“Trying to raise the boats of many, not just a few.”
For Valerie Van Meter, diversity was her birthright.
“I was born and raised in the city of Detroit,” she says. “My dad was the son of a sharecropper from Georgia. My mom, her father was a first generation immigrant from Poland and her mother was of French and Belgian descent. And I have two brothers, one of whom came out as gay in high school.”
It didn’t end there. “When I was growing up in the 1960s and 70s, we lived in a neighborhood with Jewish people, black people, white people, Polish people and Chaldean people. What I learned was that it was normal for us to get along even though we all looked and acted very differently.”
On International Women’s Day, the University of Chicago Booth School of Business celebrates Van Meter, ‘04, (XP-73) for paving the way for women in the workplace. Van Meter recently retired as senior vice president and chief diversity officer of the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago.
Over the course of Van Meter’s 40 year career – all but nine of which were spent at the Chicago Fed – diversity and social justice issues have been high up on her list of priorities.
In late February, Van Meter delivered the keynote address to an audience of Chicago Booth part-time MBA students – from the Evening, Weekend and Executive MBA programs – as they completed the Booth Women Advance Leadership Series.
“We learn in finance that one should have a diverse portfolio of investments in order to mitigate the risk of all financial outcomes going the same way. We learn the same in biology about the need for a diverse eco-system. So, to expand that logic to the business environment is not a stretch of the imagination.”
The leadership series, which was founded three years ago, is a five-month program aimed at providing part-time women MBA students the chance to explore and enhance their capacity to lead as they interact with students, staff, alumnae and business leaders.
The 2017-2018 program received 70 applications – a 40 percent increase over the previous year -- and accepted 36 students from nine different industries, including consulting, financial services, manufacturing, retail and non-profit.
In her speech and a subsequent follow-up interview, Van Meter discussed the early years of her career, as well as the need for diversity in the business world.
“We learn in finance that one should have a diverse portfolio of investments in order to mitigate the risk of all financial outcomes going the same way,” she says. “We learn the same in biology about the need for a diverse eco-system. So, to expand that logic to the business environment is not a stretch of the imagination.”
In the 1980s, Van Meter took what she calls a “sabbatical” from the Fed and worked for two commercial banks in California. The experience convinced her she was happiest when focusing on the Fed’s broader mission.
"Booth was the only school I applied to. I either had to
go for the brass ring or not do it at all,
and for me a degree from Booth was the brass ring.”
“When you work in the private sector, it’s pretty straight forward,” she says. “It’s all about return on equity and what you give back to the shareholders. But when you work in the public sector like the Fed you’re working for the public good. You’re trying to raise the boats of many, not just a few.”
Van Meter was 45, married and with two sons when she enrolled in Booth’s Executive MBA Program and credits it with re-energizing her career.
“At that point, I had sort of plateaued,” she said. “I had gotten to the level of vice president in the organization and really wanted to become a member of the executive committee, but found out that one of the things holding me back was that I did not have a graduate degree. Booth was the only school I applied to. I either had to go for the brass ring or not do it at all, and for me a degree from Booth was the brass ring.”
In 2007, brass ring in hand, Van Meter was named a member of the executive committee for the Seventh Federal Reserve District.
At the keynote luncheon, Van Meter shared career advice—not only on how women leaders can advance their own careers—but how they can mentor people all around them by being generous with their experience and their insights.
Here are her four top tips:
- Don’t be afraid to take a backward or lateral move to a higher goal. “Right out of college I worked in the Detroit office of the Chicago Fed for a senior officer named Bob Fitzgerald. Bob saw some kind of raw talent in me, and when I wanted to move into the officer ranks, he told me I needed leadership experience. He thought the best way for me to get it would be to take an assistant manager position on the night shift. There were a lot of negatives. The hours were midnight to nine in the morning or so, and it also involved going from a grade 16 job back to a grade 14 job. But that job is what propelled me into leadership.
Don’t hang back because you don’t know all the answers. “I’ve had a lot of different roles -- sales and marketing, operations, CFO and chief diversity officer – and for most of them I didn’t know what I was doing when I started them. I would encourage you to do the same. Men are very adept at taking on roles that they are not prepared for. Women tend to be much more tentative. Don’t ever hold yourself back because you only know 75 percent or even 50 percent of what you need to know for a job. You’ll learn. You’ll fall down, but you’ll get through it and you will succeed if you surround yourself with great people – especially people who are smarter than you.”
Keep the personal touch. “I still have the hand-written notes that one of my bosses, Bill Conrad, wrote to me about every promotion I got, when I lost my parents, and when I retired. They mean so much. The way to engage employees is to engage ourselves with them.”
Reach beyond your comfort zone. “When I found out that I was coming here (to speak at Booth ), I came out a few days earlier and connected with a lot of people that I had had the great honor and privilege of helping in their careers. I met with a black male, a Jewish male, a Latino male, two lesbian women, a number of white women, a number of black women. These are all people, individuals, I have mentored or sponsored throughout my career. These weren’t all just black women like myself. You’ve got to reach out beyond your comfort zone and expand where you share your blessings and your privilege.”
--By Robert Sharoff