Staff Q&A/Breann Savage

Breann Savage, Wharton External AffairsPhoto credit: Mark Stehle

As administrative assistant for Wharton External Affairs, Breann Savage is in charge of running the school’s LinkedIn group. The online community is growing at such a blazing pace—roughly 100 new members join every week—Savage says she sometimes feels as though she has to run to keep up with it.

“We’ve already surged past the size of a lot of our peer groups,” Savage says.

Managing the LinkedIn group is just one facet of her job, which also sees her deal with alumni functions.

Away from the office, Savage is an avid traveler. She spent a week this summer taking a group of high school students from her church on a more conventional community-building trip to Guatemala.

The Current recently spoke with Savage about her job, her life and what the future holds for Wharton’s LinkedIn online community.

Q. What does your job as an administrative assistant for Wharton External Affairs entail?
A.
I’m the administrative assistant in virtual services, so I deal with stuff on the computer that’s not IT-related. I manage the Wharton LinkedIn group, and various reports for class gift campaigns. I’m one-third of our alumni affairs help desk. Anyone who’s calling in with problems or questions, we have a rotating schedule to deal with that. I also do some of our global events calendar for alumni. I do the minutes for all of our board meetings.

Q. What is LinkedIn?
A.
It’s a professional networking site. We had an alumnus who started a group with the idea that when he reached 500 members he would turn it over to the school. We took over the group at the end of 2008; I became the owner on Dec. 1. The group has spiked in membership, and it’s now 10,166. It’s grown very fast.
It’s a place where Wharton alumni can talk to each other in a safe space. They can have discussions on everything from how you would rate President Obama’s performance to the best web-based applications for businesses. People put out requests for funding. People who are looking to fund certain kinds of ventures can check there.
Then you have the side topics. There were lots of discussions on the [Bernie] Madoff crimes. There’s a job board so alumni can reach out to alumni directly. It’s a nice addition to what our various career management offices organize for the alums. It’s just one more resource for them.

Q. What is your specific role when it comes to managing the group?
A.
We have a closed group because we want it to be only Wharton alumni. You have to request to join. I accept or decline all the requests. I send out periodic announcements or start discussions that talk about various things we want to highlight. We also want to drive alumni to Wharton Connect, which is our Wharton online community.

Q. Why is it important for Wharton as an institution to have such a strong presence on social media sites?
A.
The main reason is you can’t just rely on the alumni coming to you. You have to go out to where they are and they’re on these web sites. Maintaining alumni engagement even during bad economic times is important, and this is one more way we can have a presence in the day-to-day life of alumni.

Q. How big do you think the Wharton LinkedIn group can grow?
A.
I think it’s going to depend on a number of factors—LinkedIn’s ability to adapt in the ever-changing social media arena; Wharton’s ability to leverage and react to the new features and changes introduced by LinkedIn; and, of course, online social networking’s continued popularity. I definitely think it’s more than a fad, but it’s difficult to know what the landscape will look like in the future.

Q. How did you wind up at Penn?
A.
I came to Penn in 2008. I graduated from the University of Virginia with a bachelor’s degree in Spanish and foreign affairs. I was in New York after graduation and I got engaged and my fiancée was in this area finishing up his master’s degree. A ton of people told me what a great place Penn was to work for. It is.

Q. What makes Penn, and Wharton in particular, such a special place?
A.
I think part of it is the caliber of the people. You’re working with people who are extremely intelligent, and in Wharton they’re extremely motivated also. I’m happy here, I think it’s a really good place to work. It’s great to have stability, especially in this economy. I don’t have any plans to leave in the near future.

Q. I understand you spent part of your summer in Guatemala. Can you tell me about that?
A.
The church that my husband and I attend has a partnership with a group called Food for the Hungry. They’re in a special program where a church has adopted a specific town, Vipecbalam, Guatemala. It’s in the western highlands.
My husband and I led a group of high schoolers. We taught a vacation Bible school. We also went down there to build a kitchen but we weren’t quite skilled enough, so we worked on a latrine that they happened to be building at the same time.
The idea behind Food for the Hungry is to help build infrastructure and eradicate poverty both spiritually and physically. It’s a very holistic approach. A lot of the communities and people in this town have really unhealthy wood fires they build inside their homes that cause poor nutrition and respiratory problems. We helped add a kitchen to the school that the group had built the previous two years.
The goal is to build independence in communities. We went there and the project had already been started and when we left it wasn’t finished. Food for the Hungry provides about 10 percent of the labor and 90 percent of the cost. They want the local community to take ownership of the project. It’s really cool because you’re just a part of the process. It’s not your project, it’s not your accomplishment, it’s their accomplishment.

Q. Have you participated in other projects like this before?
A.
I’ve been on a lot of short-term outreach trips throughout my life. I’ve been to Mexico and some Indian reservations, Skid Row in L.A. This was a new opportunity to lead a group. I don’t work a lot with the high schoolers in the church, so I thought it would be a great opportunity to get to know some of them.
It was very interesting. I went on my honeymoon in Panama. Guatemala is not that far, but it’s worlds apart. Everyone gets sick who goes there. I think everyone on our team got sick besides two people. It’s a beautiful, beautiful country, but it is definitely developing. The cities smell like gas and smoke and other unpleasant things.
But we really enjoyed it. Taking high schoolers was fun. For a lot of them it’s their first time being out of the country.
For me it’s very powerful. The reason we’re going there is to tell them that’s there’s a God who stands against injustice and poverty. It’s hard to see how they’re going to get out of the cycle of poverty, so it makes it all the more amazing when you see someone who has.

Originally published on September 3, 2009