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News & Events

A matchmaker of strategic partnerships: Meet Laura Hensen

Laura Hensen smiles during a conversation with two other people at a conference.

Laura Hensen at the annual UW E-Business Consortium conference. Photo by Clint Thayer of Focal Flame Photo & Video.

Laura Hensen ‘12 is a proud Wisconsin Badger through and through. The Business Administration in Marketing alumna was inspired to take on the role of executive director of the Kohl’s Center for Retailing and the Office of Strategic Partnerships. She found the responsibility of creating a new office within the School of Human Ecology energizing.

Before coming to the school, Hensen worked for more than a decade in merchandising. First, as a business analyst at Target, and then as a director and senior merchant at Lands’ End. In these roles, she grew businesses through a people-first perspective.

After nearly one year of forging impactful connections at the School of Human Ecology, Hensen is eager to keep the momentum going. Earlier this semester, she struck up a conversation with Lands’ End CEO Andrew McLean at a UW–Madison football game. An idea sparked between the two of them. Less than three months later, Hensen grew this connection into a one-of-a-kind consulting project where four Human Ecology students revitalized an iconic heritage brand.

When she isn’t working, you’ll most likely find Hensen with her husband Brock — who she met during their freshman year welcome week — and their two sons Neil and Jack. Most summer Fridays, they are soaking up the sun at the Union Terrace.

Laura Hensen poses with her husband and two sons outside of a house with trees in the background.
Laura Hensen and her husband Brock with their sons Neil and Jack.

In the following Q&A, we connected with Hensen to learn more about her role, aspirations and what drew her to the School of Human Ecology:

What first gave you the sense that the School of Human Ecology as a whole was different?

I was drawn to Human Ecology’s people-first perspective. The world now recognizes the power of design thinking, and yet the school has had that approach since it was founded. Within a large, public research university, the School of Human Ecology has a culture of connectedness — students and faculty really know and celebrate one another.

Other big differentiators that stood out to me were that the school is results oriented in both social and economic outcomes, leads with innovation, and creates high-impact, unique and diverse experiences for students outside of the traditional classroom setting.

How would you define the Office of Strategic Partnerships and how your role intersects?

A white woman smiling, with blonde, long hair, wearing an olive jacket.
Laura Hensen, executive director of the Kohl’s Center for Retailing and the Office of Strategic Partnerships

The Office of Strategic Partnerships (OSP) is here to build strong, mutually beneficial relationships with private, public and nonprofit organizations to drive impactful student learning and pathways to purposeful careers.

In many ways, my role is a matchmaker — with a focus in three key areas:

  • Identify critical or emerging opportunities in fields where our students are most interested in exploring
  • Understand goals of our partner organizations and align them with Human Ecology
  • Connect partners with the right leaders and resources in Human Ecology to leverage shared expertise

What are the top three priorities for the Office of Strategic Partnerships?

1. Listening.
In this first year of the OSP I’ve focused on talking with Human Ecology unit leaders, students and current partners to understand their needs, what’s working and ways to leverage critical goals and strengths. My approach is to keep building on what’s working while creating new avenues that match programmatic and partner goals.

2. Define and plan partner engagement opportunities.
These can occur in and outside the classroom, ensuring a range of learning experiences for students. We strive to craft a well-rounded experience for students and partners that meets multiple and different goals.

3. Cultivate and diversify partners to support School of Human Ecology programs.
Top of mind is representing student interests and emerging industries. It’s important to partner with organizations that students are interested in and to show organizations what only our Human Ecology students can offer as professionals. We are innovators and want to work with innovative organizations.

Laura Hensen poses with 3 coworkers in front of a "NRF Foundation New York Student Program 2024" backdrop.
Laura Hensen (second from left) with School of Human Ecology colleagues Alicia Hazen (assistant dean & career services director), Emma Brandenburg (assistant director of the Kohl’s Center for Retailing) and Jon Hetzel (assistant director of career services).

How would you describe your approach to developing meaningful partnerships?

To build a partnership, you first have to know each other as individuals. I’m naturally curious and want to have a deep understanding of the goals and motivations of who I am working with.

Once we have established a personal relationship, we identify shared goals. This conversation reveals opportunities that add value for all. Then, our team needs to consistently deliver.

Following through on what you promise builds and maintains trust, which is the backbone of a meaningful partnership. And, have fun! Take time to celebrate moments — big and small — where you are moving something forward together.

Do you have a personal motto?

“This will move at the speed of trust.” I heard this when I first joined the School of Human Ecology from a campus colleague, and I absolutely love the motto because it captures a lot of depth that everyone can understand when you hear it.

How does the motto help you stay motivated?

It articulates the importance of establishing strong relationships with trust before getting to the work. This is essential as I bridge efforts between OSP and the School of Human Ecology.

The motto also serves as a comforting reminder when a project slows down. I know I need to connect with my team when momentum decelerates before we can pick the work back up and move forward at full strength again.