AMA Marketing / And with Bennie F. Johnson

Unexpected career paths and exiting comfort zones

Episode Summary

Dr. Tracy A Khan, Assistant Professor of Marketing at the University of Wisconsin Whitewater, joins AMA’s Bennie F. Johnson to talk about her career journey and how she found her way to marketing, why we should all step out of our comfort zones, and the importance of giving back.

Episode Transcription

Episode: Unexpected career paths and exiting comfort zones

Dr. Tracy A Khan, Assistant Professor of Marketing at the University of Wisconsin Whitewater, joins AMA’s Bennie F. Johnson to talk about her career journey and how she found her way to marketing, why we should all step out of our comfort zones, and the importance of giving back.



Bennie F Johnson (00:37.466)

Hello, and thank you for joining us for this episode of AMA's Marketing Anne. I'm your host, AMA CEO, Benny F. Johnson. In today's episode, we'll explore life through the lens of marketing, delving into conversations with individuals that flourish at this intersection of marketing life and the unexpected. We're going to introduce you through our podcast to visionaries whose stories you might not have heard but are exactly the ones you need to know. Through our thought-provoking conversations, we're gonna unravel the challenges, triumphs, and pivotal moments that have been often shaped by marketing. Today, I'm really excited to introduce you to our guest, Dr. Tracy Kahn. Tracy is an assistant professor of marketing at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, where she teaches principles of selling and social media marketing and analytics.


Tracy describes herself as naturally curious. She believes in the importance of scholarship and asking the big questions. She believes that her research should have applications for positive societal impact, specifically focusing on sustainability and behavior of change. Her outlook as an academician is focused on the importance of possessing a growth mindset.


Originally hailing from Southern California, she's an avid traveler and has lived all over the United States and abroad and received her PhD from the University of Rhode Island. Tracy, welcome to Marketing End.


Tracy Khan (02:18.158)

Wow, thank you, thank you. I'm so happy to be here and I appreciate this opportunity.


Bennie (02:23.142)

Well, it's really exciting to have you here to talk about, you know, life and marketing from the perspective of a young professor. So just a little bit, you know, you're growing up in California, so are you gonna tell me when you were 10, did you decide that you were gonna be a professor of marketing? How did this journey really begin? Right.



Absolutely not. Oh no, absolutely not. When I was 10, I don't even, I thought I was gonna be a lawyer actually. I thought I was gonna be a lawyer. I thought I was gonna be on the pre-law track. I thought when I started college, I would do law. And I kind of backed up into this profession really just through a love and a search for things that would...


Bennie (02:49.554)



Tracy (03:08.726)

That interests me and catalyzed me to action and to learn more about a variety of things. So when I was in Southern California, I did not foresee myself living in Wisconsin, right? At the age of 35, I definitely saw myself living in a bunch of different places, but if you had told me the Midwest, I probably wouldn't have believed you. And so it's been a wonderful journey and it really,


Bennie (03:22.098)



Tracy (03:36.654)

Started as an undergrad. So when I was an undergrad, I was studying global business and I had studied abroad and I lived in Spain for a little bit and I was traveling and I had a bunch of wonderful experiences and when I came back, I became really, I was talking to a professor and at the time, California, and still California was experiencing a lot of droughts. Right?


Bennie (04:01.316)



Tracy (04:03.062)

And I couldn't wrap my head around this idea that we were at that time, we were pumping water from the Colorado River and using it five times before it was put back into the Colorado. And this was just Colorado River. And this was just in California. And I couldn't believe how we as a society, especially in Los Angeles, we're using somebody else's water when we were surrounded by ocean. Right. And this really started a love and a search for understanding, well, what is environmental science? How does it work? And how can we really focus on sustainability? And then I, from living in Spain, I decided I wanted to do something different and I had some family in New York City. And so I just picked up my life and decided I was going to do like a Carrie Bradshaw type thing and moved to New York City. And I worked in fashion for a little bit.


Bennie (04:54.447)

Uh huh, right.


Tracy (04:59.334)

And then after I worked in fashion, I was applying for jobs because the fashion industry, I also thought that there was, I found that people's behavior really intrigued me. Why is it that people are willing to spend $5,000 on shoes or $3,000 on shoes when they couldn't afford to eat lunch? Or why would they sacrifice lunch for these shoes, right? Like what is it that makes us behave in this way? And so I...I really just became really interested in consumer behavior and buyer behavior. And at that time, I started to apply for jobs in different industries and I applied to the tech industry and I got a job. And so like, I just picked up my life and moved to Arizona, never even seen Arizona, had never been east of the outskirts of like California, basically I'd been to Vegas a couple of times, but never been to Arizona.


Bennie (05:42.174)



Tracy (05:57.95)

And I started building advertising programs for small, midsize companies. And I did a lot of business development there. And I learned a lot about how companies work, but I also learned how to build comprehensive and important and impactful digital marketing campaigns and programs. And then I decided I was interested in all this data that we were collecting. And so then I got my MBA in data analytics. And then while I was there, I had a mentor and my mentor was actually a part of the PhD project and I had taught one of his classes while I was covering for him on vacation. And he said, when he came back, I heard that you rocked it. Have you ever thought about becoming a professor? And I said, no, I'm just really interested in the data. I just want to do my research and call it a day. And he's like, that's what it is to be a professor. And I had no idea. Up until that point, I had never thought about that. I didn't think that this was...


Bennie (06:43.727)



Tracy (06:55.006)

An option or a career path for me. And he told me to apply to the PhD project. I applied, I got in, and I went to their seminar where I learned a lot about what it means to be a professor. And then I applied to a few programs, and then I got into the University of Rhode Island, and the rest is history.


Bennie (07:15.23)

Well, it's really powerful when we think about those moments in our lives, those inflection points in which mentorship matters. And it can be something as simple as you said, as a professor that you're working with, seeing something in you that you can't see yourself. And so I'm curious, even in this kind of journey, the PhD project, and we've been partnered with them for many years, is an incredible program with the goal of increasing representation in marketing and business professors and in the profession. But I'm curious to your thoughts coming in, going into an MBA in analytics as a woman of color. Talk a bit about that experience even getting started. It's a rare space to have a woman of color doing an MBA in marketing analytics in the tech sector.


Tracy (08:08.454)

It was definitely an experience. Whenever I looked around, there was nobody that looked like me. And I think part of the reason why I was so touched and my life changed was because of this mentorship from my professor. And he saw something in me. But if it wasn't for him encouraging me and telling me, hey, like, you already have the analytical skills, but there's not a lot of people who have your insight. You've lived all over the world, you speak multiple languages. This is something that we don't have. Don't you notice when you're in the class, nobody looks like you. And I always was like, well, nobody ever looks like me. Like I'm always the only, you know? And so I really hadn't thought that it would make a difference, but as I've seen, my progress as a person and I go and take up space in these different spaces, I see the diversity in my ideas. I see the diversity in my opinions and I see the pause that's given when they're actually acknowledged. And I think that I didn't quite realize the power that I could have because I had just for so long been


Bennie (09:04.647)



Tracy (09:28.778)

You know, I wasn't really that vocal and I didn't realize the power that I could have had. And so getting this MBA, I was definitely, I was not one of the only women, but I was definitely one of the only Hispanic, I was the only Hispanic woman for sure. And a lot of my, you know, I give credit to my professors because I did, my professors were really open to me having individual relations with them as a person. So my econometrics, okay, there we go. My econometrics professor took a liking to me. My business analytics professor took a liking to me. And so I was able to get the mentorship that I really needed to help push me into the right direction of grasping the material, right? And I think a lot of...women of color specifically don't join these or participate in these majors because they think they can't do it. And it's not, and I wouldn't say I'm particularly analytically inclined, I just kept pushing and pushing and pushing. And as women of color, we tend to have, we tend to be very resilient people. And if we just give ourselves the opportunity, we will get through to the other side.


I think this is, it was one of those instances where I just kept pushing and pushing and no matter how much pushback I got, I just kept pushing through it and pushing through it.


Bennie (11:00.734)

Very high pushing, right? So when we think about life as a continuum, you're now the professor, right? So how have your conversations changed when you look at the students from an undergrad or graduate level who are transitioning on the same path with you? How are your conversations now?


Tracy (11:05.261)





Tracy (11:20.139)

I push all of them, especially the women. I was just talking the other day, I asked everybody in my class to raise their hand how many of you invest in stocks? How many of you know what's going on with ETFs and how many of you participate in finance or know anything about financial literacy? And in a class of 35, 40, two gentlemen raised their hands. And I said, girls, like, what is going on? Like, what are you doing? And they were just like, one of them just was like, I just don't like numbers. And I was like, but numbers when they add up, like that's how you get the money. Like that's how much you know how much money you have. I'm like, you don't necessarily need to be, I'm like, I'm not telling you to do high level statistics. I'm telling you to add the numbers. I know you can add. I know that I was like, if you.


But if you buy things, you make an assessment as to the quality of the item, how long it's gonna last, if it's worth the price. You're doing the same exact thing, but with companies. How is that different? And a few of them stopped and paused and were like, you're right, it's not that different. I was like, it's kind of like buying clothes, but these clothes are gonna appreciate, right? Well, most of them, you would hope, right? I talked to, specifically my students of color, I pushed them to go outside of their comfort zone. I push them into tech if I can. I try to, I have them participate in sales, sales competitions. We have a very strong AMA chapter at our university. So I push as many of them as possible to participate in AMA and sales, to be able to network and get these, get these soft skills that I think a lot of us weren't able to develop.


And so from the professor side of things, we really just, I talk about artificial intelligence, I talk about how social media is changing and impacting us, I talk about our privacy, our data, how that impacts them. So I try to keep it lively and to their credit are very engaged.


Tracy (13:41.543)

And excited to talk and discuss.


Bennie (13:41.838)

You know, one of the things that I always find when we're talking about the future, it's important to talk about the future and see yourself in it, right? In the space in there, the topics that you're bringing in are bringing students from where they are today to you have an active role in this future. Whether it's topics that are outside of your space, you have an active role there. You know, and we talk about that mentorship or that example of encouragement. One of the things I did wanna call out is,


Tracy (13:51.182)



Tracy (14:00.149)



Bennie (14:11.47)

You were also the recipient of the Valuing Diversity PhD scholarship from the PhD program, which we talk about having a mentor assist you, but there's also very real conversations about financial and celebratory pushes that drive us forward as well.


Tracy Khan (14:31.342)

Absolutely. So the Valuing PhD Scholarship, I actually also got from AMA and then, which thank you for that, by the way, but it largely was focused on this idea. So I went to this school and there was not, it was a PWI, which is fine.


But when I, I was struggling when I was in my PhD program and anybody that's in a PhD program has struggles and they can range from academia to interpersonal relationships, to relationships with your advisors or your professors. Right? And when I signed up or I tried to get counseling, one of the women in the counseling center told me,


Bennie (15:08.092)



Tracy Khan (15:18.73)

I told her the struggles that I was facing and she told me that, well, it sounds like you should find somebody in your own community. She said that to me. And I took a moment and I realized that the woman that I was talking to after I had just poured out my heart and soul could not differentiate herself or could not see.


Bennie (15:27.079)



Bennie (15:42.77)



Tracy (15:46.034)

Because I was not suicidal, right? Because I didn't have these overarching, like I didn't have like a eating problem or what. I didn't have these like quote unquote serious issues. She felt that I should find somebody within my own community. And I told her, this is my community.


what makes you think that it's not? And I very quickly asked for a new therapist. But then I had a conversation with the head of counseling about this is kind of a really crazy experience to be having to somebody to sign up for help and then this is the response that they receive. So I wrote a grant and...


I submitted it to the College of Business and it was about bringing a healing circle specifically for women of color to the university. And it was just a space where we could, and we got together and I wrote a grant and I found somebody, it's called Glowtree Circle and Glowtree Assembly, I think it's called. And the facilitator really just brings topics of self-love and self-worth and struggles and brings it into this space with women of color who can talk freely about their experiences, right? So I had this experience, but then I wanted to figure out, well, if I'm having this experience, but I'm an educated person, right? And I have the wherewithal and I have enough age to know that I can respond to this feedback in a positive way, right? I can make change. So what I did is I wrote this grant and I got money and I brought it to the school and...we were able to have this healing circle. And this is essentially the things that I, I'm really passionate about is how can we have these conversations? Sometimes they're not gonna be always welcomed, but that doesn't mean that they don't exist. And that doesn't mean that they cannot be acknowledged. And that doesn't mean that we as a society cannot learn from them and move forward, right? So,


Tracy (17:54.946)

The Valuing PhD Diversity Scholarship was given to me because I participated in and wrote this grant for our students and for our school community, but also because I was actively engaged in working with nonprofits to focus on issues such as domestic terrorism. So it's, you know, I'm really grateful to be recognized, but I'm glad that there is something out there that promotes this type of engagement. right, and scholarly research and just action within our communities.


Bennie (18:31.966)

It's really powerful in how you've kind of blended and taken agency and blending the scholarship, the work, and your life together, like finding solutions and answers and healing in those connections. Because when you start it off, we often see folks who have their PhD as this kind of finished final product, right? But we don't really talk about or celebrate or support all of the kind of work, growth, and struggle that goes to getting there.


Tracy (18:52.5)



Bennie (19:01.042)

And without the apparatus of support that goes around it, going into a space in which there are very few people in general who are getting PhDs in marketing or business science, let alone people within communities of color going down that route. It's really, really powerful. So I'm going to pivot a little bit, because we talked about things that you're passionate about. And I know you're passionate about exploring big ideas.


And in particular, how consumer behavior and consumption can play a part in promoting more healthier, more sustainable and more equitable lives. Like when you think about that, this is like the heart of what's becoming your emerging research. Share a bit more about that.


Tracy (19:52.622)

So I, like I said, I'm from California, and we're constantly running out of water. You cannot use the dishwasher at certain times. You cannot use the, you can't water your lawn. I mean, it's just, there's a variety of different issues that we are plagued with. And then when I lived in Arizona, the same thing as well. And I kept on...


Bennie (19:59.164)



Tracy (20:14.382)

Hearing the same type of marketing messages, right? And we as a society are hearing the same type of marketing messages, right? We're gonna run out of water by 2050, I think that was like one of the things I had read, one of the articles that I said, Mexico City is running it, they're sucking all the water out of the ground table. Right, so all of these different issues that we're, you know, the, the probability of more climactic, negative climactic events are only going to continue. And all of the messaging that we're hearing and that we have been hearing is largely negatively focused, right? It's largely fear-based. And the problem with that is, is that it usually creates apathy within people. It creates disassociation. It creates eco-anxiety, right? And


Bennie (20:57.041)



Bennie (21:02.13)



Tracy (21:03.506)

What we've seen and what the research has seen is that educational appeals over time are really not as effective. So I thought, okay, if what we're saying to people isn't resonating, how can we go about using marketing to change the way people consume? And why does it have to be this, you know, fear-based appeals that is constantly a message to us? There has to be a better way. And so my research, is really about focusing on how we can use specifically fun to appeal and the idea of fun, to appeal to people to behave, right? And change their behavior to focus on more sustainable consumption or more eco-friendly shopping behavior over time. And so what we're essentially researching is this idea of being able to you know, how effective are these appeals and can they create change in the long term and towards our behavior? And so I'm in the midst of that research right now.


Bennie (22:10.938)

Wow, really interesting and intriguing. As we kind of look long-term as to how marketing plays can play a more productive space, we also see marketing being vilified as the driver of the negative actions. But what can we do as marketers in our marketing community to hold ourselves to a higher standard of having marketing drive positive outcomes? When, yeah. Oh.


Tracy (22:37.134)

I think it has a lot to do with intent. So as I mentioned, I partnered with this nonprofit and the partnership with the nonprofit, also partnered with the Department of Homeland Security and we were given money to create social media marketing campaigns focused on domestic terrorism. And so we were currently in another crisis in the United States. We have an issue with mass shootings.


Bennie (22:39.057)

Go ahead. Yeah.


Bennie (22:57.062)



Tracy (23:05.014)

We are having an issue with safety in public spaces. Why is that? So yes, we know that social media use has been linked to negative amounts of mental health. And we know that there's a body dysmorphia that comes into play when preteens are on social media for too long. But I think when you focus your intent and you try to channel your your intent towards positive things, I think you can have positive outcomes. So my students, they decided to focus on two topics and there was white supremacy and women seeking abortion violence, women seeking healthcare, so abortion violence. And so we basically built these websites and they created these social media campaigns focused on stopping and how to raise awareness around people, right? So that way they wouldn't get pushed to this point of committing acts of violence. And as I mentioned, my university was a PWI. So how is it, you know, that we can get people to have empathy for things that doesn't necessarily impact them? And so over the course of the semester, the students really had to do a lot of research and read these psychological profiles of

these lone wolf terrorists and people who commit these acts of violence and what they learned is that it's not just about Them but it does impact them, right? So it taught them a lot about empathy It taught them a lot about digital advocacy and what we found is that them creating these social media campaigns Impacted their willingness to participate and speak up for others. It it positively impacted


Bennie (24:48.658)



Tracy (24:52.442)

Their belief in being able to make positive change within their communities, right? And what it also did was it gave them the ability to realize that even though this was a grassroots movement, grassroots movements can take hold and they can change and they can empower people. And so, as marketers, we have the power to change what we want and it has a lot to...

we have the power to change society and it has a lot to do with the way that we go about messaging, right? And empowering our students. And so a lot of my research is focused on using social media, on using marketing for good, but it's from the intent. How is it that we can stop people from committing these acts of violence? How is it that we can get people to change the way they consume and change their behavior?


And I think if we focus purely on the intent, I think that that's a really great starting point.


Bennie (25:57.954)

Definitely agreed. So speaking of starting points, we've talked a lot about the power of marketing and your journey and the power of intention. I'd love to talk a little bit about what advice or what insights do you have on the best and better practices that organizations and teams can use to diversify their marketing teams? I know listening to this conversation, there are tons of students.


Tracy (26:21.18)

Oh, the...


Bennie (26:26.146)

And professionals of color who are interested in becoming a part of a marketing team or an organization but haven't found a way to have an on-ramp. How do we advise organizations to implement and create more inclusive and diverse marketing teams?


Tracy (26:43.222)

So that's a great question. And that's something that I've thought about a lot. And according to a study from the Alliance of Inclusive and Multicultural Marketing, they did a survey of 20,000 marketing people. And I think it was 81 companies. And what they found was that the makeup of marketing teams, 7.2% were African-Americans, 10.2% were Asians, and the 10.9% were Latinos.


So, and those are the ones that were a part of this organization. So that doesn't fully encompass all of the marketing teams out there, but 75% of those marketing teams were actually predominantly white. And I think that instead of talking about whether or not we should change our, the way that we hire, I think we should just do it, right? So how do you go about fostering and recruiting diversity?


You should start by collaborating and collaborating with diverse stakeholders. When I was pushing people to hire therapists of color for the university, I was told that, oh, they weren't there. They don't exist. They're not interested in working here. It's about putting yourself in spaces. So are you going to join Latino communities or marketing communities and get people from there? Or how is it that you're going to go about facilitating this? And I think one of the big issues is you need to have inclusive imagery. You need to have inclusive words. You need to celebrate diversity. But behind the scenes, you need to be an advocate. And the people that have pushed me forward most in my life were some of them were people of color and some of them were not. But what they were, were they were my advocates when the doors were closed. And I think that, you know, it goes hand in hand. Yes, you can hire, make a commitment to hire people of color, but not only do you need to hire people of color, you need to make a commitment to mentor them, to have their back when the doors are closed, to facilitate these relationships and to offer those soft skills and that mentoring.


Tracy (29:02.626)

That some of these people might need, right? In order for us to change, to create change, we just have to make a commitment. If, you know, the current, according to the US census, 13.6% of our population is African-American, 19% is Hispanic, 6% is Asian, 1% is Native American. So you should take those numbers.


Right, and literally, okay, so the next five people need to be two Hispanic people, one African American, you know, whatever it might be, right, to fill in what that might be. And the reason is, is because those diversity of perspectives will phenomenally improve your marketing messages, because right now, often they don't resonate with everybody, right?


Bennie (29:53.49)

Right. We really talk about this as diversity, not just in identity and talent, but diversity and ideas and approaches really is a recipe for market-driven success. Really, it's facing in there. One of the things I loved is when we first started talking and welcomed you to the podcast, you talked a lot about how this was important for you to give back. And in our conversation and hearing about your journey,


Tracy (30:07.62)



Tracy (30:18.446)



Bennie (30:21.986)

You're kind of a representative of what it means to kind of grow and thrive in unexpected ways in marketing. I'd love to ask in this moment, we're gonna this podcast is going to come out in the giving season, right? And we're aiming to have this out on Giving Tuesday. One of the things that we've been doing is trying to encourage the support of efforts that we do at the AMA Foundation around supporting scholarships and resources to give back. Talk a little bit about just


What do you see as important is giving back as a scholar, as a marketer, as an academician, who's really focused on the future.


Tracy (31:01.786)

I, you know, we always hear different places and organizations that we can give back to. And we have a limited amount of money and time and resources, right? But the reason why I was so excited about this opportunity to talk with you guys is because I'm really proud of AMA and how they go about making a tangible difference. I see it specifically in not only in the scholarships that you give and in the free entrance that you give us to the marketing, to the PhD project members, but also through my students, right? So we have an AMA sales chapter, we have an AMA digital chapter, we have all of these different AMA chapters within our university, and the skills that my students leave with, they are so much more equipped in the future to have presentation skills, sales skills, digital marketing skills, all of these things that they wouldn't ordinarily have. And so, I think that when you give and you have this opportunity to give time, money, or energy to an organization, you wanna see is there a tangible, what is the tangible benefit to society? And I think that... AMA specifically with our young people, specifically in fostering diversity and inclusiveness. I think they do a wonderful job. And so it has it has improved my life and it will improve it will continue to improve the lives of my students as well as myself and into the future. And so you know give what you can every little bit counts.


Bennie (32:46.274)

And I think that's a great note to end our conversation. Dr. Tracy, appreciate you, your energy, your insight, and the work you continue to do. Thank you for being curious, for being inclusive, and for being bold. We appreciate you being here and joining me as my guest today for this inspiring conversation on AMA's Marketing and Podcasts. To find out more information about how you can support the AMA foundation, and the scholarships we reference, please visit us at And we encourage you to continue to join and listen to us to our marketing and podcasts as we look at the interventions, the ideas, the nexus of how marketing shapes the world. Thank you.


Tracy (33:33.378)

Thank you for having me.