Savitt '85 dreams the impossible, tries to make it come true

By: Kathy Hovis ,  A&S Communications
January 1, 2014

Had it not been for the beauty of Cornell and a memorable weekend back in 1980, this story about Kathy Savitt '85, chief marketing officer for Yahoo, might very well be appearing in a publication for Harvard alumni.

As a high school senior who was all set to apply to Harvard early action -- a choice applauded by her parents (her dad is a Harvard graduate) -- Savitt accompanied a friend on a weekend visit to Cornell.

"I had the weekend of my life," she remembers.

She came home, applied early decision to Cornell and never looked back.

"When my dad realized how much I loved the school, he eventually bought me a little red bear," she says.

Today, Savitt is helping to spearhead the "renaissance" of Yahoo (what she calls "the world's largest startup") and lists "dreamer" as the first descriptor on her Twitter account.

"My friends and family would say I spend a lot of time thinking about what could be," she says. "I dream about the impossible and try to figure out a way to make it possible, whether it's a problem that people are having or something that has to do with my family.

"I find that my dreams are good filters. They help me to channel where I should focus each day and establish natural guardrails for my time."

Savitt founded her first company before she turned 30 and was CEO of Lockerz before joining Yahoo. Prior to Lockerz, she was executive vice president and chief marketing officer at American Eagle Outfitters, where she led global marketing efforts and digital and e-commerce channels. She was also vice president of strategic communications, content and entertainment initiatives for Amazon.com.

These days, Savitt is focused on drawing more people into Yahoo, which recently unveiled a new logo and has been reinventing its diverse set of products, including mobile apps for Yahoo Weather and Yahoo Screen. Under CEO Marissa Mayer, the company also has acquired 25 startups in a little over a year, Savitt says.

Savitt, who spoke recently at the Entrepreneurship@Cornell Summit in New York City, says her success is based on several guiding principles -- concentrating on people first, finding an opportunity or a problem to solve, and admitting and addressing your blind spots.

"Focus on right decisions, not perfect ones," Savitt says. "It's about making a series of right decisions and making them quickly and sequentially, day in and day out."

Her history and government major and other Cornell experiences trained her well for life as an entrepreneur and a leader, she says. She was a founding sister of the Alpha Chi Omega sorority and was program director at WVBR as a student.

"They let us really run the station, come up with advertising strategies and figure out how to make money," she says. "We did all kinds of crazy stuff, but we made money."

A champion of the liberal arts, Savitt says her interns at Yahoo in marketing and customer experience all have liberal arts backgrounds.

"I didn't know exactly what I wanted to do, but I knew that a liberal arts degree would prepare me for anything," she says. "If you have a liberal arts background, you are going to learn to grasp abstractions in a way that no one could ever teach you in a marketing course. You are going to debate the impossible and you will do the same in your professional career."

This story first appeared in Ezra Update.

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