Liberal Arts Leader: Alison Dennis, Director of Sustainability, Burgerville USA
“Fresh, local and sustainable” describe Burgerville, a popular restaurant chain in the northwest. The Tillamook cheeseburger, halibut fish and chips, and seasonal milkshakes made with locally grown ingredients have many people saying “It’s the only fast food I eat.”
“That’s our favorite thing to hear,” said Alison Dennis, Burgerville’s Director of Sustainability, a new position she’s assumed after five years as their Director of Supply Chain Management. Alison credits her success in business to her undergraduate education in the liberal arts.
As an undergraduate at Bennington College, Alison’s interests were varied. She specialized in visual art, literature and childhood education and intended to head into museum education, which she did initially. But to make ends meet, she took a second job doing “office work” at a neurological clinic where she found she enjoyed the environment more than she expected. It was innovative, a swirl of ideas, not to mention a place where good ideas, quick learning and hard work were encouraged and celebrated.
Her success at the clinic led to a position as a buyer, and this became her entrée into supply chain work. After the neurological clinic was acquired by a major teaching and research hospital, her position–in purchasing and contracts—gave her an inside look at a variety of business operations (hospitals, research, education and teaching).
“Once I was doing that work, that’s where I made the connection from my liberal arts background to the job,” she said. “A liberal arts education is an ideal foundation for anything that’s systems-based, and I learned to look at the world as integrated systems.” A supply chain itself is nothing if not an integrated system of technology, people, facilities and process that bring product from the source or supplier to the customer.
About what drew her eventually to Burgerville she said, “I’ve always been a ‘foodie,’ and an advocate for anti-homogenous food.” When she learned Burgerville was looking for a Director of Supply Chain, she applied, got the job, and since 2006 has been driving the company’s efforts to manage the supply chain that starts with fresh, local, sustainably produced food. She also ensures that it’s not just the end product that’s sustainable but that each link is—that it’s easy, for example, for “guests” to compost their waste.
Now, as Director of Sustainability, she’ll be creating programs and solutions “to expand our sustainable footprint.”
She attributes her continued success to her liberal arts background which fostered innovation, leading to vision and an ability to “create what’s next,” having an idea and making it happen. Today, Alison speaks often to groups, another ability she says she learned in her undergraduate years, “how to write and speak with conviction and how to ask questions that move conversations forward.”
About liberal arts students today, she observes they’re interested in asking and engaging in the most compelling questions of our day. “I just don’t think there are students better equipped to take on the global challenge than liberal arts students.”
She ended on an especially encouraging note: “Ultimately, I believe the most profitable businesses will be the ones that take the best care of people and the planet we share. I believe liberal arts students will play a central role in manifesting that future.”
A tall order, perhaps, unless you’re prepared with an undergraduate education that encourages innovation, develops exceptional communication skills, addresses The Big Questions (“What SHOULD we do?”) all the while promoting cross-cultural understanding. If you have all that, you’re ready for the kind of leadership that will take us into a future we’ll be glad we created.