Ask about April Powell, Washington University in St. Louis’s general manager, and you will repeatedly hear “rock star.” She joined Bon Appétit Management Company just over five years ago, as WashU’s director of marketing and communications; was promoted after three years to director of operations for the 13-café Danforth campus; and was recently named general manager, overseeing almost 350 people at one of Bon Appétit’s largest education accounts.
‘I’ve been successful because I had mentors who believed in giving me a seat at the table and letting me listen, helping me gain awareness and exposure to new things.’
If this swift rise isn’t impressive enough, consider that while it was happening, April got her MBA from WashU’s Olin Business School and had her second daughter in the middle of it. Her eldest daughter is 3 years old, her second is 18 months, and she just had her third.
“She has an incredible engine,” says District Manager David Murphy, who hired her at WashU. (And after April dragged him to her MBA class for Bring Your Boss to School Day, he ended up getting his MBA at night, too.)
“It has been a whirlwind couple of years,” April admits with a smile. But even on a busy day, she’s warm and relaxed. She has time for every WashU Dining employee who greets her — and many want to — stopping to chat with a woman who fainted recently, or to ask after another’s granddaughter.
April’s career path has been an unusual mix of restaurants and marketing. “I’ve always been motivated by looking at where I could continue to learn the most. I’m the lifelong student,” she said.
She started working for an Italian fine-dining chain around 15 as a hostess, soon moving into the deli and espresso area. As a high school senior, she interned at NBC Universal in publicity and promotions — a job she got by calling 33 days in a row until the field marketing person finally said “OK, come in.” In college, she interned at InStyle magazine. But after graduating from the University of Southern California with a double major in English and creative writing and a minor in French (she also speaks Spanish), she followed a friend into the hospitality development program of a gaming company, and moved to Las Vegas.
April has ‘huge confidence, but she’s a deep thinker — she has an insatiable appetite for understanding why things fail. That’s what a leader wakes up every day and thinks about. She never assumes that good is good enough.’
In that role, she helped chef Hubert Keller open several restaurants, including one in St. Louis where she ended up moving. Next came opening and managing a sports bar for the rapper Nelly, marketing for a news station, and running her own social-media business.
When she saw the WashU marketing position, she was immediately interested because a chef-friend, John Griffiths, had surprised everyone by leaving the fine-dining world to go work for Bon Appétit at WashU. She sent him her résumé that night; David called her the next day and hired her a week later.
As the marketing director and “an intensely crazy food nerd,” April launched a campaign to reignite chefs’ excitement about food by sharing articles on trends, visiting new restaurants, and connecting with other local chefs. She also saw that while WashU students were incredibly savvy about food, they hadn’t the faintest idea how to prepare it. “They literally wanted to know, how do I cut an onion? How do I make brownies?” she said. She worked with the culinary team to start a series of basic cooking classes one of which was called “How to Boil Water,” in honor of an early Food Network show. The classes are still going, a couple times a month.
In operations, “I’ve been successful because I had mentors who believed in giving me a seat at the table and letting me listen, helping me gain awareness and exposure to new things,” she says. She tries to replicate that by giving people a chance to show her what they can do.
David says that April has “huge confidence, but she’s a deep thinker — she has an insatiable appetite for understanding why things fail. That’s what a leader wakes up every day and thinks about. She never assumes that ‘good’ is good enough. I see no ceiling for April. I wouldn’t be surprised to end up working for her someday!”