How I found my job at a Best Company

January 17, 2013, 12:07 PM UTC

Ira Mellman

In 2006, two of Ira Mellman's colleagues were diagnosed with cancer. Mellman was at Yale -- he was the chair of his department, and the scientific director of the school's cancer center. At the time, he loved academia, and could have stayed there forever, he says. But he remembers the moment the switch flipped. His wife came home after visiting one of their mutual friends who had been diagnosed with cancer. "My wife was saying, 'you guys say you're so smart, why can't you do anything to help her?'" That was an oversimplification, Mellman knew, but it shook him. Back in 2005, Mellman had been asked to speak at biotechnology company Genentech, and was offered a job there shortly after. Initially, he dismissed the offer. But his friends' diagnoses made him reconsider. In academia, he realized, Mellman wasn't in the best position to fast-track potential cancer drugs. He joined Genentech in 2007, and now leads the company's research related to the relationship between cancer and immunology. Already, he's worked on some promising projects. One involves a protein called PD-L1, which is an antibody that normally protects cells from the body's immune response. But some cancer cells have PD-L1 on their surface so they can sneak by white blood cells undetected. Mellman is now researching treatments for cancer patients that target this interaction between PD-L1 and the immune system. Under Mellman's watch, PD-L1-based treatments have gotten to Phase II and Phase III clinical trials in only two-and-a-half years. "I was told this would never happen -- that it would take seven years at least to get to patients." The switch from academia to the corporate world can feel jarring, but it's good, Mellman says. "It's like, getting a shot of adrenaline that you never even knew you needed. Now my mantra is, 'stop talking about it and just do the damn experiment.'"

Christa Foley

Zappos prides itself on being a kooky place. For example, there is a "Zappos Family Music Video" on the jobs page of its website that features, among other antics, a guy wearing a hotdog suit doing a backflip. The online retailer has always been full of goobers, apparently. In fact, back in 2004, when Zappos only had about 100 employees, Christa Foley was interviewing to be the company's first HR generalist. And she got caught in the middle of a practical joke. She was already a little nervous about the interview. The company was known for being super casual, she says. "I remember thinking, 'should I wear a suit or not?' I ended up wearing a pantsuit so I could take my jacket off and look less corporate-y." Foley interviewed with two Zappos employees who asked her to play a joke on senior executive Fred Mossler and CEO Tony Hsieh, who were interviewing her next. They told her to ask the senior Zappos execs if Hsieh had been taller than Mossler in grade school. "It's funny if you know Tony and Fred," says Foley. "Fred is like six-foot-something, and Tony is a small Asian man." It was the first question she asked, assuming that it was a test of how easygoing and carefree she could be. Unfortunately, "It totally flopped. They literally looked at each other with a confused expression." Turns out Zappos is zany, but its top managers were pretty serious about hiring talent. They continued with the interview, although they were confused by her question, which the jokesters later cleared up. Foley got the job, despite getting caught up in some intra-Zappos antics. Foley is friends with Hsieh now, she says, but "for the first six months, I couldn't even look at Tony." As for the pranksters? "I think they were having fun with each other. I blame my lack of comic skills for not landing the joke."

John Urbin

After graduating from Texas A&M with a degree in architecture, John Urbin decided to do some soul-searching. In 2001, he was back in his hometown, Chicago, looking for a part-time job while he got himself together. Being the organized architecture major that he was, Urbin decided to apply to work at The Container Store, a place he had often shopped. He interviewed with the store's then-manager, Teri Williams. "She asked me if I would ever consider a career in retail. If you ask her, she says I said, 'Hell no,' which, I would never say 'hell' in an interview." Nevertheless, Urbin didn't see himself at the store for long, though he promised to give his the company his all while he was there. Williams hired him and, he says, "She made it kind of a personal mission to change my mind." Urbin eventually started working with the store's product "elfa." Container Store employees use the product to create a custom design for customers looking to organize spaces in their houses. Here's where Urbin's architecture background kicked in. He found he was good at helping people manage space efficiently. Suddenly, he was surprised to find he liked going to work. "I never went back to school, I was just having too much fun, is the best way to put it." Now, he is the general manager of the Edina store in Edina, Minn. He lives there with his wife, whom he met at The Container Store. Their house, he says, is very organized.

Ryan Browning

Ryan Browning basically had to bring back the Golden Fleece to land his job at Mercedes-Benz. But he had wanted to work there for a long time. "It all goes back to my boyhood dream," he says. "I went to car shows every year. My dream car at the time was a 500SL. It just cemented in my mind, okay, Mercedes-Benz is a great company." Fast-forward to Browning as an adult. After working in the Peace Corps for three years, doing financial advising in Burkina Faso and Senegal, Browning entered an MBA program at Duke University. In 2007, Mercedes-Benz USA brought representatives to the annual National Black MBA Conference, which Browning attended. He introduced himself to the company's representatives, one of which was Michaela Sorvino, about an internship, but she said there wasn't one available. The same thing happened at the conference the next year. Later that year, the Mercedes reps came to Duke. Browning walked up to Sorvino and recognized her; he said he remembered her initials. She was impressed. "I was like, every time I see you, there's nothing going on," he told Sorvino. But this time was different. Mercedes Benz had just started a program to train a select few in various parts of the business. Browning applied. One application, a phone screen, a personality profile, and an IQ test later, Browning was invited for a final interview. He was studying in Paris at the time, completing his second year at business school. The company flew candidates in for the interview, but didn't have the budget to pay for an international flight, so Browning bit the bullet and paid his own way back to the U.S. for the final stage of the process. He finished his coursework in Paris, and when he returned home, there was a job offer waiting for him. "After going through all that -- a career fair back in 2007, to actually getting an offer, that was a very happy moment." Browning still appreciates his first love, the SL500, he says, although the 2013 Mercedes-Benz SLS with retro gullwing doors is probably his new favorite car.

Amanda Thompson

Amanda Thompson thought she was only going to spend three hours at oil and gas company Hilcorp, back in 2004. She signed on with a temp agency, and her first assignment was to work a half-day as a receptionist at the front desk. The job was so short and the commute so long that she almost skipped it. But she didn't and, luckily, an order of plaques was screwed up. Every month, Hilcorp's CEO recognizes employees who've been with the company for a certain length of time. Those employees get plaques, but the day that Thompson was temping, the company that organizes the plaques was running late. That left HR recruiter Janis Parker (now Janis Sanders) waiting in the lobby for 45 minutes while Thompson took calls and spoke with employees. In those 45 minutes, Sanders noticed something special. "The next day I'm running around Houston, and I get a call from Hillcorp asking if I could take a full-time position," Thomson says. "I was here just to cover the desk for a few hours and since then, it's been my career."

Nikki Dement

Nikki Dement got a jump on the job market early. She started college at UGA in 2006, when she was 17. Immediately after her freshman year, she started looking for ways to get her foot in the door in accounting, a field she says had always piqued her interest. She applied to jobs through her college counselor at a UGA program called INROADS, which helps underserved youth get started in business and industry at some of the top companies in the country. In May 2007, Dement says, she heard from the INROADS recruiter. "They told me, 'We have Ernst & Young, and they want to talk to you.' They said, 'you seem very eager -- you're young, but you're very eager.'" Dement went into Ernst & Young's emerging leader's program, and was hired on for a two-year internship at the company. By the time she graduated, Dement already had years of experience with the company, which she joined officially as an employee in October 2011. "I have a strong year under my belt," she says. "I've done a lot of work with the largest accounts -- one being a public offering, which was awesome." Now she's an entry-level employee in the firm's Atlanta office, working in financial services. In the future, Dement says, "I really want to serve banking clients. This is such an interesting time."

Perry Erdahl

Before Perry Erdahl worked at the Mayo Clinic, he was the father of a patient. His son Jake was diagnosed with liver cancer at seven years old, and the prognosis was dire. "There was a point in time where they told us he only had a few weeks to maybe a month or two to live," Erdahl says. He and his wife took Jake to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn. "I just can't say enough about the care. Nobody ever gave up," says Erdahl. A team of doctors worked together to treat Jake. Ultimately, the pediatric oncologist and pathologist teased out a piece of information that led them to believe that Jake had a different kind of cancer than they originally thought. They changed the course of treatment, and Jake got better. "That was 14 years ago," says Erdahl. "He's 21 now. He's a junior in college. He was a multi-sport athlete in high school. You would never know what he went through." Some years after Jake's recovery, Erdahl heard about an IT job opportunity at the Mayo, and was eager to apply. Once he was hired, he was able to use his experience as the parent of a former patient. When his son was sick, he says, "My wife, who is a very competent accountant, had a whole set of spreadsheets. We had a hard time tracking which procedures she had paid for and which ones she hadn't." So Erdahl started incorporating a patient's visit number into the medical center's payment system. The Mayo recognized his work, and invited Erdahl to join the clinic's Center for Innovation. At 59, he's a senior project manager at the center, where he develops programs to help senior citizens age better and remain independent longer. He says, "I owe the organization an awful lot."

Donald and Cecilia Butler

Donald and Cecilia Butler met at a race in Corpus Christie, Texas. Both are avid runners. Don was an active-duty officer in the Navy and Cecilia worked for the USAA. So when Don left the Navy in 2006 as a lieutenant commander, he joined the reserves and took a job working for the USAA doing labor market analytics. Five years after he started working for the bank, the Navy informed him that he would have to be deployed to Afghanistan. Going into combat was a big unknown, he says, but USAA had assured him that his job would be waiting for him when he came home. "I say this to a lot of people, but the USAA was more supportive of my deployment than the Navy was." His managers spoke with him immediately, asked if he needed time off to spend time with his family before leaving to serve, and helped him square away his finances while he would be gone. "The first thing I thought to myself is, 'They get it, they understand what it's like to be in the military. That impressed me. And the transition was just as easy as it could be.'" The company also supported Cecilia while Don was gone. The USAA offers support groups for military spouses at home while their partners are deployed. "If there were any concerns that I had, I could discuss them," Cecelia says. When Don returned a year later, the USAA eased his transition. The company even threw a "welcome home" party for the couple. To this day, Cecilia says, the USAA helps her realize the quality of life she desires. She hasn't quit running in the years since she met Don. She has run several marathons, including the prestigious race in Boston. "I squeeze in my running on the lunch break," she says, "and that's just a small example of the things that USAA offers."