|Kicking off an unexpected career. |
Jeneé Dagenhart didn't like beer in college. The last thing she would have imagined was that someday she'd become a marketing activation specialist at MillerCoors, promoting the company's products and working with the Dallas Cowboys and the NFL. Her original plan? To open her own restaurant. But through the people Jeneé met at Hilton College and the connections she made, she discovered a completely different path. All the pieces of her education—beverage-management classes, volunteering with student organizations, attending Career Fair, managing the service team at the College's annual Gourmet Night—came together to create a future she never expected. And one she wouldn't trade for all the fine wine in the world.
Jeneé, who graduated from Hilton College in 2003, has traveled across the country to assist beer distributors, worked with restaurants and bars to encourage the sale of Miller and Coors products, and now develops tie-in promotions for Miller Light and the Dallas Cowboys. Jeneé has risen rapidly through the ranks of the company, and feels right at home in her profession. And she appreciates everything Hilton College did to point the way.
What first sparked your interest in hospitality and specifically in beverage management?
At first, I was interested in restaurants, actually. After high school, I went to Louisiana State University for a semester, and while there I waited tables at a country club owned by ClubCorp. I watched the manager at the club's restaurant and thought, "Hey, that's what I want to do—own a restaurant." I liked being able to cater to people and their special occasions, and I also liked the uncertainty, not knowing what's coming up next. My interest in restaurants brought me to Hilton College. When I came to the College, I kept working at ClubCorp-owned clubs in the area, working front of the house, and started to learn about wine. Meanwhile, I took beverage management classes from Dr. Glenn Cordua, and became interested in the beverage industry. I never thought I would sell beer, but now I love it. Who knew?
Why did you transfer to Hilton College?
When I initially decided I wanted to go into restaurant management, I searched hospitality programs online. I found Cornell, the University of Nevada, Las Vegas and Hilton College at UH. Even though I grew up in Houston, I didn't realize how highly ranked the school was or what a great reputation it had until I started looking for a hospitality program. My dad encouraged me to come home from LSU, and my friends wanted me to come back … so coming back to Houston was an easy decision. I soon became a "hotel and restaurant management junkie," always at the College. I got to know the professors well, and they make the College what it is. They genuinely care, and I still keep in touch with them today. They push for you to do well in your career and care about you personally. I also thought that the fact that you could go to a school in a fully functioning hotel and restaurant was really cool. For me it was such a good decision.
What was your experience at the College like? What valuable experience did you gain?
I really loved the school, the teachers, and the program. There were some really cool classes, like a Saturday wine-tasting class I took, that I really enjoyed. The professors are great. But in my experience, the classroom was just a small part of it. Being involved in organizations and Gourmet Night, as well as working full time in clubs and restaurants, was really important. I was involved with the student chapter of Club Managers Association of America, and that was an easy fit because of my club experience. We met people working in the field, and we got to see what really goes on in a professional atmosphere. And Gourmet Night—I can't say enough good things about it. I love that it's entirely run by students and the fact that students are given "ownership" of this event. It's a cool concept, and one of the best moments of my college career. I was service manager my senior year and managed a team of people, so I learned that everyone's personality is different and you have to manage people differently. It taught me a lot of patience and how to be an effective manager. The one big thing I took from the program as a whole is that it taught me to be open and friendly and build relationships. That's what hospitality is all about.
Why exactly did your career path change from restaurant management to working in the beer sector of the industry?
As I spent time working in restaurants in college, I realized that it would be nice to own your own restaurant, but when managing a restaurant, you miss a lot of time with your family and friends because you work so much. Through my wine classes and restaurant work, I became really interested in wine. But that changed after I attended a Career Fair and met Gary Skovsted, the recruiter for the Coors Brewing Company (now MillerCoors). Mary Douglas (the College's Placement director) came and talked to my class and encouraged us to go to Career Fair, to shake hands and get to know the recruiters. I stopped by the Coors booth, and then returned every semester and chatted with Gary. I really learned about the Coors Brewing Company and its culture, and my senior year Gary made me an offer—we really didn't even have a formal interview. So my career started as a result of the relationships and connections I made at Career Fair.
You worked full time during your entire college career. Why did you think that was important, and how did you juggle schoolwork and your work schedule?
I worked evenings, which made juggling easier. I thought it was important because, honestly, practical experience goes much farther than book experience—not only because of the relationships you build, but because of the uncertainty and unpredictability of the restaurant business. The hospitality industry isn't something you can learn completely in a classroom. Hilton College does a really good job of putting you in practical situations for a class, but it was crucial for me to also have that real-life experience and to be able to put that on my résumé. I wanted to show that I really did understand what I was getting into and I didn't just read about it. I made really good connections in the clubs' restaurants, too. They were like a family, and I still keep in touch with many people.
You've stayed with MillerCoors since graduating from Hilton College. What made you want to join and stay with this company?
It never crossed my mind in school that I would end up selling beer for a living! My friends and family still tease me because I once wouldn't touch beer. But after talking often with the recruiter at Coors, it really seemed like the right career move. For one thing, it was a chance to move to Denver—I'd never lived outside of the South. Also, I really like the culture of the company. It's like a family, just like Hilton College is. I started with the company in 2003, first working as a sales quality specialist in Denver. I went in and monitored distributors, checking things like the temperature they kept their beer, how it was stored, how often it was rotated, and such. If there were any issues, I would stay in that city and train the distributors. In that job, I went to 18 states in nine months—from Alaska to Maine. I then moved from Denver to Dallas and became a retail sales specialist for on-premise accounts. I had 200 accounts and worked with distributors to make Coors "top of mind" in places where beer was sold. For a while, I was the only person in Dallas-Fort Worth who did this job. The company realized it was working really well so they hired more people, and I became manager overseeing a team of four. After Miller Brewing Company and Coors Brewing Company merged, I moved to promoting Miller Lite and other brands as well. Last year I became a marketing activation specialist, which has proven to be the best job I've had since graduating college. Now, I develop all the regional programming where you see Dallas Cowboys and Miller Lite and the NFL and Coors Light tied together. As a team, we come up with marketing ideas, such as wearables, coasters, buckets, neon signs and display enhancers. We work with agencies that build and ship these items to our distributors to be used at retail stores to help sell more beer. Because of our exclusive beer partnership with the Dallas Cowboys, Miller Lite has a huge presence at the new Cowboys Stadium. I was an integral part of activating that presence. One of the best parts of my job is also developing unique "consumer experiences" that allow our beer drinkers to have VIP access to the stadium. Selling beer is not as easy as you'd think—it's a lot of hard work, but I can't image doing anything else. I have fun every day at work and I've enjoyed growing with the company.
How has your Hilton College education enhanced your career?
There's nothing from my degree that I haven't used, but it's hard to pinpoint just one thing that really stands out. It's a little bit of everything. My experience at the College definitely taught me the importance of building relationships and making connections. It also taught me to be very proactive and outgoing in everything I do. I was very passionate about my school, the University of Houston and the education I received, and I really appreciated the teachers and the sense of family found at the College. It definitely enhanced my life. Some of the specific topics I studied I don't really use in my job now, just because of the type of job I have, but an education in hospitality really prepares you for any career because our society is all about service. I learned to build relationships, which gets you far in the beverage industry and especially in the beer business. It's a degree that prepares you for many careers—and for life. It opens your eyes to so many things.
What is rewarding about your career?
I enjoy working with people who are there for the love of the business. Distributors have generally been around for a long time and rarely leave the industry, and so they're really passionate about it. They're not just there to make a paycheck. I get to work with a great group of people every day. Also, I get to do some really fun, exciting things. I went to the Super Bowl in Miami last year, and I've been to every Dallas Cowboys game since the new stadium opened. I go to lots of sports events and concerts, which I love. The Dallas Cowboys have a great brand—even if you're not a fan, you know who they are and what they stand for. We pair Miller Lite with the Dallas Cowboys and use their "borrowed equity" to help our sales.
What advice would you give students who want to pursue a similar track?
Work at a restaurant, first of all. It teaches you so much—patience, the ability to relate to people. Working in a restaurant opened my eyes to the beverage industry, which later opened doors for me. And I just don't think you can learn in a classroom what you learn in real life, so working is important. Also, pursue an education in hospitality … you just can't go wrong with the hotel and restaurant management degree, you really can't. You can do anything with that background, and I think I'm proof of that. A degree in hotel and restaurant management teaches you about service and it will help you succeed. And any activities you can pursue beyond the classroom will help, whether it's getting involved in organizations or working.
Why should prospective students consider attending Hilton College?
If you're going to pursue hospitality as a career, Houston has a lot to offer. It's a good place to establish roots because it's a major metropolitan city and has many restaurant opportunities. If you make connections during school, you're likely to get a good job after graduation. And at Hilton College, the faculty is great, just unbelievable—they make the experience worthwhile. Also, the opportunity to work at the College's hotel is valuable. You have the chance to manage, serve and sell food and beverages, and you're doing it for college credit but also serving real customers. That's a cool opportunity.