Touchy Feely is central to my life, not just my career,” she adds. “I met my husband in my Touchy Feely class, and the lessons have become a common language for us.”
Test-Driving an Operations Role
After she graduated, Johnson’s first job “at a company” was with Orchard Supply Hardware, which then had 200 employees at headquarters and retail stores throughout Northern California. It gave her the perfect opportunity to get experience in a broad range of roles and understand the day-to-day operations of a growing retail company. After five years in store operations and then in merchandising, she left the Sears-owned chain in search of the “agency, impact, learning, and growth” to be found in a more entrepreneurial environment.
“If investing was a lot of strategy and not enough execution, Orchard was a lot of execution and not enough strategy,” she says. Johnson spent three months working on a business idea of her own before changing course.
“I learned that going from a blank piece of paper to a customer wasn’t for me. I wanted to join a company that already had product-market fit where my skills could be applied to improving the business,” she says. “Being entrepreneurial doesn’t mean you need to be the founder.”
With this idea in mind, she began consulting for small e-commerce companies in order to gain more exposure to the types of companies she might want to join. Meanwhile, she was getting a better grasp on her goals through her participation in a Stanford GSB Women’s Circle. One of the members of Johnson’s alumnae group recommended that she connect with Jonathan Beekman, MBA ’09, who had recently started Man Crates and was growing his team.
The two hit it off right away. “I was excited about the business potential and the culture. It was also great to be working with a fellow alum who believed in the same sort of management style that I did,” Johnson says.
Beekman was looking for a finance person, and Johnson took that role with the mutual understanding that she would expand into other areas of responsibility over time. Within six months, she had people in four other departments reporting to her. The two executives formalized Johnson’s new responsibilities by changing her title to COO, and she now manages 55 people across all the operational teams of the company.
“This is the most fun I’ve ever had in a job!” she says. “I’m never bored, and I think about something new and work on something new every single day. What I’ve learned on my journey is that there’s no good or bad; it’s all about fit.”
Photos by Emily Billings