IBM Corp.'s vice president of worldwide media relations credits her URI debate experience for much of her success.
From RJR Nabisco to IBM: The High Profile World of Carol Makovich
By Dave Gregorio '80Photos By Nora Lewis
Carol Makovich, chairwoman of URI's 2000-01 Annual Fund, plunged into the new millennium at Internet speed, diving headfirst into a global ocean of technological information in her new job as IBM Corp.'s vice president of worldwide media relations. Makovich credits her ability to master all the gigabytes of knowledge to abilities she developed as a member of URI's debate team.
"Debate was just a wonderful experience, and you would not believe how helpful it has been in my public relations career," she said. "I wish more students would get involved in debate. It really trains you to think clearly and organize your thoughts. I have no fear of speaking in front of an audience about almost any topic, and that really helped when I worked at a P.R. agency and had to pitch to potential clients. I give my debate experience a lot of credit for my success."
Makovich had to summon all those skills and more in the job she held before moving to IBM: public relations spokesperson at tobacco and packaged foods giant RJR Nabisco. "I was there for three takeover fights and all the more recent tobacco lawsuits," she recalled. "It was really crazy at many points, but always very interesting."
Crazy, but always interesting, could describe her life as a student, too. Makovich decided to go to URI after 12 years of Catholic schools, which she said was "a small environment. URI gave me a nice blend of larger size and more diversity without being intimidating."
She leapt into campus life with both feet. Beside the debate team, she was a sister at Alpha Delta Pi sorority, a student senator, and a staffer at The Good 5¢ Cigar, where she worked her way up to features editor.
"One reason I think back so positively on my years at URI is my involvement in student activities," she said. "Debate was just a wonderful experience, and I have great memories of The Cigar, all the hard work getting the paper together and all the characters involved."
She also has fond memories of her professors, especially Speech Professor and Debate Coach Dick Roth and Journalism Professor Wilbur Doctor.
"Wilbur Doctor was a superb teacher and a working journalist; he conveyed excellence and professionalism. Dick Roth was a great guy, a wonderful teacher, and a great coach," remarked Makovich, who also holds a master's degree from Fairfield University and an M.B.A. from the University of Connecticut.
After graduating with a journalism degree in 1975, Makovich worked at what she remembers as "a funny little job" at radio station WERI in Westerly, R.I. "I worked as a receptionist, I did commercials, theater reviews, and movie reviews," she recalled. "Then I got my first real journalism job at The Bridgeport Post (in Connecticut), and I worked there for about three years."
After three years at the newspaper, Makovich realized that the news business was glutted with up-and-coming reporters like herself. "When I started at URI, the Journalism Department was really quite small," she said. "But by the time I graduated, enrollment had quadrupled. Can you guess why? One word: Watergate."
The 1970s scandal that drove President Richard Nixon from office and made household names of Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein also drew thousands of young people into journalism. "It didn't matter if you had talent or worked hard," she said. "The field became incredibly crowded. I decided to try public relations."
She did public relations for a cable manufacturing firm and a bank in Connecticut before moving to New York City. She spent 10 years at public relations powerhouse Hill & Knowlton, where she wound up running the financial relations division before moving on to RJR Nabisco.
After a recent reorganization and spin-off, RJR Nabisco dissolved the holding company's operations, so Makovich and about 100 other people at the New York office were "sent our merry way." Between the severance package and the booming economy, she had no worries about finding another job, so she decided to enjoy herself. "I took about five months off. Went to Tuscany, the Berkshires, the Hamptons, and played a lot of golf. That time was a tremendous gift to someone in mid-career."
When she was ready to work again, IBM was only too glad to oblige with a high-pressure, high-profile position and yet another chance to put her debating skills to work.
"Because of the explosion in e-commerce and the Internet, I think IBM is a great place to be," she said. "I'm computer literate; I know how to use the computer but had no idea about what goes on underneath the keyboard. I've found that to be fascinating, but I still have much to learn." But when it comes to privacy rights, a key, cutting-edge issue for the wired 21st century, Makovich can just laugh and say she's been ahead of that curve since her first year in Kingston.
"As a freshman, my partner Chuck Roth ['75] and I were Yankee Conference Debate Champions. And our topic was right to privacy, which still is a very fresh issue, especially here at IBM with all the concerns people have about data security."
As if she weren't busy enough filling her mind with information about her new employer's global operations, Makovich has given herself plenty more to do at URI; she volunteered to chair her class reunion gift in FY 1999-2000 and will chair the full Annual Fund for FY 2000-01. And after 18 years in New York City, she's moving to a house she purchased in the Westchester County suburb of Bronxville to cut her commuting time to IBM headquarters in Armonk.
"It'll be a big change," she chuckled. "But after all these years in apartments, I'm really looking forward to filling all that closet space."