Twenty-five years later, Kareem Daniel ’92 still comes up as an example when Upper School principal Tom Drahozal needs to remind MPA students of the value of hard work and exquisite time management.
Making use of every free minute in a daily schedule filled with challenging classes and extracurricular activities, Daniel competed every day to not only maximize his academic potential but to finish first in his class.
That’s how he won a close competition for class valedictorian and followed his sister, Dr. Lisa Daniel- Olimene ’89, P’23, ’25, ’29, to Stanford University, where he earned a B.S. in electrical engineering and an MBA degree.
That’s how he found success as an engineer and as an investment banker before building a career in the business of entertainment at The Walt Disney Company. He is Senior Vice President of Strategy and Business Development for Disney Consumer Products and Interactive Media, helping the largest licenser in the world generate more than $50 billion last year from licensed merchandise featuring everyone from Mickey Mouse and Winnie the Pooh to Princess Leia, Iron Man, and Jack Sparrow.
“My habit of carrying something all the way through to the end — I know MPA is where that started for me,” Daniel said.
What is your role at Disney?
My primary responsibility is developing key strategic initiatives to help drive the long-term profitability and growth of Disney Consumer Products and Interactive Media’s worldwide businesses. Essentially, my role is to identify consumer trends and the implications for us over the next three to five years or more, and help determine how we should respond to optimize our performance.
For example, the Disney Store is part of our segment. We opened a store in 2015 in Shanghai, and it is our biggest store in the biggest city in the biggest country in the world. But there are 1.4 billion people in China, and one owned- and-operated brick-and-mortar store is not enough to meet the needs of consumers. Our long-term strategy requires understanding how the retail landscape is changing in China — and of course, identifying long-term trends and looking at e-commerce and mobile commerce, emerging middle-class dynamics, distribution infrastructure challenges, and so forth. My job is to help analyze the relevant information and build a business plan. I stay involved in those types of projects throughout their execution, because consumer behavior and market dynamics are always evolving.
What is it like to help shepherd iconic entertainment brands like Disney, Star Wars, Marvel, and Pixar?
One of the biggest outlets I had growing up was seeing movies with my older cousin almost every weekend. My mom would give us money and we would go to Evergreen Plaza to watch movies all day. I have always loved movies, but growing up, I never imagined that there was a business side to entertainment. I just had no idea. After college, I started to realize that there is something there.
A highlight of my career was being a member of the team that worked on the acquisition of Marvel in 2009 and being able to tell my mom about it and better explain what I did for a living. She used to drive me to the comic book store at the Chicago Ridge Mall and sit outside in the car for hours while I was in the store, reading comics. She was the most patient, amazing woman ever. So when that deal was announced, I could tell her that we bought the company that made those comics, and that we were going to use those characters to make movies and theme park rides and consumer products. And then we bought Star Wars three years later. One of the best parts of my job is working on deals and projects based on what I grew up with, and trying to help continue the success that they have had.
What do you remember most fondly about MPA and the impact it had on you?
First and foremost, I remember my older sister Lisa setting an incredible example for me from both an academic and athletic perspective. Second, MPA is a community. You have a community of teachers. You have a community of parents. And having that close- knit environment really fostered for me a degree of comfort where I thought I could succeed.
Clearly, having small classes allows you a lot more one-on-one time, more individualized academic programs where you get attention. The teachers are able to cater to a smaller group more specifically than you could with larger class sizes. I think that is the biggest thing. And the school just had a great staff who all really cared and were all really smart. I certainly felt that way throughout my time at MPA.
My hardest class was physics with Doc Brown, and at one point I thought I might major in that. [English teacher] Barry Kritzberg was also tough but good. Coach Drahozal was huge for me, academically and athletically, in terms of helping me grow. All of the teachers made me feel like I had support and helped me work on areas in which I could improve. I see that progression very clearly in my mind. The quality of the teaching and the personalized educational experience just made a world of difference.
Your former teachers remember you as a driven young man. Was that a trait that was present throughout your 13 years at MPA?
In eighth grade, there was a scholarship competition for high school and I got second place. I was told that I had missed first place by a very small margin, and everyone acted like I was supposed to be happy about that. I will never forget that feeling. How am I supposed to be happy about being second? I had never really considered the possibility of being No. 1 prior to that, but I remember that experience put it in my head that I always wanted to finish first.
I always studied a lot, often falling asleep while doing so late into the night. I knew that I did not have to be the smartest at everything. But no one would outwork me in anything.
It’s like when our basketball team won 35 straight games. The success we had was not predicated upon us having the best athletes. We had strong coaches and a strong work ethic, and we played well as a team.
How did MPA prepare you for success?
Growing up on the South Side of Chicago, my parents did everything they could to make sure that I received a great education. Any success that I have had is attributable to the sacrifices that they made to send me to MPA. It is really that simple. I do not have children yet, but I know that one of the most critical things will be education. It changes your set of opportunities. That is what MPA was for me.