From Disney to Starbucks, Shewalter doesn’t shy away from big challenges

Gies Business alumni Erik Shewalter (right) and fiancee Naomi Liu have enjoyed the experience of working together at Starbucks.
Gies Business alumni Erik Shewalter (right) and fiancee Naomi Liu have enjoyed the experience of working together at Starbucks.

Within four years of graduating from Gies College of Business, Erik Shewalter (BADM ’14) has moved from the Big Four – to one of the world’s largest entertainment companies – to one of the world’s largest fast food and coffee companies. At Gies, Shewalter double-majored in supply chain management and marketing. He also earned a minor from the Hoeft Technology & Management Program. Shewalter started at Deloitte Consulting. He then moved to the Walt Disney Company, where he helped develop the new Disney-branded DTC streaming service. Now, he is a product manager on the Starbucks Rewards Innovation team, and he gives us a sneak peek about what’s coming with Starbucks Rewards in 2019.

Q. What are your main responsibilities as the Product Manager for the Starbucks Rewards Innovations Team?
A. As the product manager, I oversee strategy and innovation for Starbucks Rewards. My team is responsible for defining the program’s strategic objectives and owning major loyalty and digital innovations from ideation to launch. As a result, I spend most of my time gathering insights, developing new concepts, prioritizing ideas, building financial models, presenting business cases to our leaders, and working with cross-functional teams like technology and operations to bring it all to life for our 15 million active rewards members.

Q. Can you give us a hint about what’s coming with Starbucks Rewards in 2019?
A. I can share a bit about what’s coming in the spring by quoting one of our executives from a recent earnings call: “We’ll significantly enhance the appeal of the rewards program next spring when, for the first-time, customers will be able to redeem different amounts of stars for different products, giving them a choice to use stars sooner for lower ticket items or save for higher ticket items like lunch, packaged coffee, and merchandise.”

Beyond that, what I can also share is that we have numerous projects in the works to increase the appeal of the program by introducing innovative new benefits. We’re also making it easier to join and earn rewards, and we are investing in making the app experience as frictionless and delightful as possible. With only 20% of our monthly customers in the program, we still have so much room to grow.

Q. Before you went to Starbucks, you worked at Disney and helped develop the Disney streaming service. What was that like?
A. My role at Disney was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. In my first few months, I was told I would be working on a project to help our leaders decide if we should launch a Disney-branded streaming service (little did I know the project would result in one of the biggest developments in the entertainment industry!) Over a few short months, we put together a learning plan to gather insights from customers, compiled considerations for content licensing and distribution, built a robust business case to model out hundreds of different product configurations, and ultimately put together a data-driven recommendation for the chief strategy officer.

One of the defining moments of my career will forever be one of my first meetings with Kevin Mayer (Chairman of Direct-to-Consumer and International). There were nine people in the room––about two-thirds of which either went to Harvard for undergrad or business school––and I remember feeling so out of place. But, I came to the meeting prepared, and because I was so immersed in the data, I was able to share specific insights that influenced decisions like the choice to include Star Wars and Marvel content in the streaming service.

This project was the first time in my career I could step back and say “wow, I absolutely love the work I’m doing, and I would willingly work on it all night or all weekend” (but that was rarely necessary). That was how I knew I made the right career pivot.

Q. Part of the reason you left Disney to work at Starbucks was so you could work with your fiancée, who is also Gies Business alum. What has that been like?
A. Working at the same company as my fiancée Naomi Liu (FIN, BADM ’15) has been amazing. There are so many little perks that materialize every day, such as sharing a commute, or even sharing our networks (which is critical for succeeding at Starbucks). Also, we love to surprise each other by bringing the other person drinks and snacks throughout the day. Naomi works in food innovation, so she frequently stops by desk to share samples of potential new products. I really enjoy talking about this topic because multiple people warned us about working at the same company, but there has not been a single issue since I joined Starbucks.

Q. You worked at Deloitte for almost 3 years immediately after graduating. What was that like, and what motivated you to get out of the Big Four world?
A. I will forever owe my career to Deloitte Consulting and the amazing experiences the firm provided me. My first project lasted nearly two years and the client was in Seattle (those two years made me want to move to Seattle). On that project, I developed so many leadership and communication skills––it was basically a career-building boot camp that lasted for 22 months. I loved the travel, the colleagues, and the skills I developed; but I wanted a role that was more hands-on, strategic, and relevant to my interests as a customer (hence my interest in companies like Disney and Starbucks). Leaving Deloitte was hard because I had to say goodbye to so many great colleagues and mentors that invested in me, but it was worth it to pursue my career aspirations.

Q. You’ve done a lot professionally since graduating from Illinois in 2014? How has your career path so far matched up with how you envisioned it would go?
A. My career path since 2014 is above and beyond what I could have possibly envisioned. I knew that starting in consulting would help me pursue roles at desirable companies in the long run, but I thought it would have taken a lot longer to make it there. Several of my colleagues went to business school to pivot from consulting to companies like Starbucks and Disney, so I am thankful that I was able to do so with just a few years of work experience. However, because I am in a role at Starbucks that would typically be reserved for someone with an MBA, I often must put in extra effort to prove that I am qualified to be at the product manager level. Also, I did not anticipate leaving Chicago, but being flexible on work location was crucial for me to pursue these opportunities.

Q. How did your business education at Illinois uniquely prepare you for the challenges of the business world?
A. My business education at Illinois gave me a great foundation to build upon, and it has been critical for me to contribute to meetings with accounting, legal, finance, etc. Additionally, I often think back to concepts I learned in my core and major-specific classes. Three classes that have been top of mind for me recently are BADM 322 (Marketing Research), TMGT 367 (Management of Innovation), and BADM 449 (Business Strategy). I have been conducting research studies to inform digital innovations and loyalty strategies, and I have looked back at some notes from those classes to refresh my knowledge on frameworks and learnings.

Q. What stands out most about your experience in the business school at Illinois?
A. The leadership roles I held during college stand out the most to me. I think that being a resident advisor, a Business 101 section leader, and the president of Illinois Enactus were crucial for shaping me into the professional I am today. These roles gave me the opportunity to develop public speaking skills, build confidence, and practice decision making in low-stakes environments. I cannot imagine starting my career as a consultant or presenting to executives without these experiences under my belt.