Kara Palmer started out as a pharmacy major, but she found that organic chemistry pointed by contrast to her true passion in another career.
“It was probably one of the hardest decisions in my young life because in my mind, I had to admit defeat and failure,” she said.
She took an elective course in human resources and fell in love with it and organizational management, saying, “I really felt at that moment, I found my calling.”
“It was probably one of the hardest decisions in my young life because in my mind, I had to admit defeat and failure.”
Palmer followed that passion into positions in human resources at companies ranging from a food and beverage giant to a financial call center to a large manufacturing firm before landing at Notre Dame 15 years ago. Now, she is the Mendoza College of Business senior director of administration and program management, partnering with the dean and the dean’s cabinet on key initiatives, Mendoza’s staffing and organizational strategies, talent and development planning, and recruiting and engagement strategies.
A Michiana native, Palmer went to Purdue University, where she studied organizational leadership and supervision in the School of Technology, now called the Polytechnic Institute. The program focused in areas including organizational strategy, staffing and labor relations with an eye on technology and manufacturing.
Palmer started her career in HR after moving to San Antonio, Texas, with Altria, at the time the parent company for brands as diverse as Marlboro, Kraft Foods, Nabisco and Miller Brewing. Her next role was as an HR generalist in Midland, Texas, with Semperian, once a subsidiary of GMAC financial company.
After five years in Texas, she and her husband moved with their son back to the Midwest. Palmer worked at Rexam, a manufacturing company that makes medical packaging, aluminum cans and other products.
“As I reflect back on my career, I am grateful for having worked in multiple kinds of industries,” she said, “because they all have strengths about their different cultures and dynamics, but also areas that I was like, ‘I could change that.’”
After nearly three years, Palmer was referred to an HR opening at Notre Dame. The move allowed their family to move closer to where she grew up and to expand to three kids, now 10, 13 and 18.
“My family loved Notre Dame, even though I hadn’t considered it growing up because I wanted to spread my wings,” Palmer said. “But it was a really attractive place to work because I grew up Catholic with an emphasis on values.”
Palmer started as a compensation analyst, which expanded her HR experience in a more analytical space. After about three years and her Certified Compensation Professional certificate, she became an HR consultant, working with a range of partners that included Mendoza, University Relations and Notre Dame International. After eight years in that role, she was invited to join the rotation program, an 18-month training initiative to develop University leaders.
“I was at a point in my career thinking, ‘What are my transferable skills?’” she said.
She rotated through a statistical analysis project on career placement in the Graduate School, the Irish1Card project and a two-way radio project with the Notre Dame Police Department. She also earned Six Sigma Green Belt, project management and coaching certificates.
After taking a job as associate director for administration in Mendoza, that zeal for learning eventually led Palmer to the two-year Executive MBA program in 2021. The MBA Scholarship Advisory Committee awarded her a full fellowship to the program, an honor it bestows biennially to just one recipient from nominees across the University.
“It’s been a phenomenal experience to actually see faculty in their element,” Palmer said. “I work with many of these folks from an administration function, and they’re great at that, but that’s not where their passion is. They come alive in a classroom.”
Palmer said the program has expanded her skill set in areas like finance, accounting and organizational strategy.
As a senior adviser to the dean, she spends most of her time on organizational strategy, functional oversight, employee engagement and recruiting strategies. She also leads a team of close to 25 staff members who support the college’s faculty, staff and students in myriad ways. Colleagues in Mendoza credited Palmer with driving a change in the culture there, especially by promoting stronger efforts in diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI).
Kristen Collett-Schmitt, a finance professor and Mendoza’s associate dean for innovation and inclusion, said a few passionate individuals led DEI efforts in the past. But Palmer both brought faculty and staff efforts together and formalized them.
“She was very early on a champion for positive things like formal committees or changing the hiring process, so she was a pioneer that way,” Collett-Schmitt said of process changes Palmer pushed, including dedicating budget resources and advertising in diverse publications.
The Society for Human Resource Management named Palmer the 2021 Mentor of the Year at its annual conference in Las Vegas. She is also passionate about leading Thrive! Inspiring ND Women, the largest employee resource group, which is focused on increasing opportunities for women to be recruited, retained and advanced as leaders at the University.
“I have often found myself as one of few women in a leadership room surrounded by men, and that comes with dynamics,” she said. “As a female leader, I believe this comes with a responsibility to give back and support other women in their own career paths.”