Our New Strategist Comes Home

Coming to work for Willow Research felt a lot like coming home.

At the same time, it felt like I never left.

Fall 1997. I was greeted at the Leo J. Shapiro & Associates reception area by a woman named Sara Parikh who had called me two days earlier saying, “Leo says that you should come down and start doing some stuff for us.”

I did not know it at the time, but I was walking into a unique and special culture that has profoundly shaped my life in the years since.

“Leo,” as is probably obvious, was Leo J. Shapiro, founder of the company, and one of the early pioneers of market research. The previous May, I had graduated with an M.A. in Literature and an M.F.A in Creative Writing, specializing in fiction. I had gone to graduate school because I had loved reading, and at my post-college job as a paralegal, I found myself writing short stories on legal pads at my desk. The paralegal job convinced me that law school—my initial default plan—was not a good idea. Spending three years trying to capture the magic of the authors I loved and cast some of my own spells sounded like a good respite from figuring out what I was going to do with the rest of my life.

I had interviewed with Leo, though “interrogation” might be a better word. He was unimpressed with my resume, wondering why someone would go to school to learn to write. “Hemingway went to war,” he told me.

“Hemingway went to war,” he told me.

 

I didn’t have a good response. Leo could be intimidating, mostly because he was so smart. I swear he could break down the latest article in The Economist in one breath and expound on the virtues of the newest Wu Tang album in the next. Leo’s interrogation was a sign of interest and curiosity, perhaps uniquely expressed but a trait I would come to appreciate in short order. At the time, I had not thought deeply enough about my own education to answer his questions.

I was fairly certain I’d blown the interview, but then the call came and I had a job! Another thing I didn’t know was that I was merely the next in a longstanding tradition of a company that was interested in finding the kind of people who they could educate in an ethos that I think of as a kind of rigorous curiosity. We must be simultaneously relentless in our questioning, while making sure our answers are as rooted in evidence and examples as possible.

We must be simultaneously relentless in our questioning, while making sure our answers are as rooted in evidence and examples as possible.

 

Sara Parikh, president of Willow Research, is the person who introduced me to this world, and I couldn’t have asked for a better guide.

LJS hired people, rather than credentials. George Rosenbaum described the method in his history of the company, Need To Know: The Story of a Company: Leo J Shapiro & Associates. “The hiring process was uncomplicated. Everyone who showed promise and wanted to work at Shapiro was hired.”

It would be hard to know less about the world of market research than I did as I started my career, considering I didn’t know such a field existed prior to my interview with Leo. Apparently, Leo felt I showed enough promise to take a chance on. I learned quickly, working on a huge variety of projects under the guidance of many different superiors. It was the best atmosphere for learning I’d ever worked in, period.

It was the best atmosphere for learning I’d ever worked in, period.

 

Within six months, I felt like I’d earned multiple additional credentials in sociology, quantitative and qualitative research methods, statistics, and data analysis. The best part was how much I was learning as I worked on client projects. Curiosity, asking the next question, pursuing those questions until you’ve exhausted the data was rewarded, even beyond anything I’d experienced in academia.

I left the company in 2001 to follow my wife’s career as she pursued a specialty residency in small animal internal veterinary medicine. I started teaching at University of Illinois during her internship, then Virginia Tech for her residency, Clemson when she took her first job in Greenville, and the College of Charleston when we moved to our current home.

Each stop along the way I brought what I’d learned at LJS along with me. As a college instructor, frustrated by some of the teaching folklore which had been handed down to me, but which didn’t seem to be effective in helping students learn, I engaged in an iterative process of developing new approaches, introducing them to students, observing the outcomes, and making adjustments the next time around. I was using research techniques to inform and improve my work as an instructor.

I was using research techniques to inform and improve my work as an instructor.

 

That process led to a job writing about education for a leading industry website, Inside Higher Ed. Those blog posts became the fodder for my recently published books on how I believe we could better help students learn to write, Why They Can’t Write: Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities and The Writer’s Practice: Building Confidence in Your Nonfiction Writing.

I left teaching in 2017 to write those books, and once they were done, I began to wonder what was next. When Sara called and asked me if I’d be interested in helping out on a project-by-project basis, I leapt at the chance, this time knowing full-well what I was getting myself into.

When I spent a week in the Chicago offices seeing how Willow works, I knew it was a team I wanted to belong to, a place where I could be inspired to do interesting and challenging work in the tradition of what I’d once known, but also very much itself, a business shaped by the women who run it, ready for future challenges.

Quite simply, I was impressed. I would’ve been a fool not to accept an offer to join as a Senior Analyst and Communication Strategist.

I can’t wait to see where Willow is going to go next and am excited to have a front-row seat for the journey.

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