EMBA Alumna Builds Successful Career Through Improvisation and Education

Kathy Baird

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Improvisation, with all its unpredictability, has been a running theme throughout Kathy Baird’s (EMBA’04) life.

In both her role as group managing director and head of Ogilvy Washington and the theater group she co-founded with her husband, Baird’s love of collaboration and willingness to act with flexibility have guided her to where she is today.

A Lakota/Oneida and enrolled member of the Rosebud Sioux tribe, Baird is an only child who was raised by a single mother. The two split their time between Rapid City, South Dakota, and the Rosebud Indian Reservation before moving to Arlington, Virginia, when Baird was still young.

“Growing up, I always had a tremendous love of the performing arts — theater, dance, music, being onstage,” says Baird. “I was a drama geek.”

At 17, she spent a summer in New York taking classes at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. “I felt destined to be on Broadway and had zero intention of ever being a businessperson,” she says.

Practical ambitions won out, though. Instead of chasing those Broadway dreams, she deferred her artistic goals and went to college. When she became pregnant during her sophomore year, she quit school and returned home.

“Having my daughter was a turning point for me,” says Baird. “I became incredibly ambitious and focused.”

Baird resumed her education at The George Washington University, graduating magna cum laude and landing a job in marketing. After several years, and promotions, her boss suggested she apply to Georgetown’s McDonough School of Business to pursue an MBA. She was accepted into the Executive MBA Program.

At Georgetown McDonough, she learned the importance of teamwork and collaboration, skills that are vital in her role at Ogilvy Washington, the D.C. office of the New York City-based advertising, marketing, and public relations agency.
This new skill set, with its emphasis on team building and collaboration, also serves her well in the parts of her life where art and business meet — particularly in the theater company she co-founded.

In 2013, before Baird joined Ogilvy, she took an improv comedy class. It was yet another educational experience that would steer her life in a new direction. She met her husband, Shawn Westfall, who was the class instructor, and in 2015 the two founded the Unified Scene Theater.

The spirit of collaboration is the foundation of improv theater, and it comes through in Baird’s many roles at the Unified Scene Theater. She serves as the managing director, an actor, and instructor. Collaboration also is the focus of the theater’s offerings, which include improv and sketch comedy performances, classes, and workshops.

Appropriately enough, Baird and Westfall conduct an “Improv for Business Leaders” workshop. The two-hour session is attended by professionals in such sectors as technology, inter-national development, and media. They rehearse practical roles of leaders, such as public speaking and team building, but also riff on soft skills, like the importance of listening, going “off-script” in presentations, and being aware of body language and nonverbal cues. “We’ve also been hired to lead workshops at ESPN, DowDuPont, and other companies,” Baird says.

“Improv has tied everything together in my life — my love for the performing arts, my love for comedy, and my desire for teamwork and collaboration,” she says. “If not for Georgetown and improv, I probably would not be the group managing director and head of Ogilvy Washington.”

—Bob Woods