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Less Than Picturesque with Carrie Papke '07

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  • Our Mission: This podcast aims to share leadership stories from our VMI Corps of Cadets and high-profile leaders who visit the Center for Leadership and Ethics (CLE) and VMI.
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In this episode of the podcast, we sat down with Carrie Papke, VMI Class of 2007 to talk about her cadetship and how it enabled her to deal with challenges by seeing them as opportunities. She also talks about how she has used her observations of poor leadership to shape a more modern approach to leading and mentoring in a positive way. 
Our Center's mission is to enhance the VMI citizen-soldier journey with programming that educates, engages, and inspires critical thinking, ethical decision-making, and leader development. The VMI Leader Journey podcast is an outreach program where our guests can share insights from their own leader's journey, and where VMI may have contributed to their personal growth. 

In this episode, we touched on the following leadership competencies from the VMI Leader Journey Booklet: power dynamics, empowerment, service, goals, motivation.

Transcript for Episode: Less Than Picturesque with Carrie Papke '07

CARRIE PAPKE, VMI CLASS OF ’07: You didn't have this perfect cadetship doesn't mean that you can't still be a general down the road.

DEREK PINKHAM: Welcome to the VMI Center for Leadership and Ethics’ Leadership Journey podcast.

EMILY COLEMAN: This podcast aims to share leadership stories from our VMI for cadets and high profile visitors to the Center for Leadership and Ethics. We're on this journey with you. Hey, I'm Emily Coleman.

PINKHAM: Hi, I'm Derek Pinkham,

COLEMAN: And we're your hosts of the podcast. 

PINKHAM: Carrie Papke graduated from VMI in 2007 with a degree in psychology. She received her master's degree in project management from the Citadel School of Engineering and served seven years as a communications officer in the United States Marine Corps.

COLEMAN: Founder of To and Fro activewear, a luxury athleisure store located in West Michigan. She gave us insight into her leadership the journey through VMI in her career, tips and guidance for cadets and others who are in the leadership field whether it's the military or civilian world, and how to overcome pressure we might face in our own leadership journeys.

PINKHAM: We sat down with Carrie during our 2019 Leadership and Ethics Conference where she was a guest speaker.

COLEMAN: And without further delay, we give you Carrie Papke. So, just tell us a little bit about yourself. What led you to VMI and what are you doing now?

PAPKE: Wow. That's really a broad question

PINKHAM: How'd you get here?

PAPKE: Well I chose VMI, like probably a lot of female cadets for the same reasons as I feel like most of them, it's because you want a challenge you know, it's not an easy choice and especially knowing that you're going into being quite the minority. I just knew I wanted to become a military officer. And I feel like people chose certain schools because they're a good music school or good business school and I felt like if I was going to be a military officer, I should go to military school. And after the… my cadetship then I went into the Marine Corps as an officer. I was a communications officer. I was stationed down in Beaufort, South Carolina at the marine aircraft group 31, with a bunch of fighter pilots. While I was there, I was deployed to Djibouti Africa where I did global risk management at joint staff levels. So it was planning mission requirements five years out, came back I finished my first duty station in Beaufort, I got my master's degree from the Citadel [laughter] in project management, and then I came back up to DC wherein the Pentagon I worked in programs and resources as an investment analyst, and I also coordinated submitted the IT budget for the Marine Corps. After that, I met my husband and I decided to get out of the Marine Corps. Mainly because I felt like as a female -it's very hard to as a female service member- it's very hard to have a family in the military and I kind of met a female general that was going through some issues and it just made me realize that, you know, I probably had two choices either to be happy or to be really successful and what did I ultimately want to fit into my life. And that was, you know, I did want a family and felt like I wasn't making a lot of sacrifices for my family. So, I got out I moved to Grand Rapids to be with my husband we have, we have a daughter together; I also have two older stepsons. And I got accepted into GE Aviation as a junior officer leadership program. And that was like a three-year rotation where they actually develop military officers into executives, at General Electric, and I did really like that company. It was great. The only thing I struggled with, I wasn't a pilot and I wasn't an engineer, very hard to be super passionate about like source lines of code where it was like a little function in an aircraft and be super enthusiastic about it. You know, it's one thing in the military, you have to rotate a lot. So, you might have a bad job or have a position that you don't like. But at the end of the day, you're still a Marine. So, you know, you have that to really be proud of and work towards. But being in the civilian world, you know, you don't have that as your backbone, so it's just your job or nothing. So, when I got pregnant, you know, my husband asked about me, like possibly staying home and we both agreed it was a good idea. I stayed at home for about eight or nine months. It's just really hard. [laughter] Like, when you work so hard for most of your life, I mean, going straight from a military school where our days are jam-packed. So like military and deployments and doing a master's degree while you're in the military. It's like, it's hard. I know like being a mom is a really hard job. But at the end of the day, I wanted my daughter to also see me working towards my own goals and dreams and stuff and having something that she can see that I put myself out there, whether it's you know, failure or success, you know, I tried something unique when we were looking at possible investments. He was... my husband was going to start looking to start a restaurant. We didn't know if that short sale was going to go through for it was a really unique historical hotel that is being changed into a restaurant. And then we started looking at other opportunities. And I thought about well, what am I good at, what I like; while I was at DC, I was also an activewear wearer. So, I reviewed a lot of different activewear labels and gave my recommendations. Especially being in the military, I understood how like clothing and stuff is fitting like for performance-wise, and I always had the idea of having a store so that actually was really weird because it was something that was on the back burner and I really didn't even think about doing that it just came to surface and then we started, um, to a product where it was very successful. It's kind of... I wouldn't say luxury luxury but it's definitely a little upper in your premium price for like leggings and sports bras. But we do that because we want to have really good quality, we're kind of like a, like Anthropologie in the sense that we have a lot of different brands under one roof. And we're starting to develop our private labels. While I'm doing that growing a business and getting off the ground, I've been really good about using my military experience to kind of train my staff to be self-sufficient. And I think that's been a really great reward especially recently because while we're in kind of a startup phase in the first year and a half of business, it's not very wise to be constantly extracting your money to live on. And for me, the easiest way for me to extract money out of the store would be to work in my store in the mornings, well, in the mornings that's when I have my long-term staff. My you know, stay-at-home moms are my ones that you know, they're not in college and just gonna move on to the next thing. I really value my staff and I value their capability and I didn't want to lose them on a temporary… to make a permanent decision over a temporary problem. So, I decided that you know, I do have a lot of value. So, I started to look for work opportunities outside of my store. And that's what led me to Happy PR where I'm their new marketing manager. So, it's nice because I can have some new skill sets, like I didn't have a PR background. But now I get to learn about PR, and that also ties into my store, and it's a good benefit for me.

PINKHAM: Yeah. So other other areas that you also identify that you think, Oh, I need to know about that, too?

PAPKE: Yeah, I mean, just definitely the PR and marketing part that's really important for me, we've been really learning about how to get customers and their thought process, especially when you have economic downturns like people wanting to do more Amazon shopping. You're constantly having to put yourself in the customer's shoes, like why do they choose you over other people? I think for my store, how I train my staff is that our competition is essentially e-commerce in your pajamas. So, it's like be unique, have really good store experiences, be there be available for them. But don't be, you know, don't be asking him. What do you think about this? What do you think about this, let me tell you about this. It's like I know for me as a shopper, I don't want to be bothered in a store, you know. So, we'll do recommendations, we might throw things in their fitting room, but, you know, we won't follow up about it, like I train my staff to be to be kind of like that. If you go to a luxury store like if you were to go there, like to an Hermes or a Channel, they're really good about just being there in the background and helping you when you need to. And it's also it's not even about like the city behavior, it's about relationship-building like they'll know everything about you, you don't know your likes and dislikes. You know, we want to let our customers have really great relationships, where we can ask them about their upcoming race or how did their shoulder surgery go? Or, you know, you know, a boyfriend will walk in or husband and say, Oh, this is what they bought recently. This is, you know, this is this type of styles they like,


PAPKE: so, it's nice to have that elevated customer service as well.


PINKHAM: right

COLEMAN: Awesome. Well, um, so where do you draw inspiration from as a leader. And where did you draw inspiration from at your time at VMI?

PAPKE: It's hard for me to say where I draw my inspiration from just because I don't feel like it comes from one particular person. And I hope this doesn't sound bad. But a lot of my inspiration draws from who I don't want to be or what I don't want to do. You know, I think a lot of like, people, they don't see it like that. They'll have bad experiences as well. Like, for me, it's like you have a bad experience. You can't help but there's nothing you can do because it's essentially in the past. And the best thing what you can do is put it in your toolbox of how you don't want to be. So, for me, for example, getting my employees trained up so if we do like some merchandising, they've been really good about doing the merchandising for me when it used to be like I did it all the time. Well, now we have new employees try it themselves. They want to show me and if there's a couple things wrong with something, you know, some people will make fun of like, why did you move it this way? Why did you put it here, you know, and they're not attacking you? They're just asking why, but they don't realize that when you come off with a way it's perceived as hostility, it could be very off-putting for growth. So, like taking these like bad experiences that I've had, whether it was, as you know, a cadet or in the military and a normal nine to five job, it's really shaped how I see myself and how I develop. And I'm like, Oh, you did a great job. Thank you for doing this. This was just unexpected. And it's like, and then as an afterthought, I'm like, oh, by the way, if you do it here, you should think about this, you know, and I think going through that mindset that has been my inspiration of being a leader is making sure that I also develop them because to me, it's like, I think some of the old school leadership is oh we don't want to grow them too much, or we don't want to poof them up too much where they'll just leave with a good opportunity. And I think of it kind of like, almost like a parent role. You either have that one officer or leader that tries to put the fear in you and tries to scare you and submit you. So, then you're just going to do your job, you know, you’re not going to do, you're going to try not to get in trouble. So, you might even hide things from them because you don't want them to get upset or but you're not going to really put themselves out there. Like you're not going to try new things or present new ideas. And then you have the other leader types, which is what I prefer, it's more like that that role is just like, they're actually really proud to work for you. They want to make you proud. They want to try things and they want to do good by you. And I think you can still be stern and strict and still, it's not like you have to be a buddy with them. But you're also growing them. You're talking... encouraging them talking to them, you know, being there for even like some of the smaller things like showing, you know, hey, nothing is above you and whatnot.

COLEMAN: Yeah. What advice would you give cadets that are trying to get into leadership roles here at VMI or that are already in leadership roles and want to enhance their skills?

PAPKE: I think if you don't have a leadership position right now, I think the hardest thing for cadets is being heard. And I think that takes a lot of confidence. And I think sometimes it's the individual that holds back on the self and not speaking out and saying what's on their mind they think well, I don't have this position. I'm not a 'ranker' [a term used to indicate a cadet with rank] are not the RDC [Rat Disciplinary Committee] I'm not cadre [cadet leadership position], I'm not even Rat Challenge [an annual event where freshmen, called rats, undertake various physical training exercises as a class, led and overseen by a cadet upperclassman committee]. And you know, and I think ideas generated are always despite the smartest person in the room, sometimes even the smartest person in the room could overcomplex a very simple idea, or even process that needs to be fixed. I think that even, you know, your… what would be perceived as an average or below average cadet could have just as much value as someone very high in the Corps of Cadets. So, I would say, you know, don't be afraid. The biggest advice for for them, I would say, is have an idea, know what the issues are, know why the issues are happening and how you think that you can make it better to go forward. I think if you just come up with that idea, then they're not going to be heard as well. If you're just like, Oh, this is happens to suck. Sorry, this happens. You know, I think you should do this. It's like coming in. So maybe whether it's faculty or commandant's office or even another cadet and saying, Hey, this is what I've been seeing happening, I would really love to sit down with you and go on over with it, to me that makes you a leader and you don't have to be you know, you don't have to have rank. You don't have to be in charge of anything, but just being able to recognize that, you know, maybe you feel like something should be done differently or you should, someone shouldn't be doing that because it's harmful to the organization. Being able to have that voice I believe makes you a leader. And it doesn't matter whether you're a ranker or not. It's just your execution of it.

COLEMAN: What leadership roles were you involved in when you were cadet?

PAPKE: I actually didn't have too many leadership roles per se as a cadet I did a lot of clubs I did band, I did glee club, I did track and cross country for the first couple years. And then I infamously I was on the cheerleading team, I guess you can say as the cadet in charge of that. I did have rank my first-class year and that's versus things, odd things happen you have to just learn how to deal with it I was never ranker I just thought it'd be cool to do like S-7  or S-5 [both of these are leadership roles having to do with events and public relations roles on post] and you know I just want to help with like cadet life I helped with athletics that's what I felt like I was good with I guess VMI otherwise they threw me into like the third platoon lieutenant and you know, I was like why? Why they did they put me there is I think like that's looking back at my life experience. That's life, you know, that's life of you expecting thinking okay, I just want this or nothing, then they throw you in something else.

PINKHAM: Someone certainly saw something in you said she would be good for this.

PAPKE: I would hope so.

PINKHAM: Even though you didn't- so that I mean, that's taking some outside influence and, and, being open to being open to doing it.

PAPKE: And that was very hard for me. That was a very hard role for me because I didn't feel like I did.  I wasn't you know, the, the ranker in the company as a second or a third [classman] and you know and I felt like I probably potentially took away rank from another you know cadet but it's, it's part of being a leader that you just -you know you get it whether you want it or not so you're having to learn it like I I'm dealing that with my stepson right now - he doesn't want to do football, but we require them to do two sports one fall and spring, they can pick because you get a choice, but you know he doesn't want to be there. Like you can't change that fact. So he doesn't want to try. Uh, you can't change it back. You might as well just go with it. They get so resistant to it. It's like, if you can't change the past, you just need to go with it. Because if you fight it you're going to be struggling. You know, it's gonna be a struggle for others. It's gonna be a struggle for yourself, you know, so if you get that that job or even that rank or that leadership position you don't want, just make the most of it. Don't fight it.


PINKHAM: That's a nice attitude.

COLEMAN: What skills did VMI help you build on and your career now coming out of the military into a civilian world. Did you take those skills that you take with you?

PAPKE: I definitely would say, like, it's definitely an odd one to reflect back on just basically adversity in general. You know, I think I had a few hardships as a cadet throughout my cadetship. And I think because I did not have that picturesque cadetship of I went to be cadre, and then I was a ranker, and then I have my ac stars [academic stars for GPA achievement], you know, I was finding my voice. I was figuring out what I wanted to do as a cadet. You know, I didn't have you know, I wasn't in the cadre, you know, but yet as an athlete, I was in the band. And, um, I didn't know, I didn't have a set like this is what I do. And having that compared to like other people, it kind of made me a little lost. And I think having that adversity instead of having that picturesque cadetship has really made me be able to pivot it's made me handle like stressful situations, and just, you know, being used to having things that honestly just don't go your way, because I think some people might have that mentality of your efforts equal success and reward, but the reality is and I think especially like an entrepreneur mindset is that hard work and effort doesn't mean success, that it can also still equal failure. And I think like learning the understanding that early has made me understand that. Well, you know, some people, they don't have that adversity and they don't have that struggles. Not saying that they Well, they will, they might crumble under the pressure because they just haven't had to deal with that further.

COLEMAN: What advice would you give or is there any advice that you would give to cadets graduating and going, whether they're going into military or just into civilian jobs?

PAPKE: This advice, I would say would also apply for cadets that are currently here too and whether you're in the military or you're in the civilian world, if you have a hobby or if you see something that just sounds interesting, you should pursue it. You never know what will come of it. For example, I thought it'd be fun to have a blog. I did it for a while while I was in DC. It gave me a lot of information of how like so media influencers were, how social media marketing works, how the HTML website development works. And then when I got to Grand Rapids, I was interested in graphic design, I took Adobe Illustrator class at the [x] School of Design and that also just, you know, even though I didn't directly use it right away, it just gave me that skill set to use. So you never know what your likes and your dislikes are unless you try something. So if there's any kind of little interest and it doesn't affect your day to day tasks, go and try it. Take a class, you think it might be fun, you know, don't say oh, I don't want to do that because I'm never going to use it again. You might find you have this whole 'nother passion. When I was in Beaufort, I thought I would hate golf. I mean, like I thought, like you could not pay me to go play golf. Actually, we had a four by four scramble and happening on base and I had these marine officers come up to me, Hey, we need a fourth. I'm like nope, nope. I've never even picked up a club. This is a horrible idea. I was like you would think that like you would not... Yeah, I don't want to be there as like oh you know for damn i know i was like they guilt trip me after they came for me two or three days to come knocking on my door begging me like, but we won't be able to do but if you don't. It was like you could ride in the car and I'm like fine you know I did it. I was horrible as expected, but I had a really, really good time. And I actually ended up turning into a hobby that I had. Even at that...  when I went up to the Pentagon I did very badly if you ever look at my stats, but I actually ended up earning a spot on the all-marine golf team. Don't look at it don't look at my score. It was horrible that day. Tournament golfing is completely different. You never know what you may like. I mean, that was something even I wouldn't have done even if you gave me a free voucher, I would have just left it on the desk. You know, but I pretty much got a guilt trip by my buddies and found out I had an amazing time. So I just think you know having an open mind that you may not know where your career leads you it's like don't be afraid even as a cadet like you don't have to have that picturesque cadetship if there's something that you really want to try and do it, like I, my first class year, I kept seeing pictures of the fire department and like the cadets that went around and volunteer with the fire department that was just so interesting, you know, I thought about it like, will it be kind of weird there's no other females there and it's really small group and then finally I just got the courage and I you know, I got the courage to go stop by the fire department and talk to them see what was about. And I actually end up being the very first female firefighter in Lexington Fire Department. Yeah, and I actually really enjoyed it. My biggest regret was just not having the courage just to try it earlier. I liked it. And they're very warm and receptive to me. And I think they did try to carry things for me a few times, I'm like nope, I got it, like, give me give me that 50-lb. bag. I got it. But overall, they were very they were very warm and receptive. They even got a few females after that, and I think now even have some female cadets that are

PINKHAM: Trailblazer you are!

PAPKE: like, you know, try it doesn't matter if no one else is doing it doesn't matter if you know it's not the popular thing if you like it, just try it.

PINKHAM: Takes a little courage, too, I mean so and curiosity on your part, I think that is really cool.

COLEMAN: Well, it's so funny, I'm gonna say it again this is my fourth time or something like that and saying this during the podcast but you and we just talked to Court Whitman ['99] yesterday and he said the same thing he said during your summers gonna be something that you like to do like Don't, don't just follow the crowd or like don't put your hobbies aside, do stuff that you want to do. I keep saying this, you, and the two lieutenants who just graduated, who we did a podcast with as well, I have the same answers to a lot of things is very similar answers coming out of VMI. So, it's just a funny pattern to see.

PAPKE: And you never know. I mean, maybe that will help a career or a future job down the road maybe it just turns into a very rewarding skill or just a fun hobby that lets you just relax.

PINKHAM: Well, you know, you talked a little bit before about happiness and that's I mean That's a part of life that you…

PAPKE: Yeah, I mean, you're not gonna be happy. If you're fitting a mold, even if it is successful, you're not gonna be happy, if that's truly something that maybe deep down isn't for you.

COLEMAN: Yeah. So last question. What is leadership mean to you?

PAPKE: Leadership to me is more about the growth behind it. It's less about like the prestige and stuff of being a leader. It's more about shaping, developing and being that good solid role model for the ones under you because I think that's the type of leader that's just people are going to take off and just be super proud and want to work really hard for you. And having intestinal fortitude to like speak up and things even if you know it's not going to be the most popular comment. I mean, as long as you're respectful and tactful in your delivery. That's what matters most. Even with owning a retail store, I get asked all the time if I have a partner because so much when I talk about my store, especially when I'm in my store, I say we all the time I say we, the store, you know us, is something you're having It's hard for me to say I own the store I am the owner like most people unless they directly asked me I don't announce that I'm the owner of my store and I think that's just very important to be humble as a leader and really giving a lot of kudos, cheers to staff and when they especially when they have so much talent like they do

COLEMAN: awesome 


COLEMAN: Well, thank you so much for sitting down with us.

PINKHAM: for coming to the leadership conference

PAPKE: I hope it was helpful.

PINKHAM: I really like a lot of your answers because… yes… somewhere along the same lines but, but you're…. yes, especially as a woman may be here


PINKHAM: And and the idea of the I didn't have the perfect cadetship and that little bit of struggle, oh boy there that really hits home I think that

PAPKE: well, I think today...that General [Gen. Votel, keynote for 2019 Leadership Conference] that spoke, you know, let's go about you know, even they got nothing all that brief, but just to see him and say I was a C+ student, was awesome. [overlapping] Not just because like oh, like I that means I can be mediocre but it means that person that they feel like that dog paddling under the water and then there's not you know, the you know, they're really trying to be that model cadet but they just see for some reason it's just not in the cards for them or they just don't have that perfect pipeline. It can show them that hey, you know your growth and your development and you've been a leader doesn't stop at VMI just because you weren't, you didn't have this perfect cadetship doesn't mean that you can't still be a general down the road or a CEO or anything. It didn't mean like Oh, he that means it's okay to get bad grades.

PINKHAM: I love that.

PAPKE: But yeah, I thought that was like really important for people to hear, especially the ones that were possibly, you know, struggling with their cadetship of fitting in or just having a purpose.

PINKHAM: Awesome. Appreciate it. Thank you so much! The VMI Center for Leadership and Ethics would like to thank the following: 

COLEMAN: Cadet Caleb Minus, Class of '20 for the intro and backing music. Find more of his musical stylings on his Instagram page @MynusOfficial that's at M-Y-N-U-S official.

PINKHAM: Col. David Gray, United States Army, Retired, Director of the VMI Center for Leadership and Ethics.

COLEMAN: And of course, as always, our podcast guests. Find this podcast and other CLE programming information on the BMI Center for Leadership and ethics website or try our YouTube channel.

PINKHAM:Follow the VMI Center for Leadership and Ethics on Facebook, Twitter,  LinkedIn, and  Instagram accounts. See you next episode of The Journey, thanks for tuning in.

Transcribed by https://otter.ai

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