Carol Sagers headshot1979 B.S. Advertising

Carol Hillsman Sagers is a proud product of the Chicago Public Schools system. She and 25 of her Bowen High School classmates went to the University of Illinois. “New student week was off the hook,” Carol recalled.  As the first person in her family to go away to college, Carol didn’t know what to expect. “It was comforting to get there and have friends from high school with me,” Carol said.

Getting there wasn’t easy. Carol’s mother died when she was young. Carol was separated from her siblings and had lived with different relatives in different states. Eventually, an aunt and uncle, who had no children of their own, allowed Carol to move in with them on the South Side of Chicago. Years later, Carol’s siblings joined her in this home. “My aunt and uncle changed the trajectory of my life by bringing me and my brothers into their home,” she said, “and they taught me that you have to work to get what you want.”

Carol applied to Illinois following the advice and guidance of her high school teachers. They helped her put together and submit her application. Carol was an Illinois State Scholar, which covered her tuition. Her room and board were covered by a number of other grants and scholarhips. One of those scholarships was a four-year progressive young woman scholarship from Alpha Gamma Pi Sorority. “Twenty years after I received that scholarship, I became a member of that sorority,” Carol said. “The Alpha Gamma Pi scholarships continue to support African American college students.” 

Once at Illinois, Carol worked at the Student Services Center, was a member of Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority, the Illini Union Board, the Black Student Association, Torch and Sachem and the Illio staff.

“I loved every moment of it,” Carol said. “I loved most working at the Student Services Center and being in the know. I liked the fraternities and sororities, the weekends, the life of a student. You were in charge of you and had to be responsible if you wanted to continue to go there.”

Carol has fond memories of her membership in the Gamma Chapter of Alpha Kappa Alpha. “I’m a dues-paying life member,” she said. “I still go to meetings and to conferences with other members of Alpha Kappa Alpha, several of whom are also Illini.”

Carol had been an editor of her high school newspaper and selected journalism as her major. That changed when she took an advertising class taught by Gordon White. As summer break approached, Professor White asked Carol if she would like to work in an advertising agency for the summer. She applied and was hired by Foote, Cone and Belding as a copy writing intern. She worked there for three summers.

Senior year, Carol applied for graduate school through the Consortium for Graduate Study in Management and was accepted at Washington University in St. Louis. She graduated in 1981 with an MBA and took a job with Quaker Oats as an assistant brand manager. Twenty-one others were brought in at the same time, fresh out of college. That group would remain connected for many years. At Quaker, Carol worked on the 100% Natural Cereal line and the launch of Chewy Granola Bars. The work was hard and included many late nights, but she loved it.

Around this same time, Carol and Rudy, her boyfriend from the U of I, married. The many late nights at work would have to end. A call from Kraft helped that to happen. Carol was the first of her group to leave Quaker Oats for Kraft, with several more joining her in the next few years.

At Kraft, Carol was a product manager in charge of new cheese products, including the Kraft light naturals and reduced fat naturals product lines. These products were ahead of their time as consumers had just begun reading labels. The Food and Drug Administration hadn’t even defined the terms “light” and “reduced fat” yet.

The work at Kraft was challenging and rewarding, but she and Rudy were living in Hyde Park and Kraft was located in Glenview — an hour commute. As their family grew, that commute took a toll. She started to think about a change.

Carol connected with friends and was introduced to the Gardner family, the owners of Soft Sheen products — an innovative line of products designed specifically for people of color. She joined the team in 1988 as group marketing manager in charge of new products. This was traditional marketing and put to use everything she had learned at both Quaker Oats and Kraft. It was also a markedly different environment — an all-black company whereas she had been the only African American on previous marketing teams. Most important, Soft Sheen was located only 10 minutes from her home.

Eight years after leaving Kraft, Carol received a call from an associate she had worked with at Quaker Oats who was now at Kraft. Help was needed with ethic marketing on the Maxwell House, Kool-Aid, Jello and Post cereals brands. Carol was happy at Soft Sheen, but Kraft made a suggestion she couldn’t ignore: work as a consultant. Soft Sheen accommodated this new arrangement, allowing Carol to have a four-day work week. CHS Consulting — a full-service marketing, advertising and branding firm — was born, and Carol’s consulting career was launched.

When Soft Sheen was purchased by L’Oréal in 1998, Carol began consulting full time. Through the years, she has worked with Ameritech, Unilever, McDonald’s and Sunbeam, among others. All of these clients came through connections with her friends from Quaker Oats and Kraft. “They hired me without a brochure or a business card,” Carol said. The work with McDonald’s turned full time in 2004. What was to have been an 18-month appointment turned into seven years, then she returned to consulting.

Carol considers herself a bridge builder. “People did that for me,” Carol said. “Even today in this highly technical age, I am gainfully employed because my business comes from relationships. It’s a small world. It becomes even smaller when you stay in the same community and discipline for 40 years.”

With those years behind her, Carol has perspective.

“I think there have been no changes in the fundamental aspects of marketing and communication” Carol said. “When you look at the elements and the tactics that prevail — they have changed and evolved with technology. For example, we communicate with different tools and different media now than we did 10, 20, 30 years ago.  As a marketing professional, it’s my job to leverage whatever vehicles are available to deliver persuasive communication. Fundamentally, the job has not changed at all. The tools have changed.”

Her advice for today’s students reflects her own youth.

“Work. Work anywhere you can, any how you can,” she said. “That work experience is an important part of your education. Build relationships with people who work in environments in which you want to work. Build relationships with people who will help you move forward. There are no guarantees in life and nobody owes you anything. Hard work pays off. Building bridges will lead you to where you want to go.”