Location: Bowdoin / Magazine / Features / 2010 / Fortune's Good Fortune: Katie Benner '99

Fortune's Good Fortune: Katie Benner '99

Story posted September 01, 2010

Author: Doug Boxer-Cook
Photography: Karsten Moran ’05

It’s hard to imagine that Katie Benner ’99, the same woman read in Fortune, seen on CNN, and heard on "Marketplace," was told essentially that she had no business being a business reporter—or that Benner says she owes her entire career to the man who told her that.

An interview in 2004 for a job at CNNMoney, said to be the world’s largest business Web site and Fortune’s online home, included a test of her business knowledge, asking, “When bond prices move up, what do yields do?” and “What’s the difference between the New York Stock Exchange and the NASDAQ?” Benner recalls getting five of the 40 answers right, to which her interviewer responded, “Why do you want this job? I’ve never seen a score this low,” adding, “I don’t even know why you’re here.”

“I was broke and desperate and willing to work,” Benner recalls six years later. Having just spent four years after graduation working with reporters and writers in China, she had realized journalism was her dream job. Arriving back in the U.S. and looking for jobs in 2004, she was finding that the growing finance area offered the most hope.

“The more I worked in this field, the more I realized—these stories are really interesting,” says Benner, who was beginning to find her niche.

“Sports writing is only interesting to a subset of people,” says Benner. “It’s the same with business journalism. You don’t have a universal readership, but the readers you do have are really interested.”

And as importantly, Benner found she felt that way, too. “I have a topic that, the more I learn about it, the more interested I become, and it has, especially for the people interested in it, larger-than-life characters, which we all saw especially during the financial meltdown,” she says. “Nobody knew who these guys were and nobody cared. And suddenly they became these people everybody knew and they’re quirky. They can be written about as villains or heroes or whatever, but they’re interesting.”

So how did Benner, with her failing business quiz results, score that CNNMoney job? “I told him, ‘I don’t have a journalism degree, but I’ll work very hard. I will come in admitting I don’t know anything, and you can tell me what to do. I will do it. I will never question your authority, I will never think I’m too good for any task you give me. I will learn as fast as I can and I’ll work as many hours as you want. At the end of the day, if it doesn’t work out, you can fire me.’”

It worked. And Benner credits her experience at the College for giving her the confidence to deliver such a speech. “Bowdoin was this amazing place that encouraged us to act and behave and do what you want. Get your work done, be curious,” she says. “There was a lot of freedom and a lot of room to be independent, think independently and be assertive, and it was rewarded there.”
That independent assertiveness, combined with Benner’s own brand of pluck, has been rewarded in the business world as well. Benner’s CNNMoney job led to a brief stint at The Street.com; then in the fall of 2006, she was hired by Andy Serwer’s predecessor to work at Fortune.

"Nobody knew who these guys were and nobody cared. And suddenly they became these people everybody knew and they're quirky. They can be written about as villians or heroes or whatever, but they're interesting."