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Women Shaping History Today

By Pola Rosen, Ed.D.

Womenís History Month is a time to reflect on the achievements of women in the past. It is also a time to recognize the achievements of contemporary women who have made outstanding contributions in various fields. Education Update interviewed "Women Who Are Shaping History Today." These seventeen multi- faceted, fascinating, dynamic, intellectual women have improved the lives of people all over the world.

The following five questions were asked of all the women:

1. Describe a pivotal point in your career. What direction did you take as a result?
2. What contributions are you proudest of?
3. What frustrations have you encountered?
4. What is your formula for "getting the job done?"
5. What is your vision for the future? E.g. goals, programs

The common thread running through many of the responses was that being focused, choosing a good team, and working hard led to the achievement of goals. Surprisingly, few encountered frustrations. Several women started in totally different careers than they were in today. They stressed the importance of flexibility and being sensitive to future opportunities, abilities that helped them forge successful new careers. As expected, in the total group of high achieving women, every respondent had several contributions of which they were proud. All 17 womenís future goals related to continued and increased commitment to current positions and responsibilities. No one mentioned retirement, taking time to "smell the daisies," or writing "The American Novel." Women ranged in age from 27 to 64; some were single, some married, some had children and some were grandmothers. All were engrossed and engaged in their current jobs and were clearly deriving great fulfillment.

Edith Everett, Senior Vice-President, Gruntal & Company, New York Stock Exchange

Pivotal points: Edith has been a senior vice-president of the firm for over 30 years. After teaching in public schools and becoming a parent, she became an activist in community affairs. Returning to work and the world of finance, she found her skills coming together. Striving to do something for the system of which Brooklyn College was a part (it was also her alma mater), Edith was appointed to the chairmanship of the Board of Trustees of the City University of New York. A pivotal point was the ability to bring previous experiences and talents to the new position which she has held for 21 years. Another pivotal event was that her family, although of modest means, was always concerned about the welfare of other people. "When I was a little girl, my father would sit down with me every month, take out his checkbook and give $5 or $10 to orphanages or other programs.

Achievements: She is most proud of several accomplishments of the Board. One was to examine the way the university was functioning. She was a proponent of open enrollment, giving opportunity to everyone to come into the system. In 1988, teacher education was revised stressing more content courses. For the past 8 years, a university wide job fair has been held for 5000 students and over 100 potential employers. Twenty per cent of the students get hired. Edith proposed English language immersion courses for students who need remediation. Now they are on 6 campuses.. As an attendee of Clintonís Renaissance retreat for the past 8 years, she has engaged in conversations about the importance of reading at third grade level. She was one of a handful of individuals who testified before the City Council and legislated against smoking in restaurants. A source of great pride is the family foundation Edith started many years ago. One of the biggest projects that it has provided is a summer internship program for 200 students to work in nonprofit organizations. Students get a stipend from the foundation, hear a host of guest speakers and frequently get a paying job at the nonprofit.

Getting the job done: The key ingredients are to be sure you have good people youíre working with, to plan your life and prioritize the demands on your time.

Goals: Being an active participant, generating ideas and energizing people to work together on projects makes Edith excited. Her funding priorities are for education and young people. She has given a large endowment to Teach for America, national public radio and the Dance Theater of Harlem. Edith is grateful for the ability to help others, for her wonderful husband of 48 years, 2 terrific children and 3 loving grandchildren.

Joan Freilich, Senior VP and CFO, Con Edison

Pivotal points: There were several in her life. After getting a Ph.D. in French literature and becoming a college administrator, Joan decided to sharpen her skills by getting an M.B.A. That decision changed the direction of her life and eventually brought her to Con Edison. A less obvious pivotal point came from the opportunity to move to another department which gave her a broad knowledge base and a greater range of skills. Her ability to take risks and also work for someone who became the CEO of the company led to her becoming the first woman to hold a chief financial officerís position in a major U.S. utility.

Achievements: Joanís major contributions are being in a position where she can have an impact on the future of major corporations, employees and clients. That impact also brings a great responsibility.

Frustrations: occur when things donít move quickly enough, but thatís part of life. Joan feels sheís been very fortunate and most things have worked out. Formula for getting the job done: Good preparation is key. Knowledge, hard work, a great deal of effort, and recognizing the importance of other people. Flexibility is vital because things donít always turn out as anticipated. In supervising 500 people, Joan keeps her finger on the pulse. Nothing is more important than the people who work for you.

Goals: Joan sees further major changes ahead as the energy business evolves. She finds it very exciting to play a role in shaping the future of the company. She foresees a greater international role for Con Ed (she just completed a trip to China). Currently most of the business is here in New York City and Westchester County.

Susan Kaufman Purcell, VP of the Americas Society and the Council of the Americas (Both of these organizations were founded by David Rockefeller and focus on Latin America and Canada.)

Pivotal points: They occurred when Susan was a professor at UCLA teaching Latin American politics. She garnered an international affairs fellowship to work in Washington D.C. for one year and was assigned to the policy planning staff of the Secretary of State. During the course of 1 and Ĺ years, she served under three Secretaries of State and learned about the policy making process. The result: Susan resigned her position at UCLA and became a senior fellow at a think tank in New York, increasingly more involved in attempting to influence policy in Latin America through speaking and writing. Her education at an all womenís college (Barnard College) was a great advantage because the excellent and large number of female faculty members who had successfully combined career and marriage, were role models.

Achievements: The ability to take a complicated issue and use special expertise to enlarge peopleís understanding about an area of the world. Susan often appears on television and radio to share her expertise with others.

Frustrations: When she initially looked for her first job, she wasnít taken seriously. She especially remembers a question at one university job interview: Are you going to get married and leave us? She replied, "If I leave you it wonít be for marriage but for a better job!" Susan mentioned the difficulty of juggling a career and a family. The only way to mange, she feels, is to have enough money to hire help. As a young professor, she didnít have enough funds. Susan feels the womenís movement has made a big difference in equalizing somewhat, home and family responsibilities.

Formula for getting the job done: In her personal life she has sought work that has given her the flexibility to raise her daughter. The nonprofit sector afforded more flexibility than the private one. In her professional life her formula is to pick a staff well, be organized, have a sense of priorities, delegate, be energetic and ambitious, and have some luck.

Goals: Sits on corporate boards and nonprofit boards. Likes to be open to new possibilities and add new goals as they arise. Susan has the option to do more traveling, consulting and writing, all of which she enjoys immensely. The speakers programs that she has organized in New York have now branched out into major cities throughout the U.S.

Dr. Selina Akua Ahoklui, NYS Teacher of the Year (Selina teaches at Erasmus Hall Campus High School for Business and Technology in Brooklyn. Originally Selina taught for tne years in Ghana.)

Pivotal Points: Her decision to come to the U.S. because she loved to travel and broaden her horizons led to a teaching career.

Achievements: Selina is an advocate of children and teachers. She believes very strongly that children have an inherent goodness, that each one can learn and succeed in his/her own way. She tries all strategies to help children succeed in life. Selina makes learning come alive. She has initiated internships with Downstate Hospital and Kings Plaza to provide work experiences for her students. She is proud of the workshops, counseling and family programs for parents she has started. Two years ago she started an academy within the school to help parents and students achieve. On Saturdays, they can come to the school to get help with their courses and to learn.

Formula for getting the job done: Success is gradual. You have to provide support throughout peopleís lives, try different strategies in order to help people progress. People who were important in Selinaís life were her mother, who would take care of any child in the village and teach them life skills,; her father who was a teacher for 40 years, built his own school and is buried in front of it today; her aunt who told her how smart she was and that she had to be a teacher; her uncle, a professor at Rutgers University School of Law, Dr. Akp Kludze.

Goals: To provide life-long learning experiences for her students, to remain focused with effective and sustained efforts, to train new teachers, teach in a college, and write. Selina also stated as her goal, to continue sharing, caring, nurturing everywhere so this can be a better place for all to live in.

Ellen Futter, President, Museum of Natural History

Pivotal points: Ellen was a practicing lawyer when Barnard College, her alma mater suddenly began searching for a president. Shortly after assuming the Presidency in an acting capacity, she became one of the youngest college presidents in the country. It changed her life entirely and positively.

Achievements: Opening worlds and possibilities to young people and to all people; to enhance everyoneís understanding of the world around them. Ellenís chief activities at the museum are to reveal to the public that this is a scientific and educational institution. Our goal is to make science more visible and more accessible to the public, to supervise 40 curators and 200 working scientists who function as a faculty. Ellen has enlivened the exhibit schedule, illuminated interesting subjects in new ways. We opened the century with exhibits on tuberculosis, weíre closing the century with exhibits on infectious disease.

Frustrations: Ellen wishes she had more than 24 hours in a day. Sometimes things donít happen quickly enough.

Formula for getting the job done: Thereís no substitute for hard work and perseverance, for keeping an eye on whatís ahead. Even when Ellen is in the throes of a project, she pauses to ask what the implications are. Itís important to get the needed information, to be prudent and focused.

Goals: Ellen enjoys what sheís doing now and expects to do more in the next five years. Achieving goals will require a far more interdisciplinary approach in todayís world. Itís important to be able to cross disciplines and fields.

Dr. Rosalyn Yalow won the Noble Prize in Medicine in 1977 for her work in radioimmunoassays.

Pivotal point: In 1950 she joined Sol Berson, M.D. at the Bronx VA. They did all their work together for over 20 years. It was through her collaboration with him that she won the Nobel Prize. Sol Berson died before she was awarded the Nobel. Although now retired and almost 80 years old, she still goes regularly to the VA, talks and meets with others.

Achievements: the continued development and applications of her work have been most important for Rosalyn.

Frustrations: there havenít been any in her life. Even though there were few women in scientific research in the 50ís, she feels she was in the right place at the right time. After receiving her Ph.D in nuclear physics, she went to work with Sol at the VA.

Formula for getting the job done: Personal discipline, working with the right person, having a supportive husband and good children and a good maid (for all the nights spent in the lab).

Phylis Susen: Director of Education, Carnegie Hall Corporation (Phylis has been running the vast education budget and programs since 1994.

Pivotal point: Starting as a harpist in the Pittsburgh symphony, Phylis gave up her career for marriage to a demanding neurosurgeon. When the marriage ended, she began to forge her own career. Phylis started a youth orchestra called the Three Rivers Young Peopleís Orchestra. The participantís average age was 14. Her career, which subsequently led to Philadelphia and New York, began at the pivotal point of "sink or swim." After 22 years in Pittsburgh, she left home, family and friends to take on the challenge of the Philadelphia Symphony Orchestra, a direction which eventually led to Carnegie Hall.

Achievements: From its modest beginnings in 1974, Three Rivers Young Peopleís Orchestra is still going strong. Starting with $600, Phylis soon built the coffers into $120,000, touching the lives of 1000s of children, many of whom are playing in major orchestras today. The orchestra will be celebrating its 25th anniversary and Phylis is going back for the celebration.

Frustrations: People have a general sense that education is easy, that you can always be a teacher if you canít do anything else. Phylis sees it differently. As a teacher you have to be a true leader and thinker; "you need many skills to turn light bulbs on every day." For years, education in this country was of secondary importance. We are just now turning around.

Formula for getting the job done: Clearly you are as good as your team. You must surround yourself with people more skilled than you in different areas; you must have a vision and know how to orchestrate. The ability to build a team and to ensure that everyone gets credit is important.

Goals: Phylis wants to create a greater awareness that Carnegie Hall is a part of the community, that it is a forum for exchange, for serving and sharing work with the public. Phylis wants to raise the comfort level of music in the average person through the neighborhood and family concerts, and through teacher training programs. Historically, Carnegie Hall was a forum for public speaking. Many women in the sufragette movement were speakers at Carnegie Hall. Phylisí message to young women today is not to get lost in the shadow of a powerful mate; to find your own way and keep your own identity. "Donít be afraid to find out who you are and what your strengths are."

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