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Taking on the World: From Michigan State to TikTok

By Wasek Sazzad
Monday, January 15, 2024

Michigan State University alumni are proactively shaping the future of sustainable business. They are consistently infusing their business style and setting global business trends.

Recently, I had the privilege to catch up one-on-one with MSU alumna Hillary Kribben, brand partnerships manager at TikTok. She has made a mark throughout 15 years of her professional career in New York and Chicago, having worked for Vogue, Vanity Fair, Bustle Digital Group, and more. She is now making pivotal contributions to the business growth of TikTok.

Wasek Sazzad headshot

Wasek Sazzad, STEM MBA Class of 2025

Sazzad: After you graduated from Michigan State as a Spartan, you generated $50 million in revenue across the platform and publishing worlds you worked for. How did you plan your career path?

Kribben: I did my undergrad in communications at Michigan State University. I was curious about marketing, publishing, public relations and communications but unsure which path I wanted to take. Communications thankfully covered all facets I was looking to explore. This was 2008 — a time when digital marketing was not at the forefront, as it is today, and print was still leading the charge. I was lucky enough to wear many hats during my two summer internships with American Express Publishing, which allowed me to thoughtfully sort out which career route I wanted to pursue and helped foster the biggest relationship in my career: my mentor, Kate. I can’t begin to emphasize the importance of finding a mentor like Kate who can help guide you throughout your career. She gave me the biggest life-changing advice, which was to “explore the unknown and live in the uncomfortable.” Translated, that meant a move to New York City from Chicago. I was born and raised in Chicago, but for the love of my career, I took on an adventure in New York and was ready to solidify my career path by being in the publishing world’s HQ.

“I can’t begin to emphasize the importance of finding a mentor who can help guide you throughout your career.”

Another valuable insight that all aspiring professionals can take away is the importance of raising your hand and leaning into available opportunities. If there are none, ask for them (whether that means inquiring about new work assignments, more duties, etc.). It will help expand the way for skill, networking and career development. I was constantly volunteering myself for tasks so I could thoroughly grasp the different facets and intricacies of the business, from editorial to event marketing to pre- and post-sale processes. Experiencing this learning curve for two years helped me narrow down and solidify my career choice, which ultimately was in sales. Along with financial freedom, I wanted a solid work-life balance, all while continuing to evolve and be challenged within the space. I wanted to build my career foundation by combining these three factors. So that’s how I landed on advertising, the sales part of publishing. I am passionate about what I do; I love it a ton, and that’s what keeps me going every day in my career.

Sazzad: That’s a very powerful story. Thanks for sharing. Based on your response, as you switched gears many times in your career, have you ever felt like you were pivoting too much and giving up on your dream?

Hillary Kribben headshot

Hillary Kribben, MSU alumna and brand partnerships manager at TikTok

Kribben: Actually, I feel like so many students go into their career trajectory by thinking they’ll move from point A to point B and then follow that gradual work progression — but it never really happens that way. For me, I always wanted to be in advertising but strictly as an individual contributor, which can run the risk of a stagnant career path. To avoid this, I always think about where I can challenge myself. I was in publishing, then print, print to digital, and now platform experience at TikTok. These are all new phases of my career. So, my points A, B, to C were different than what I anticipated but ultimately set me up for success.

Sazzad: It’s highly cross-functional working as a brand partnership manager, so when you take on a project and collaborate with others, you likely want to take your project in a certain direction. In that regard, do you think that you are indirectly managing people that you primarily don’t intend to?

Kribben: That’s a good question, and the short answer is yes. I have lived through so many industry changes, it was imperative I evolve with the ever-changing landscape. For example, while I was working at Vogue, I collaborated with different divisions and delegated the work (e.g., “Marketing, you are doing xyz, Editorial, you are doing xyz”). The quarterback, so to speak. But at TikTok, although I do need to delegate, at the end of the day, I have to wear all those hats. This is the evolution of the internal intricacies of digital sales. I have to go into the details of market insights and partnerships and combine them all under my role. But this cross-functionality is extremely important, not only for the organization but for my professional growth as well. There is a huge benefit to rolling up your sleeves and collaborating with others. It’s very important because you are continuously learning all divisions of your company.

Sazzad: Expanding on what you have shared, sometimes for a newcomer, it can be challenging to raise their hands because, deep inside, they may feel overwhelmed to do so or may feel low in confidence. What strategies would you suggest to overcome those situations?

Kribben: I would suggest simply doing as much of the legwork as you can to try and solve whatever problem is in front of you. A manager will always respect you if you can show that you’ve attempted to solve the problem ahead of time but still need guidance (that is their role, after all!). That will actually allow you to deeply observe the situation and understand the scenario or offer your POV. It’s really an important way to stand out, because when you have a question with context, it will make you more confident to ask the question. Don’t just ask questions for the sake of asking; ask to contribute and ask to learn. That has worked for me and will surely help others make their mark. I wish I had learned that before I joined the workforce. It is a vital piece of learning that the new generation can adhere to.

“When you proactively do more than what is expected, it undoubtedly adds more value.”

Sazzad: Thanks a lot for sharing; it’s a fascinating point of view. Switching focus: when you work in a specific industry for a long time, you generally develop a gut feeling that a certain project is going to work. But consider it’s something unique you want to do, and there is no past data to back it up. How do you go about persuading top management to carry forward the project?

Kribben: Several of my clients’ objectives are centered on new, flashy, first-to-market opportunities (e.g., what can we offer that is PR buzzworthy?). With never-been-done-before big ideas, there isn’t data to support the success of the campaign. So, how do we push the deal over the finish line? We use past campaign metrics, strong relationships, growth trajectory, wrap reports and more to show our success. We demonstrate how, within the competitive landscape, we’ve never failed. We highlight our “white glove service” post-sale teams and their success rate. So, taking it back to the root of TikTok and showing the tremendous success, even during its infancy, paves the way for future projects as well.

Sazzad: If someone is hoping to build on a career similar to yours, what sort of soft skills should they focus on developing?

Kribben: It is simple: be proactive, not reactive. Don’t wait for your manager to direct you. Be a step ahead, think for them, learn their management style, understand your strengths and home in on those skills. Always anticipate the next step. Lastly, the most simple piece of advice that tends to get overlooked is to listen. Ask thoughtful questions. Do research before the meeting. Grow your interpersonal skills. Send the follow-up (in a timely manner!). Communicate and show a willingness to learn more. Show interest. Reiterate their objectives; it shows you understood and listened. When you proactively do more than what is expected, it undoubtedly adds more value.

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