Impacting the world, one generation at a time

November 13, 2020

Karen Hughes Quintos, a 1985 Penn State graduate in business logistics, said that her mother, Nancy Schane Hughes, a 1959 graduate in business administration, is the perfect example of the old adage that behind every strong man is an equally strong, or even stronger, woman.

Hughes — one of the first women to graduate from what is now the Penn State Smeal College of Business — studied secretarial science, a course of study designed to prepare primarily female students to be an executive assistant.

She called the decision to attend Penn State the right one for her, not only because of the education that she received, but because she also met her future husband, Charles Hughes, a 1959 graduate in agriculture, there.

Demonstrating a level of confidence that her children also exude, Hughes said she was never intimidated as one of the few female students studying business at Penn State in the 1950s.

“I didn’t find that situation challenging. In fact, it was fun,” she said.

By the time she graduated, Hughes was secretly engaged. She and Charles wed in November 1959, just six months after she started working as an executive assistant in the personnel department at U.S. Steel.

After the wedding, the couple immediately moved to Texas, where Charles was stationed with the U.S. Air Force. Hughes said that she wished she could have taken the job with her, but soon her life would be filled with what she considered even more important work: motherhood and volunteerism.  

There’s no doubt that Quintos admires her mother.

“She was always an individual who believed in giving back, working hard, and doing whatever it takes,” Quintos said. “Even though she wasn’t a so-called business role model for me, she was certainly a role model when it came to the values, principles, and foundational things that shaped who I am today.”

For Hughes, volunteer work became central to her identity. Over the years, she said she spent countless hours supporting her children’s extracurricular activities, various community organizations, and her church, where she was treasurer.

She called her volunteer work some of the most challenging, yet rewarding, experiences she’s ever had and credits her business education with preparing her for those roles.

Quintos never planned to follow her parents to Penn State, but her senior year of high school drove home the point of just how small her hometown of Pen Argyl, Pennsylvania, was. She said she realized she wanted to attend “the biggest university on the planet where I knew I could make a difference.”

Once on campus, Quintos enrolled in a business logistics class (now known as supply chain) with emeritus Professor John Coyle after a friend promised she would see everything going on in the business world: from manufacturing to marketing to transportation to distribution — and that’s where she found her passion.

A Smeal adviser helped Quintos secure a summer internship at Merck — the first internship the pharmaceutical firm ever offered for business logistics — and that would lead to a full-time position following graduation.

Earlier this year, Quintos retired as executive vice president and the first chief customer officer at Dell Technologies.

She said it was a role she once called "a natural fit" for women because it requires a number of skills many are good at, including listening, empathy and collaboration. In that role, she was responsible for customer strategy, advocacy, and experiences, as well as social impact strategy, programs focused on sustainability, diversity and inclusion, and applying Dell’s technology and innovation for good.

As she considered her daughter’s success, Hughes said it comes down to two things: “Karen was always confident. And she has always given 110% in everything that she does.”

When Quintos found herself “bored” just a few short months into her first full-time job at Merck, for example, she said she confidently marched into the office of the woman leading a new product launch and asked to be a part of the team.

Three months later, she was offered a position.

“It takes a combination of companies being deliberate in seeking out and developing talent that has the capability to lead, but women also have to have the courage to say they want it,” she said. “If someone tells you no, that’s OK. But get back out there and do it again.”

Quintos spent 12 years at Merck in roles that included director of global supply chain management and director of packaging. After close to three years as vice president of global operations and technology at Citigroup, she was recruited to Dell Technologies by company founder Michael Dell.

Nearly half of her 20 years at Dell were in the C-suite, first as senior vice president and chief marketing officer, and later as executive vice president and chief customer officer.

Michael Dell was considered visionary in his approach to the customer relationship, she said, when discussing Dell’s decision to create the chief customer officer position.

“Michael understood that why customers did business with you would ultimately come down to the customer experience,” she said.

That’s where Quintos fit in.

At Dell, she said, she had the chance to build the customer experience from the ground up. She looked at ways Dell could best serve their customers and make things easier.

The result was a dramatic shift from the norm, and it helped Dell to stand out from its competitors. The company was able to take millions of customer data points and consider how to realign the organization around key priorities. In the process, Dell was able to design solutions to deliver value to customers, create customer loyalty programs, and increase customer satisfaction, acquisition, retention, and profitability.

Quintos also led Dell’s efforts around diversity and inclusion and corporate responsibility, causes she said she is particularly passionate about. She also had the opportunity to influence how Dell could partner with customers on higher-purpose missions.

For example, as a member of Smeal’s Board of Visitors, Quintos has leveraged her connections at Dell to explore ways that the college can work with students to create a welcoming and inclusive culture in the workplace.

Quintos is also passionate in her advocacy for women. She was founder of Dell’s Women in Action and the Interfaith Employee Resource Groups, and Dell’s Women Entrepreneur Network.

On what she refers to as “the last normal day” before the pandemic forced her and her colleagues to work remotely, Quintos helped ring the bell at the New York Stock Exchange to celebrate International Women’s Day.

The reality of how the pandemic was going to impact her work led Quintos to accelerate the timeline for her planned retirement.

“God has been tugging at my heart for a while now to go do something more meaningful, more purpose-driven,” Quintos said.

Given the example that Nancy Hughes provided her daughter, that comes as no surprise.

“My passion is really around education, health care, and solving inequality issues, so my next step will be in that space,” Quintos said.

Looking to the future, Hughes cannot help but reflect on how the world has changed since her own graduation more than 60 years ago.

“The opportunities for women are there now, but I do sometimes think there’s still a bit of a barrier,” she said. “So, I would encourage today’s students to work hard, keep their priorities in line, and put forth their best effort.”

Quintos echoed her mother’s thoughts.

“Even in 2020, women may still lose a job because of gender equality issues,” Quintos said. “That’s why it’s important that we encourage our sons to be part of the solution. Have the hard conversations. Do what is right.”

Following his mother’s lead, Quintos’ son Alex recently took a leadership role for diversity recruiting with his employer.

“When I asked him what inspired him to take the role, he told me that it was important to have more women and more people of color join the firm,” she said. “It’s so rewarding to see him be a role model, to put our family’s values into action.”

Although Alex, as well as Quintos’ daughter, Carmella, both chose other universities, the family is holding out hope for another Penn Stater in the family: Quintos’ youngest daughter, Elle, a high school junior, is considering a career in medicine and Penn State is one of her top school choices.

Hughes’ and Quintos’ stories make it easy to imagine how a third generation Penn Stater could also impact the world one day.

Among her many accolades, Karen Hughes-Quintos received the Distinguished Achievement and Alumni Diversity awards from the Smeal College of Business in 2009 and 2016, respectively. She was recognized as an Alumni Fellow by the Penn State Alumni Association in 2010 and received the University’s Distinguished Alumni Award, the highest honor bestowed by Penn State, in 2014. She has also been named among the most influential CMOs in the world by Forbes and named ‘Mother of the Year’ by Working Mother magazine.

EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the second in a year-long series celebrating the accomplishments of pioneering alumnae of the Smeal College of Business. To nominate someone, email Anne Louise Cropp, associate director of development communication, at all109@psu.edu.

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Last Updated November 13, 2020