Women of the U

Alumnae are change agents in their fields

By News@TheU

Alumnae are change agents in their fields

By News@TheU
The Alumni Association has launched a new program that features women who have succeeded in their careers and are making their mark.

The University of Miami leveraged the 100th anniversary of the passage of the 19th amendment —giving women the right to vote—to launch a new dialogue series shining a spotlight on influential alumnae who are making their mark on issues facing women today.  

Called “Women of the U: Leading through Challenge and Change,” the inaugural program on Aug. 26 featured two alumna and members of the University’s Board of Trustees—Marilu Marshall, senior vice president and chief inclusion and diversity officer for the Estee Lauder Companies, and Alice Vilma, managing director, multicultural client strategy, Morgan Stanley—with introductions provided by alumna Yolanda Strader, shareholder, Carlton Fields, and member of the University’s Citizens Board.

With Vilma serving as the moderator, their candid conversation focused on how women can succeed in the corporate world and the importance of diversity, equity, and inclusion in today’s workplace—a most fitting topic for the historic day on which the event was held.

A first-generation American born into a Cuban family, Marshall grew up fascinated by the television character Perry Mason—the original, she points out. As she shared her dreams to become a lawyer and “put bad people in jail,” her traditional grandmother told her that was not an appropriate role for girls. Luckily, her mother told her she could become anything she wanted as long as she worked hard at it, but “just don’t tell your grandmother.”

After earning both her undergraduate and law degrees from the University of Miami, Marshall joined the U.S. Department of Justice, where she became the first female trial attorney assigned to the Organized Crime and Racketeering Strike Force. Among the pressures of being the first woman in a male-dominated field “is that you don’t want to mess it up for those who come behind you,” Marshall explained.

She credits her professional success to her willingness to take risks. “Women are less risk-adverse,” she noted. “Don’t be afraid to make a change.”  For Marshall that meant taking a job as lead counsel for the Playboy Enterprise as it opened its first casino hotel in Atlantic City, joining Cunard Line as general counsel with no background in admiralty law and culminating with what she calls her “dream job.”

“Inclusion and diversity are part of Estee Lauder’s DNA,” Marshall said. And, she said that the company works at it every day, pushing the boundaries to make Estee Lauder a place where employees can be their authentic selves and in creating an environment that reflects the diverse consumers and communities it serves worldwide.

“We start with the premise that awareness precedes action. We design programs and seminars to raise awareness and then we turn that awareness into action,” Marshall said.

After an employee told Marshall that while she felt included because she had a seat at the table, what she really wanted was to know that her voice was being heard and valued, Estee Lauder took its inclusion efforts to the next level. “We call it belonging,’’ she explained. “We launched a program called the ‘Beauty of Belonging’ and had our employees to tell us what it meant to them to feel that they belonged, or they didn’t belong.”

When asked how to garner buy-in and allies for diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives, Marshall said that it all comes down to business results. “Our diverse consumer base has been instrumental in getting our word across. The strategy of developing a diverse consumer base—whether it be race, age, or gender—requires a team that shares those same characteristics,” she said. “Do you have a diverse consumer base and then go out and hire people to match up? No, you hire first and let them lead you to that consumer.”

Vilma reflected a bit of her own career philosophy as part of the discussion, “What I’ve learned is that hard work begets more work. My calling card was that people could count on me to get the job done right,” she said. “When you are up all night grumbling about the work, people are taking notice. That leads to getting stretch assignments, then one promotion and the next. What ends up happening is you grow your network of people who can be influential in your career.”

Women of the U is a series of candid conversations featuring some of the University’s most dynamic, accomplished, and successful women addressing contemporary issues. View the inaugural program in this series here.