Alumna Featured in Fabulous Arizona Magazine

Sarah Merkle, ’09 MA-HRIR, was featured in a recent issue of Fabulous Arizona magazine.

Fabulous People: Sarah Merkle

Sarah Merkle is an author, health coach, yoga teacher, and motivational speaker on a mission to transform lives. She is the owner and founder of Zen4, a company that helps organizations achieve their full growth potential by providing Connected Employee Solutions. Learn more about Sarah Merkle…


Photo by Fabulous Arizona

Hometown: Phoenix, Arizona

First job: I was a summer lifeguard at a city pool. I loved being outside near the glistening water and took pride in keeping my patrons safe while they enjoyed their fun in the sun!

Favorite AZ restaurant: PINO – located in Scottsdale, they have high-quality ingredients, and delicious, homemade, artisan Italian creations. The staff is friendly and they treat us like family the moment we walk in the door!

Person who has impacted your life the most: My parents. They have shown me so much love and support over the years, always encouraging me to try new things, be kind to others, and most importantly to love myself.

Your biggest accomplishment in your eyes: Launching Zen4. The final 4 years of my corporate career were spent entertaining the idea of starting my own business. I was passionate about my career path but continued to feel a tug to create something of my own. After identifying the opportunity to blend both passion and expertise, I felt confident enough to finally take the leap of faith and start my Zen4 journey.

Read the full article here.

Alumna Featured in Workforce Magazine

Alex (Crump) Smith, ’05 MA-HRIR and a current member of the CHRLS Alumni Association Board of Directors, was featured in the January/February 2019 issue of Workforce magazine.


Paper Trails to the Cloud
by Sarah Fister Gale

alex smith

When Alex Smith was hired as the chief human resources officer for the city of Memphis in 2016, she had never previously held a public sector job — one of the reasons she was selected.

City leaders wanted to bring fresh eyes to the team to address the ongoing problem of how to attract and retain the best talent to city jobs. Smith found that many of the city’s human resources processes were still paper-based and data was stored in siloed databases, which added time and confusion to hiring and talent management.

“I knew we needed to automate some of these processes,” said Smith, who previously held private-sector HR jobs with Brightstar Corp. and Target Corp. One of her first suggestions was to implement a cloud-based HR technology system that would streamline hiring and better manage candidates and employee data. After some negotiating, the chief information officer and head of finance agreed, and they adopted a cloud-based human capital management system from workplace software giant Oracle.

“It was a huge win,” Smith said.

Read the full story here.





Advice Helped Launch a Successful Global Career for Alumnus

Michael Steege graduated from the University of Minnesota’s MA-IR program in 1974. He has had a very successful and impactful career in human resources. Below, Michael shares his experiences from over the years and offers future graduates some inspiration as they begin their own careers.

“Take what you have learned here in our MA-IR program and share it with others wherever you decide to start your career outside of the Minneapolis market!  You have an opportunity to experience something not many of our students have had before you!”

Since I wanted to stay in Minneapolis that was some tough advice from one of my professors. But it was the best advice I have ever gotten. When I graduated in 1974, Minnesota was one of a small number of universities that were offering an MA-IR degree. I was attracted to this field of study and career because I wanted to better understand and try to improve the employee management practices utilized by companies throughout their organizations.

Cropped1 Michael SteegeI did leave Minneapolis and went to work for Exxon in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. I was very quickly immersed in employee relations, compensation, recruiting, and employee development issues. I strongly believe because of my MA-IR training and experiences I was able to make a difference from the outset. This experience was a foundation that I would build off of for the rest of my career.

I always wanted to prove to my engineering colleagues that HR could contribute to adding value to the business. The best way to contribute was to know what was going on in the business. I quickly built a wide network of employee contacts at all levels of the business to improve communication flow in the organization. What really impressed them was when I actually worked one week of night shifts in the plant while doing my day job as well. I wanted to understand what employees did and this was an excellent way to build credibility and trust with my new colleagues. After four more developmental roles at ever increasing levels of responsibility my international career was about to begin.

I could have never imagined that I would spend 35 years living and working overseas in international/global HR positions. I have traveled to and worked in over 40 countries around the world. Throughout this amazing journey I have been based in Brussels, Belgium.

What an experience to have worked closely with employees and managers around the world and to have been exposed to their different cultures, languages, customs and differing work practices.  The challenge to develop HR strategies, programs and policies to manage this global diversity was exciting and very demanding. Trying to build one global culture for the business while considering each country’s social legislation, national labor agreements, tax structures and business models was a real opportunity to demonstrate that HR could add value to the business.

Living in the heart of Europe all these years enabled me to participate from a closer vantage point in the global business growth that has evolved over the past 25-30 years.  After the “Iron Curtain” came down at the end of 1989 I was part of a management team with a new company, Vesuvius International. In the early 1990’s we were invited by several Eastern European governments to select sites in their countries to build new manufacturing plants that would help them improve their steel making technologies. I was responsible for developing HR programs and policies to be utilized to manage their workforces in “Western style management” techniques. It worked and today several of the best managed and most innovative plants we had are these sites.

A few years later we were doing the same exercise in an economic development park outside of Shanghai, China; introducing new HR programs and policies modified for the local practices to manage our new employees in China and adding value to the business.

We followed a very similar process in India, Brazil, South Africa and Australia to build successful and high performing operations that were managed with progressive and innovative HR programs and policies. Besides organic growth of the business I was also involved in over 20 acquisitions around the world. Integrating all the newly acquired employees and business operations into a new owners’ culture and practices required world class HR professionals to ensure a smooth transition.

I was also the lead to ensure our company negotiated a new European Works Council Agreement that included the union representatives from 20 countries and 15 simultaneous translators.

The most rewarding experiences have been to build high performing HR organizations and teams around the globe. These HR professionals have contributed quantifiable results to the bottom line of the business. In today’s world HR needs to demonstrate how we can reduce costs of operations, be more efficient, and use technologies to improve the delivery of our services to our customers.

You can make a difference! When you select your employer, try to identify market leaders who have growth plans and have innovative programs. When you are working, build an extensive employee network to help keep you informed about the pulse of the organization. Get invited to sales, finance, and operations meetings to see how they operate and how they perform their jobs. You have to understand the “business of the business” to enhance your credibility and develop targeted solutions to their problems or their growth plans.

As you grow professionally realize there are three levels of HR to operate at: strategic, operational, and individual, and focus your skill set development at all three levels. Lastly, set your goals high and perform the 3 C’s, as I refer to them:

Courage – to be different, take some risks and encourage continuous improvement and change to what HR delivers.

Champion – be the advocate and change agent to get the improvements and changes you have identified implemented in the business and for your employees.

Committed – You have to believe that your HR skills and experiences will make a difference.  Change is hard; there will always be resistance but keep pushing!  Support building the high performing company you want to be a part of during your career.

For all of you who have chosen this professional career path, it’s your opportunity and challenge to carry on the U of M tradition, and make a difference to the careers and businesses you support each day.

I really have been honored to share these highlights of what I have experienced and been a part of since leaving Minneapolis 45 years ago. Now the circle is complete. I have come back as Professor [Herbert] Heneman said I could, to share what I have learned and experienced with others from around the world.


Fulbright Program Offers Once in a Lifetime Experience for Lafferty

EditsWhen offered a chance to have a once in a lifetime experience, the advice often is to just go for it; to have an open mind and be engaged. For Kathleen Lafferty (center), a senior lecturer at the Carlson School of Management and adjunct instructor at Metropolitan State University, this mindset enabled her to act upon an incredible opportunity to widen her educational and teaching experiences. In February 2017, she began teaching at Liepaja University in Liepaja, Latvia, for one semester through the Fulbright Program.

Fulbright is a prestigious and competitive U.S. cultural exchange fellowship program that gives candidates an opportunity to share their talents abroad. The program’s goal is to improve intercultural relations, cultural diplomacy, and intercultural competence.

Lafferty learned about the program through her years of teaching. She says she decided to attend an informational meeting at Metro State for anyone who was interested in participating in Fulbright. “I found it [to be] an engaging idea,” Lafferty says. The meeting helped her realize that she could be a qualified candidate.

Fulbright only allows applicants to apply to one program. “I looked through the catalog very slowly, deliberately, and conscientiously, and I found one [program.] Latvia wanted an HR professional,” Lafferty explains. With 25 years of experience working in HR, and now working in academia, she thought she was perfect for the project. “It was my one shot,” she says. The extensive 12-page application process took place online one year in advance. Originally she was waitlisted, but Lafferty received a call within 24 hours asking her to think about joining the program. “I don’t need to think,” she recalls answering, and she accepted what she calls a “fabulous opportunity.” She eagerly prepped herself for the experience by researching Latvian history and culture in books, as well as going to a three-day orientation in Washington D.C.

When Lafferty arrived in Latvia, she recalls being surprised to find that the university campus was directly in the city of Liepaja. There wasn’t a college community separating it from the other parts of the city like the University of Minnesota is set up. She also found that people were much more reserved, had a large appreciation for the environment, and families were very well connected to each other in Latvian culture.

At the university, she taught HR Management, Entrepreneur Service Marketing, General Marketing, and English, which she had requested to teach. “Every single day was busy. I was either in class or preparing for class,” Lafferty explains. She brought prepared lectures with her from the United States, but she wasn’t afraid to try something new. “I went in with an open mind and [went] with the flow. I also invented things as I went along.”

She recalls being impressed by the students and atmosphere inside the classrooms. The class sizes were small: at most 15 students and as little as two. She says the students worked hard to be independent and if they had a question, they depended on each other to answer them. The school had very high standards for them.

Lafferty also got involved and took advantage of any experience she could get. Faculty members were delighted to have her there, she explains, and they appreciated her willingness to help out with any task they asked of her. It was rewarding for her to engage in the community and to make connections. “I would say yes to anything. That’s why I was there,” she says. “[Fulbright] is really an immersion program.” She says that she believes her program gave her more experience than she ever could have hoped for. “I gained a lot more than I probably ever gave.”

Her engagement in the community allowed Lafferty to form close relationships with the people there, she explains. She had the chance to befriend a woman the second day in Liepaja. The woman invited her to go to craft events and to do activities together on the weekends, which allowed Lafferty to experience another part of the culture. “[She] will be a lifelong friend,” Lafferty says. To her, that was one of the most rewarding parts of the program. “The people will always be my best and most powerful memory,” she shares. “I really loved how supportive and engaged they were.”

Going forward, Lafferty plans on taking what she gained with her into her teaching here in the United States. Her teaching experience in Latvia showed her that she can have more faith in her students to be self-reliant. “I will try to refine and articulate my expectations for student work and performance in a stronger way than I’ve done in the past,” she explains. Her experiences also give her many stories to share in the classroom, which her students love, Lafferty says.

Lafferty says that she encourages anyone with an academic link that is interested in the Fulbright program to look into giving it a try. “I was able to have wonderful relationships while I was there, see a different part of the world, have an open mind about the differences, and learn about so many people,” she says.


Read more about Kathleen Lafferty’s experiences in the Fulbright Program on her blog here.

Twenty-Four Students, Five Countries, One Goal

Case Competition PhotoFor the sixth year in a row, the MA-HRIR program hosted the Carlson International Human Resources Case Competition (CIHRCom) at the Carlson School of Management. Each year, teams of four graduate students from across the globe compete to come up with the best HR-related solution to a problem presented by the competition’s Lead Sponsor, which this year was UnitedHealth Group.

Six teams participated in the final round: Narsee Monjee Institute of Management Studies (NMIMS) in India, Queensland University of Technology (QUT) in Australia, Rutgers University in New Jersey, Sun Yat-Sen University in China, Carlson School of Management, and Yonsei University in South Korea.

The final round took place November 8-10, and was an exciting, eventful three days. On Thursday, the teams checked in to the competition, had the opportunity to visit with UnitedHealth Group on site, and then attended the opening dinner to go over the rules and agenda, and meet the participants. On Friday, teams received the official case at 8 a.m. and had until midnight to work on their solutions and presentations. On Saturday, each team then had 25 minutes to present their recommendations to a team of judges, following which the judges deliberated and determined the winners.

At the Awards Dinner and Ceremony, the winners were announced: QUT took 1st place, NMIMS took second, and the Carlson School team took third place.

Competition judges were very impressed by each of the teams. “I am amazed at what the teams are able to put together and professionally present in such a short period of time, and likely [when they are] jet-lagged,” one of the judges shared after the event. “The input was interesting, the process was very fast and very collaborative.”

The judges weren’t the only people impressed during the competition. “I loved the opportunity to network with contemporaries as well as people from industry,” reported one participant. “It was a good experience to understand some different ways of thinking,” said another. “We appreciated the chance to apply our academic knowledge to a real-world challenge,” added another, “and network with stakeholders from the sponsoring organizations and students from other universities.”

To view more photos from the three-day event, visit our SmugMug site.


“It’s Never Too Late”: Four Alumni Share Stories of their Pathway to a Diploma

Current students enrolled in the MA-HRIR program may never have heard of the Plan A or Plan B options required for graduation, but for those students studying in the 1980’s, 1990’s, and early 2000’s, sometimes those requirements were all that stood between them and a completed degree. After taking and completing all required coursework, students had the choice of the Plan A thesis option, or a series of between one to three Plan B papers. And, sometimes, life got in the way!

Four HRIR alumni share their stories of the (sometimes decades) long pathway to their diplomas.

Lisa DiebelLisa Diebel began the MA-HRIR program in 1995. She took evening classes year-round while working fulltime during the day. She was single and did not have kids at the time so although difficult, she says it was doable. Though she had completed her courses and one of her “Plan-B” theses by 1998, life got in the way of completing the final steps. In 1999 she was juggling work and a family (including twins), and the degree still wasn’t finished.

Fast forward to 2010, and Lisa says she was fed up with having “degree in progress” on her resume. With the encouragement of her family, she got back in touch with the program, and found out she only had a couple of classes left to complete her degree.

“Coming back to the school was a refreshing change for me.,” she says. “In a fast-paced job, it’s hard to fit in time for ‘outside-in’ thinking, so taking time to learn and focus on my professional capabilities was a bonus. I also found myself energized being exposed to the next generation of HR professionals.”

Finishing her degree helped Diebel land a new job. “For those considering returning to the program, I would highly encourage it,” she adds. “For those who say, ‘I don’t have time to finish,’ if I can fit in evening classes, while working, with young kids, anyone can!”

Michelle DrenthMichelle Drenth started the program in 1996. More than 20 years and six kids later (four of whom who are in college themselves), she’s working to finish her coursework and complete her degree. Though she hasn’t finished yet (she’s got one semester to go), Drenth says the biggest difference she noticed coming back to the program was the use of technology. Skype “wasn’t a thing” the last time she was here, she says, and instead of logging on to Google for any research or question she had, it was straight to the library to look things up in person. Now she’s getting work done with the help of Google Docs, teleconferences, and working with her peers.

She currently leads the recruiting function for a large division of a financial institution, so her lack of a completed degree hasn’t hindered her career growth. However, Drenth says it will feel good to finally check it off the list.

For other people considering coming back to complete their degree Drenth says, “DO it!  The University of Minnesota is a great school, and Carlson is a wonderful graduate school. I have had fabulous professors, met interesting classmates, and generally feel like I am learning a ton and getting to exercise my brain in ways I don’t always get to do at work,” she adds.”

Laurie Gunn at CommencementLaurie Gunn began the program before her first daughter was born, 25 years ago. It was when her two daughters were leaving home to attend college and graduate school that Gunn says she turned back to her own education and set out to finish her master’s degree.

Gunn lives in Vermont now, so all of her coursework was done online. This was daunting to her at first, she says, since when she first was enrolled in the program, technology barely played any role at all in her coursework. She quickly got the hang of things and she says she loved the freedom of asynchronous learning, especially with a busy career. She also said MA-HRIR Program Director Stacy Doepner-Hove was a huge help in navigating the remaining course requirements.

Gunn is currently the vice president of employee, patient and family experience for an academic medical center, and says she loves having her master’s in HRIR to round out her credentials. She notes that it is an expectation in an executive role like the one she has to have this level of education.

As far as advice for others considering returning, “I wish I asked the question sooner and just jumped in to complete my degree,” she says.  “It was so much easier to accomplish than I expected and I managed it well even with a demanding work life. There are so many options for online and/or classroom learning that you can customize it to work for your needs and lifestyle.”

Tom DobrickTom Dobrick is another example of the “it’s never too late” mindset, and encourages others in the same position to take the plunge. “Do it, and as soon as your life circumstances allow,” he says. “The earlier in your career you complete the program, the longer a period of time you’ll have in which to enjoy the benefits.”

Dobrick relocated to Arizona in 2004, which complicated his plans. “While I would have been very interested in returning to campus (I have not been there since before construction of the Carlson School building began), due to my 2004 relocation to Arizona I took my final classes at Arizona State University and transferred the credit,” he says. “The one exception was the capstone course, which I completed via computer audio/video connection. One might expect that intergenerational differences between my classmates and me would have been a challenge (I was in my mid-50s when I returned to the classroom), but I think the opposite was true,” he recalls. “Many of my classmates seemed eager to establish a friendship with me, and often asked me questions about things which have changed in our society during my lifetime.”

Program staff are eager to assist others interested in completing their degree. “In the past eight years I have worked with 57 people to try to help them complete their degrees,” says Doepner-Hove. “Each time someone gets in touch, there is a story of strength and determination behind the call. I have talked with people who couldn’t complete for all sorts of reasons, but now they want that diploma on their wall. I enjoy talking with each individual student and working out how the completion will work for them. With the technology options we have available now – anyone can finish and we can help you figure out how.

“I have also had the opportunity to teach some of these returning students in class,” she says, “and there is simply nothing better than to have their experience in the classroom bringing concepts to life in a way that lectures and theoretical discussions simply can’t. We so value the chance to hear from these folks and are always thrilled to welcome them into the HRIR alum community.”

If you or someone you know is interested in closing the loop on your degree, please contact the program at or 612-624-5704.



Grateful Alumnus Gives Back

Wayne (Chang) Shi graduated from the MA-HRIR program in 2015, and almost right away began giving back to the program through a series of monthly donations, directed to support the program. He shares a little bit about himself, his experience in the program and afterward, and the reasons he chooses to give.

First, can you tell us a little bit about yourself? How did you choose to attend the Carlson School for your MA-HRIR degree? How would you describe your experience in our program?
I graduated with a psychology degree and was interested in empowering people in real-life settings such as the workplace. The MA-HRIR program is in a business school in a good-sized city, so it’s a natural choice for people who want to have a broader horizon in both academic and career aspects. I enjoyed the rigorous and top-down approach the curriculum offered and appreciated the vast array of support from the career center.

Cropped Wayne Chang ShiWhat has your career path been since graduating?
I joined a smart home technology company called EP Technology Corporation after graduation. I worked in its Fremont, CA office for two years, and last year the company relocated me to its US operations center in Champaign, IL as an HR generalist.

How has your educational experience at the University of Minnesota impacted your career?
The education provided me with a theoretical framework in almost everything I do as an HR generalist. The curriculum wasn’t designed to focus on practical how-to’s to deal with day-to-day HR difficulties, which can only be reasonably learned in real work settings. But my education enabled me to think of the broader picture when implementing HR policies. For example, if certain initiatives may work together, or negate each other.

What motivated you to establish a recurring monthly pledge? And, what was the process like?
I am grateful that my education helped me to find a job in the US, especially as an international student. I wanted to give my support, albeit tiny in amount, to my alma mater. The process was super easy as far as I can remember, took only minutes.

What do you hope your support will help the program accomplish?
Help more students to find suitable career opportunities, better prepare them in both the pre-hire and post-hire phases.

What do you hope for future students of the program?  And, how do you think your financial support will help with that?
I hope the students would feel they are in an even closer community, maybe a couple of pizzas for study sessions and career support groups? 😀

Do you have any advice for other alumni who might be considering a donation to the program?
If you felt your education has helped you, consider giving back according to your abilities, no matter how tiny it is.