Gayly Gardner Opem

Executive Vice President of Marketing (Retired) at IES Abroad

Degree(s): BJ '70

Whereabouts: United States, Chicago, Illinois

Gayly Gardner Opem, BJ ’70, recently retired from her position as executive vice president of marketing at the Institute for the International Education of Students (IES) Abroad, a study-abroad program provider. During Opem’s five-year stay at IES, she helped double the organization’s revenues and the number of study-abroad participants. She built an impressive portfolio of success stories during her career, applying her creative marketing skills to a diverse group of companies and organizations. In retirement Opem continues to seek new challenges.

Involved in the Times

Gayly Gardner Opem arrived in mid-Missouri for the start of high school in 1962, when her father accepted a job as a commandant at the Missouri Military Academy in Mexico. It was the first time her family would settle down after many years of moving around from one Marine base to another. The 40-mile proximity to Columbia was what got Opem interested in the University of Missouri, which she knew was a high-quality institution that featured one of the best schools of journalism in the world.

Art, though, not journalism, was Opem’s original major upon arriving at Mizzou. But it didn’t take long before she realized that a career as an art teacher was not what she wanted. Looking back now, Opem sees many benefits from her early classes. “My art courses did help me in my marketing and advertising career as I had to make design decisions with many different projects over the years. Good design, like good writing, is another means of communication,” Opem said.

Opem decided to switch to journalism because of her enjoyment of the yearbook class at Mexico High School. At MU she was a member of Kappa Alpha Theta sorority, serving as its senator and as secretary on the Public Issues Senate Committee in student government. She ran for executive vice-president of the MU student body but was defeated by Steve Weinberg, BJ’ 70, now a professor at the School and with whom she is still friends today.

Gayly Gardner Opem, BJ '70
Gayly Gardner Opem, BJ '70, as a member of the Student Conduct Court, from the 1970 Savitar.

Opem’s time at MU was an interesting period for both the student and the U.S. governments. Growing protests against the Vietnam War evoked strong feelings around the world. Some MU students were charged with breaking into offices and taking documents related to freedom of speech. Opem heard these cases as a member of the Student Conduct Court. The National Guard was called in to police a large group of MU students who gathered on Francis Quadrangle in reaction to the Kent State shootings in 1970. Opem recalled feeling very scared walking past the group, with the assembled students having no idea how many troops waited in buses behind Jesse Hall.

Opem had a geographic connection to another historic event of the time. In the summer of 1969 she was working as a switchboard operator for a resort on Martha’s Vineyard, just down the road from Chappaquiddick where a young woman’s body was found inside an overturned car belonging to Massachusetts Sen. Ted Kennedy. Opem hoped to be able to attend the trial but the start of her news reporting class forced her to return to Mizzou before it started. Another major event of that summer was the Apollo moon landing. Neither Opem nor her friends — all under the legal drinking age — had a television set so they sneaked into a local bar to view this historic event.

As Opem prepared to graduate, she had two job offers from recruitment interviews on campus. One was as a reporter for the now-defunct New York Daily News; the other was as an advertising copywriter for Sears in Chicago. Since both met her requirement to live in a big city, Opem chose to go into advertising because it allowed her to use her visual art creativity along with her writing skills.

Chicago turned out to be a good personal choice for Opem as she met her future husband, Robert A. Opem, at a party for volunteers helping an independent alderman candidate. The city also would provide Opem with plenty of professional opportunities over the next 28 years.

Marketer of All Trades

Before getting her first real job, Opem determined that she would keep it for at least one year, no matter what. But soon after joining Sears, she found out that men hired at the same time as her were making more money and received their reviews earlier. Opem began looking for a new job immediately and left on her one-year anniversary.

Opem’s next job with Playboy Enterprises in Chicago provided an open environment where women could advance. There, Opem researched the letters to the editor and wrote the Playboy Advisor columns. She then moved to the business side of the magazine, first as a copywriter and then as subscription manager.

Sears and Playboy represented the first of many successful job changes into completely different industries for Opem, who also worked for Publishers Clearing House, WTTW-TV (Chicago’s local PBS-affiliate) and Allstate Motor Company. She believes her childhood of moving around every few years carried over to her professional life.

“I like new challenges,” Opem said. “I’ve found that when you’ve stayed at the same job for three years or so, you’re doing the same thing over and over, which is one reason I would look around.”

Opem added that neither she nor her husband were interested in having children. This made it easier to take the risks of changing jobs and employers so often.

Marketing has been the common thread in all of the positions she has held.

“You have to understand what people want from the product you’re trying to sell and frame it in that way to audiences.” Opem said. “It’s about finding audiences and exploring what was good about the product.”

Opem introduced new programs such as a Taste of Home Cooking Expo, grandparents/grandchildren travel packages for Reiman Media Group, and helped Allstate Motor Club add new clients. Opem’s strategy of marketing proved successful across all industries, allowing her to solve problems and increase revenues for a variety of companies.

A big part of Opem’s strategy is critical thinking, something she credits the Missouri School of Journalism for instilling in her.

“I remember being called to task by Mr. Duffy in my feature writing class about making sure only the facts were reported, not my personal opinions or feelings.” Opem said. “That is very important for success in business when difficult and challenging decisions must be made such as how to allocate a budget or hire a new staff member.”

Opem added that prioritizing the facts and determining which information is most pertinent also was key.

“The process one goes through to write a news story requires a reporter to collect all the facts, make a determination as to the most important aspects of a story, and distill the essence into a headline and lead paragraph.” Opem said. “I found this process comparable when solving issues in the business world, from new product development to crisis management.”

Opem also found that her J-School degree helped her in a number of job interviews over the years, including her most recent job interview for the executive vice president of marketing at IES Abroad. The company president’s husband was a journalist, so she knew the value of a Missouri School of Journalism degree.

Opem found her job with IES Abroad to be the most exciting and rewarding position of her career. Her involvement in People-to-People International while at Mizzou proved to be a good foundation as both organizations promote the importance of international understanding and educational, cultural and humanitarian activities.

“I always enjoyed travel and seeing new things, meeting new people, trying new foods,” Opem said, undoubtedly a carryover from her “Marine brat” days.

Opem enjoyed tailoring IES Abroad’s 80 different study abroad programs in 18 different countries to the needs of each student. She added that there is a general misconception about study-abroad providers.

“There’s not a good understanding on campuses that they (study-abroad providers) are businesses, and they still have to meet the bottom line,” Opem said. “They are not subsidized by college fees and endowment funds like study-abroad departments on campus. How you put together a program for academic credits is a challenge, because you’re dealing with young adults who are torn between being independent and meeting criteria for study programs.”

Opem said the job was a 24/7 commitment because of the numerous behind-the-scenes challenges associated with study-abroad programs. These include exchange rates, safety concerns and working with schools to make sure all academic criteria are met.

Opem strongly encourages every student to study abroad long enough to get out of their comfort zone.

“Living in another country opens minds as no other experience can,” Opem said. “And it leads to a respect for tolerance and understanding of different cultures, something every good journalist needs both now and in the future.”

Even though she loved her job, Opem did not want to work into her 60s. So a week after her fifth anniversary at IES Abroad, she surprised her boss and staff with the news that she would retire.

Opem splits her time between Chicago, Caledonia, Wis., and Rockport, Texas, doing volunteer work for the environment and the humane treatment of animals. She also indulges in her passions such as art, gardening, golf and, of course, travel.

Updated: November 10, 2011