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Thursday, February 6, 2014

Business administration alumna Googles her way to doing good in the world

by Julie Catalano

When Nora Ziegenhagen pursued her first job after graduation she meant business. Not quite ready to follow in her parents’ entrepreneurial footsteps, she applied at PeaceWorks, Inc., a New York-based food company whose socially conscious mission was one that Ziegenhagen was determined to join, even though they were not hiring.  

In addition to submitting a poster board-sized resume, the eager young grad sent fortune cookies, one of which said, “Nora is going to be your star employee.”

The cookie spoke the truth. PeaceWorks founder, CEO, and Trinity alumnus Daniel Lubetzky ’90 hired her in July 2004 as a sales assistant and swiftly assigned her responsibility for New York City, the Northeast, and then the East Coast. Over the course of her two and a half years at the company, Ziegenhagen increased sales by more than 643 percent. “As a business major I wanted to do well, but I also wanted to do good in the world. I couldn’t imagine a better job that blended capitalism and altruism.”

Until one night, that is, when she was Googling around and ran into an ad by none other than the Internet behemoth itself, looking to hire people with a food background. “Google was traditionally known from an advertising perspective as a direct response company,” she explains, but they were now trying to “break branding dollars. Proctor & Gamble, Unilever, Heinz—some of the biggest brand spenders in the world are food companies.” In 2007 she became sales representative, CPG (consumer packaged goods) in Google’s business solutions division in New York City. 

Since then, Ziegenhagen hasn’t just climbed the corporate ladder—she’s practically flown up. Two promotions followed in fairly short order: account manager in direct sales, CPG, in 2009; and account director, direct sales, home and personal care, in 2010. 

Then came Stockholm, where she spent three months in Sweden in 2012 on a Google rotation program designed to “fill in the blanks when someone is on leave, and to give their people the opportunity to see other parts of the world.” For the Swiss-born-and-Cleveland-raised Ziegenhagen, it was love at first byte. “The people are so cool, and Scandinavia has some of the highest Internet penetration and smart phone adoption in the world. I had a great time.” As it turned out, there was a permanent job coming up in Copenhagen. Was she interested, her boss inquired? “I was,” she says with a smile. “I played a little hard to get, but I was interested.”

Bidding goodbye to New York in the spring of 2013, Ziegenhagen became head of branding solutions for the Nordics—her third promotion at Google. As difficult as it was to leave New York, she says her new Danish digs are “a huge upgrade. There is an absolutely exquisite canal with an architecture museum just a few steps away in one direction. In the other, there is a beautiful harbor with an opera house.” 

The transition from the company’s 3,000-employee NYC office to the cozy 35-person one in Copenhagen was a smooth one, thanks to Google’s consistency both physically and philosophically: “We have an open floor plan at every office worldwide. The idea is to promote conversation and collaboration that’s not possible if you’re behind closed doors.” The highly charged atmosphere of cutting-edge innovation keeps everyone “constantly challenged by the people around us. We hire people with an internal engine that pushes them. I know I’m in a good meeting if I feel like the dumbest person there.” As for the legendary Google perks—all true, she says with a laugh. “We get massages, lots of toys, and Segways in the office.” 

She credits her Trinity education with preparing her “to be comfortable being uncomfortable,” an essential skill in her current environment. Her educational trial by fire came courtesy of late professor and director of the Trinity debate program Frank Harrison, who shipped her off to a debate competition at the Naval Academy in her sophomore year. “I learned so much from that experience,” she says, “like faking confidence,” laughing again. Turning somber, she is also indebted to Don Van Eynde, professor of business administration, who shepherded her during some early bumpy times. “It meant a lot that he took the time to encourage me.” 

Traveling her territory keeps Ziegenhagen hopping from Denmark to Sweden to Finland with her ever-present little red suitcase, ready to go at a moment’s notice. “I tell new people that Google never stops. As fast as it is, this is the slowest the pace of change will ever be. You do your best, but you’ll never wrap your arms around the beast.” Yoga (“my number one workout”) keeps her centered with its axiom to “focus on your own mat. Don’t worry about what other people are doing or get distracted by what’s going on around you, like 87 million projects.” Some sage, Zen-like advice from a woman working on at least 86 million of them, and loving every warp speed minute of it.