Brad Robertson, MBA '98 and Julie Huffaker, MBA 01, founded On Your Feet, a micro multinational business consultancy.
What motivated you to come to PSU for your MBA?
Julie: It was a complete accident. I had a grant from an educational foundation to travel around the US writing about cultural differences between regions. My last leg was in Portland and I had a fender bender on Hawthorne. I was out of money so I stopped and applied for jobs on Hawthorne. I got a job at the seventh Starbucks store, in 1990. I started doing branding for Starbucks in Seattle. After ten years in marketing, branding and strategy, I wanted more meaning in my career so I decided to go back to school.
I really wanted a thoughtful education. I ran into Brad Robertson, who had been a customer at Starbucks, and he suggested I talk to School of Business Administration Dean Scott Dawson. Scott talked to me about how he saw the leadership journey. There were no other business schools at the time that were teaching things like reflective dialogue and storytelling. I thought that Portland State's business school was a special place. I loved Portland and wanted to be part of the community.
Brad: I grew up in Portland and went to Lincoln high school so I had pretty deep roots in Portland. In 1987, when I was 17, I started a shaved ice business, which I operated until I was 30 - some people say I was the Shaved Ice King of southeast Portland. I was still operating that when I started the MBA program. I was 28. I had travelled a ton and I didn't really want to move at that point. Portland was a big part of why I chose Portland State.
Scott Dawson was really influential. I went in and met with him when I was considering Portland State's MBA program. I wanted to learn more about business, but my friends with MBAs were working 90 hour weeks in New York. I didn't want to work on Wall Street. Scott expanded my sense of what an MBA could do for a person and he seemed like such a good example of a balanced person, someone who you want to be like.
What is On Your Feet?
Julie: We are a micro multinational business consultancy. We're a band of 12 people in 4 different countries. We use highly experiential techniques - including techniques from improvisational theatre to help companies with creativity and leading change. Our clients are strikingly diverse. Most of our work is with companies like Intel, Disney, Nike, GE, and Dreamworks, but we also work with Zen Monks outside of San Francisco and Irish middle school children. We're about to do some work with a non-profit whose mission is to help teens who have been sex trafficked globally transition their lives.
How did On Your Feet come to be? How did you get the idea?
Julie: The nexus started two years before Brad and I got involved. It was an idea that came from Gary Hirsch, a professional improviser and t-shirt maker, and Robert Poynton, who was in Portland to do some work for Nike. They met because Rob was buying a t-shirt from Gary at Saturday market. They started talking about improvisation and Rob, true to form, said "you know, I've been hired to teach at Camp Leo, a prestigious advertising camp, but what you do is much more interesting that what I was going to teach. Will you join me?" Gary said sure. Their session was an outrageous success. They started doing work with ad agencies.
Gary started teaching improvisation classes at Portland State. I met Gary when I enrolled in the MBA program and took one of his improv classes. The idea of using improv in business made sense to me immediately. I could see how the dynamics within leadership teams and organizations were making or breaking the best strategies before they got to market. Brad and I brought the business backgrounds and the three of us together started building the idea into a business here in the US.
Brad: I took one of Gary's Improvisation and Business Communication seminars in 1998. I was engaged by it and we hit it off. In fact he had been a customer of mine from the shaved ice days. The next fall I became a management counselor at Portland State's Business Outreach Program working as a consultant to small businesses in Northeast Portland. I began working with Gary as a consultant in what was then called "Get On Your Feet." In fact he called me his business therapist. Gary doesn't have a deep business background - he had a hand painted t-shirt company and was a visual artist. So in terms of growing On Your Feet and creating a viable business entity, that was pretty new to him. I was helping Gary with business strategy for On Your Feet and gradually became more and more involved until it became my full-time job in 2004.
How did your education at Portland State inform the creation of On Your Feet?
Julie: I don't think our clients had any idea how much we were experimenting on them. We were building the business while I was getting my MBA. I'd go to a class with Professor Sully Taylor and then run to a client meeting in the afternoon and use what I had learned. And then the client would pose a challenge and I'd run back to class and say, what about this? It was the most stimulating learning lab. It was learning on steroids.
How do you stay connected with the school?
Julie: We help with the orientation of new MBA students each year. We do a half day workshop on the principles of improvisation to help them collaborate with groups and teams and to help them connect with each other and start to build a learning community. I've also taught classes on organizational change, and Brad has taught organizational behavior.
Brad: I'm pretty deeply connected because my wife and I have both worked at the business school and my kids go to Portland State's Helen Gordon Child Development Center. It's also true that you meet people who have a connection to the business school almost constantly, whether they have an MBA or have just taken a few courses. There seems to be about a one degree of separation thing in Portland when it comes to PSU.
When I think about who around town do I want to reach out and get advice from, I think about people like Scott and Ellen West and Tom Gillpatrick and Jeanne Enders and Earl Molander. Portland State is still a great resource for us.
How did you get the idea for The Deeper, Funner Facilitation Cookbook?
Julie: In 2002, one of our clients, Wieden + Kennedy, asked us to teach them some of the tools we use with groups so they could use these with their clients. We said what we usually say: Let's try it! We'd never taught that sort of workshop, but realized that after experimenting with improv-based facilitation approaches for a number of years, we knew quite a bit about what makes presentations and meetings high-impact. As more clients asked for this, we began to write it down and what began as a 20-page article turned into this book (available through Amazon.com). It's now the basis for many of our workshops, and extremely well received. Scott Dawson wrote a blurb for the cover, so it must be good!