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Stepping Up to the Challenge

Alumna reflects on how the qualities and skills she honed as a student-athlete set her up for success in her career.

Multiple people sit at a table and have a discussion over food.
Ashley Keyes (right) is an active member of the Young Whitman Advisory Council, an alumni group dedicated to providing students with career support and mentorship. (Photo taken prior to March 2020)

Ashley Keyes ’14 is used to the ripple of surprise that moves through a room when she is first introduced in meetings of executive leadership. By age 25, she was managing large teams and traveling to China to audit the manufacturing processes and technical capabilities of potential new suppliers. “Often, I’m the only woman and the only African American in a room, and frequently I am the youngest as well,” she says. She’s accustomed to her competency and authority being questioned.

But Keyes is also accustomed to handling challenges, an ability she attributes to the skills she honed while she was a student at Syracuse University and a member of the track and field team. “As a student-athlete, you have so much on your plate and no choice but to do well. From a personal development standpoint, it really pushes you to grow,” she says. “You have many opportunities to flex your leadership skills and learn the self-discipline and resilience it takes to push through tough times.” She has drawn on these qualities many times while navigating every step of her extraordinary career.

Business-Minded From the Start

Ashley Keyes portrait.
Ashley Keyes graduated with a dual major in marketing management and supply chain management.

Keyes grew up in Michigan, and her professional aspirations were shaped in part by the model of hard work and persistence she saw in her mother, a single parent who raised four children while working full time. “My mother was a great example to me of how, with hard work and dedication, anything can be accomplished,” Keyes says.

From a young age, Keyes showed a precocious curiosity for business. After her high school track team won regional competitions, Keyes was courted by recruiters from many colleges and universities. Syracuse had not been on her radar, but after a campus visit and a tour of Syracuse’s Martin J. Whitman School of Management , she knew she had found the right place to pursue her interests.

One of the features that drew Keyes to Whitman was that the second-year curriculum included courses across a wide range of fields in business and management. It was a supply chain management class that captivated her. “In many large corporations, supply chain directly impacts other departments. I was drawn to this field because it allows me to work and learn cross-functionally to solve organizational issues,” she says.

Courage, Grit and Resilience

Ashley Keyes in uniform at a track meet.
Keyes, a member of the track and field team, says being a student-athlete helped her develop the perspective and habits that have enabled her thrive as a professional.

For the first couple of years, Keyes says that it was not easy to balance her rigorous academic program with her athletic schedule, but as she learned time management techniques—including starting her days early and with a healthy breakfast—she was able to explore different opportunities. During her sophomore year, one of her professors told her about a Ph.D. pipeline program offered during the summer at Duke University. She applied and was accepted.

Keyes draws a direct line from this experience, where she plunged into studying global supply chain issues, to the subsequent opportunities and offers that have defined her career so far. The insight she was able to bring to the table after that summer of research made her an attractive candidate for her first role in supply chain management—an internship at Walmart. That internship opened the door to an offer from General Motors, which she accepted after graduating from Syracuse University with a dual major in marketing management and supply chain management.

At General Motors, Keyes focused on advanced vehicle development and had her first opportunity to work overseas. Her familiarity with Chinese suppliers would later distinguish her to Apple, where she managed the onboarding of vendors crucial in iPhone production. Currently, Keyes works for Amazon overseeing aspects of the production and life cycle of tablet products. It has been a remarkable trajectory, one that she believes was instigated by the chance she took in her second year of college to try something new and expand her knowledge.

Invest in Yourself

Thinking strategically about the future comes naturally to Keyes. “I think it’s so important to invest in yourself—always learn new skills, advance your education, explore new opportunities,” she says. While a student at Syracuse University, she became involved with the Student-Athlete Advisory Committee, helping fellow student-athletes cultivate options for future careers that don’t rely on sports. Among the events she helped organize were a career fair just for student-athletes and an etiquette dinner.

I think it’s so important to invest in yourself—always learn new skills, advance your education, explore new opportunities.

—Ashley Keyes ’14

Today, she continues this service to students through her involvement in the Young Whitman Advisory Council (YWAC), a group of accomplished and engaged alumni dedicated to helping provide students with programming and support for career exploration, preparation and placement. A key aspect of membership on the council is mentorship. “Through the YWAC, I’m able to share my work experiences and provide advice to current Whitman students,” she says. “I love to give back to students, because I remember being in their shoes and seeking career guidance. Mentoring students is a chance to pay it forward.”

Meanwhile, Keyes continues to take her own advice as well. One of her goals is to pursue a Ph.D. in organizational behavior. “I would like to merge my work experience with research and address issues in how business is conducted—issues of diversity, equity, inclusion and employee empowerment in the workplace,” she explains. It would be a challenging next step, but Keyes knows how to handle that.

Sarah H. Griffin

This story was published on .

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