By Rachael Warecki ’08
As more women assume highly visible decision-making roles in their professional and personal communities, the value of their leadership is becoming clearer: a recent Harvard Business Review study found that women are more effective leaders during crises due to their agility, integrity, and empathy. From laboratories to board rooms to the White House, women are redefining and reframing what it means to wield power, and it’s no surprise that Scripps alumnae are part of the conversation. Here, three power players in their respective fields—Merodie A. Hancock ’87, Ashley Martin ’06, and Rachel Presti ’94—discuss their career paths, the future of women’s leadership, and what obstacles still exist for women who want to shatter the glass ceiling.
“Never Take No for an Answer”: Dr. Merodie A. Hancock ’87
Merodie A. Hancock ’87 is a power player in the field of higher education. She’s the fourth president of Thomas Edison State University, where she’s a nationally recognized leader in the administration and delivery of innovative education programs for adult students, and she previously served as the president of State University of New York (SUNY) Empire State College. Her résumé is even more impressive considering that, historically, less than one-third of college and university presidents have been women. Although the narrow path to leadership in higher education is beginning to widen, there’s still more work to be done regarding representation in positions of power.
Hancock says she takes a pragmatic, mission-driven approach to leadership, with the understanding that the general collective mission of higher education—building intellectual capacity to improve the human condition and drive productivity—cannot be accomplished with limited worldviews or partial representation at the decision-making levels. “It’s not enough to just invite diversity into the room,” she explains. “In order to get high performance results, all voices need to be empowered and respected as they share concerns, ideas, and solutions.” While women continue to make new inroads, she acknowledges that the career ladder is still laden with real barriers relating to societal norms, especially around childbearing and caretaking responsibilities, which often leave women feeling that they must choose between their job and their family.
These concerns reflect the decisions she made during her own career journey. She began her path to higher-education leadership after the birth of her first child, when she sought a job that would help her balance her commitment to motherhood and her desire to build a meaningful career. While teaching business courses to students on the local military base, she earned her PhD and raised three children. “When I look back on it, it seems like a lot,” she says. “But going through it, I just did what I needed to do, I never took no for an answer, I learned from my mistakes, and I always stayed focused on my professional and personal goals.”
Scripps played a significant role in emboldening her to pursue those goals. She was one of the first participants in an accelerated program between the College and Claremont Graduate University, graduating in five years with both a BA in economics and an MBA. “As a scholarship student, Scripps invested in my future, and [the College] repeatedly offered opportunities for me to grow as a student and an individual. Nobody gave up on me,” she says. “When I was eager, as a junior, for more of a real-world view, they accepted me into an incredible senior internship program. When I thought about backing out of the accelerated MBA program, they helped me stare down my fears. Over and over, the Scripps community viewed me as a person worthy of their investment and always challenged me to do and be more. It is that perspective that I have tried to bring to my personal and professional life each and every day.”
“If You Can’t Find a Job, Create One”: Ashley Martin ’06
When Ashley Martin ’06 began her teaching career, she never imagined that a decade later, she’d become a business owner and nonprofit founder. But the self-publication of her book Focus: Productive Leadership in Action in 2014 caught the attention of local businesses, leading to training, speaking, and consulting requests, and in 2016, she resigned from her school district to pursue those opportunities. Now, Martin is the CEO of Leadership Lady, a Houston-based consulting company that specializes in soft skills training for leaders, and the founder of the nonprofit Great Girls Global (3G), an organization that develops young women’s leadership skills, financial literacy, and civic engagement, with an emphasis on entrepreneurship.
“It took a while to find my footing as a ‘hybrid professional’ business owner,” she says. As an author, speaker, trainer, coach, and consultant (“So many hats and titles, right?”), Martin says that the process of figuring out what was best for the corporate clients she serves was “part fun, part exploratory, and part challenge.” She adds: “I’m grateful I had that time, though. It taught me a lot about perseverance.”
Martin says the skills she learned during her 10 years as a teacher and then an administrator in a large urban school district—such as public speaking, audience engagement, and time management—contributed to her success as an entrepreneur, as did having entrepreneurial role models in her family. Martin’s mother left her corporate job to start her own business, and her father was a professor of business administration. “I grew up with the theory and application firsthand, and I think that mitigated some of my fear,” she explains. “My mother always told me and my siblings, ‘If you can’t find a job, then create one.’”
Her parents’ example didn’t mean Martin was immune to challenges. “Leaving an administrative role to become a business owner was a complete lifestyle adjustment,” she says, adding that it took time to clarify her entrepreneurial niche, as well as to navigate funding sources and gain access to capital as a Black woman business owner. She used her own funds and savings for many of her expenses. “I wanted to quit at times, but I knew my business’s purpose and nonprofit’s mission were too important.”
Now, as an expert in education leadership, Martin helps corporate power players understand some of the unique challenges that girls and women face in the workplace and in society, such as a lack of confidence in their industry or community leadership skills. And, through her work with Great Girls Global (3G), she hopes to create a future in which women’s voices are heard, valued, and cultivated. “I hope the future of women’s leadership encourages little girls to be more confident in their ability to do whatever they do—teach, finance, create, or debate,” she says. “And I hope that it’s full of love, hope, and equal pay.”
“Say Yes to Opportunities”: Dr. Rachel Presti ’94
Rachel Presti ’94 has spent years studying infectious diseases. Her doctoral research included the study of cytomegalovirus and other herpesviruses, and since then, she’s conducted clinical trials in HIV, hepatitis, influenza, and sexually transmitted infections—including possibilities for treatment, prevention, and vaccination. Now, her long history of conducting clinical trials in HIV and its prevention has led to her role as a principal investigator on one of the most notable clinical trials in history: the large-scale phase III trial of the COVID-19 vaccines.
Her path to becoming a principal investigator was not a straight line. After majoring in biology and chemistry at Scripps and then earning her MD and PhD, she entered the medical field with a focus on infectious diseases, intent on conducting basic virology research in a lab. But, early in her career, an opportunity to look for novel viruses led to working with clinical research groups in observational and interventional trials, in which participants receive specific interventions—such as medications, procedures, or recommendations for behavioral changes—according to investigators’ research plans. “What I found was that I liked the more direct patient contact that was involved in clinical research,” she says. “I had access to novel therapies that could help my patients in a very direct way.”
Now, Presti is an associate professor of medicine, director of Washington University’s Infectious Disease Clinical Research Unit, and principal investigator for the AIDS Clinical Trials Group and the HIV Prevention Trials Network. Although medical research is a male-dominated area, the field of infectious diseases is one in which women often feel more welcomed and comfortable, she explains, in part because the work tends to acknowledge and expose healthcare inequities. Her most common challenge has been when patients assume that she’s a nurse or a student, rather than the attending physician in charge of a team: “It becomes second nature to graciously correct people’s misperceptions and recognize that they’re scared, sick, and potentially not in the best position to confront their own stereotypes about doctors.”
Nevertheless, she’s encouraged by the number of fantastic women she works with. “I find that research with other women changes the dynamic to a more collaborative process, without some of the cutthroat competition that happens when men dominate the group,” she says. She believes that this dynamic will be particularly important as more research, such as the rapid development of COVID-19 vaccines, requires collaboration across multiple areas of expertise.
And while her journey hasn’t been straightforward, it has been exhilarating. “A lot of my career path has been built on saying yes to interesting opportunities, even those that were not in my current area of expertise,” she says. And when the National Institutes of Health asked Washington University to be a site for COVID-19 vaccine trials, she adds, “that was one of the most exciting ‘yes’ responses I’ve had!”