Your first act is school, your second act is work, but have you thought about what you’re going to do in your third act? Join host Liz Tinkham, a former Accenture Senior Managing Director, as she talks to guests who are happily “pretired” – enjoying their time, treasure, and talent to pursue their purpose and passion in the third act of their life.
Inspire others to get more and to do more later in life.
Athena helps women achieve executive-level leadership expertise, polish their boardroom and executive knowledge, get closer to board seats, and make leaps in their careers.
Maria Garcia Nielsen is an accomplished international board director, business executive, and advocate for diversity in education and in the workplace. Early in her life, Maria’s mother instilled in her the importance of education. Carrying this principle, Maria earned a scholarship to Cornell before going to Wharton for her MBA. She went on to a stellar career, eventually becoming the CEO of Office Depot in Spain and Portugal. Now in her third act, Maria uses an excel spreadsheet to map out how she divides her time between working on international boards, leading and mentoring women, and giving back the gift of education through her council work at Cornell and Wharton.
On today’s episode, Maria talks about her educational path as an immigrant, leveraging her background in international business, and her exploration of executive networking as she pursued board service.
(3:10) Maria’s eventful childhood in Peru
(5:28) First Act: The path that got Maria to Cornell
(9:43) A job at Y&S Candies inspires Maria to pursue an MBA
(11:43) A summer internship doing Hispanic marketing for General Foods’ Jello brand
(12:49) An exchange program brings Maria to Barcelona
(16:21) Maria reflects on her career at Office Depot
(21:15) Intentional career management and spreadsheeting your time
(26:34) Valuable resources and business development courses
(30:26) Considerations for those interested in an international board
(33:15) Giving back the gift of education
(37:18) Tips on networking and groups to join
Connect with Maria Garcia Nelson on twitter @garcianielsen, or find her on LinkedIn.
To hear about more Third Act stories, subscribe to and follow the Third Act podcast at thirdactpodcast.com. And if you enjoyed listening, leave a review for this podcast here:
Liz Tinkham (00:13):
Hi, this is Liz Tinkham and welcome to season two of Third Act, a podcast about people embracing the third act of their lives with a new sense of purpose and direction. The third act begins when your script ends, but your show’s not finished. On today’s episode of Third Act, I talked with Maria Garcia Nielsen, the intentional, international board director. If you’re looking to get a board seat or more involved in executive networking, then let me tell you, this is the episode for you. Maria was born in Peru as the youngest of six children. Early in her life, her mother instilled a strong need for education.
Liz Tinkham (00:54):
The family eventually moved to New York City, and through Maria’s hard work and the very influential Sister Mary Jo, she earned a scholarship to Cornell, and then to Wharton for her MBA. Maria went on to a stellar career, eventually becoming the CEO of Office Depot in Spain and Portugal. As she thought about her next act, Maria created an Excel spreadsheet, something I bet we can all relate to, to map out how she would spend her time with a goal of owning more of it for herself. That spreadsheet guided her pursuit of what she’s doing in her third act, international for-profit and not-for-profit boards, leading and mentoring women and giving back the gift of education through her work at Cornell and Wharton. Good morning, Maria, and welcome to the Third Act Podcast. How are you?
Maria Garcia Nielsen (01:44):
Fine, thank you for having me as your guest, Liz.
Liz Tinkham (01:47):
Where do I find you today?
Maria Garcia Nielsen (01:49):
In Madrid, Spain.
Liz Tinkham (01:51):
Oh, my gosh, the last time we talked you were in New York. So you live in two countries, correct? How has that worked out during the pandemic?
Maria Garcia Nielsen (02:00):
Well, that was my plan. So my plan in 2017 was to have a portfolio of boards in Europe and in the East Coast, so that I would take the flight, six-hour flight, direct flights, very easy between Madrid and New York City. I was able to do that for the latter part of 2018 and 2019. My planning worked, however-
Liz Tinkham (02:27):
Until last year, right?
Maria Garcia Nielsen (02:28):
… fortunately. Yes. Fortunately, we’re still flexible, right? I think that was probably a simpler problem to manage. So I did confine my family here in Madrid, where we have more space and we felt that we were a bit safer and had lots of green space around us. But once I started traveling again, it just felt wonderful to be able to move.
Liz Tinkham (02:54):
I have to say, though, I love Madrid. If I had a chance … I mean, I have a beautiful place to quarantine, but that would also be a great place to go as well. But let’s start. I mean, you have an international background, but you’re actually from Peru, youngest of six children. What was it like growing up in Peru?
Maria Garcia Nielsen (03:10):
Yes, I am from Peru. I was born in Lima and my parents are from a little tiny town called Cañete, two hours south of Lima and they were married really young. My mother had four children by the time she was 20. They were still young, and the youngest of that, first born, requested that my parents have a little brother or a little sister. My parents accommodated the request, so my sister was born.
Liz Tinkham (03:35):
Oh! That was pretty nice of them. Okay.
Maria Garcia Nielsen (03:39):
Yes, five years later, I was an accident. So I grew up thinking that I was this accidental child in this wonderful family because it was just great to grow up with so many adults around us, my sister and I, paying attention to us and loving us. I moved from Peru when I was 11. All of my primary education took place in Lima and it was an eventful place to grow up, right? I lived through a major earthquake that completely destroyed our home and our schools. We had no school for like four months, so that’s how I remember the earthquake. We also had a military takeover during those years, because we left early ’70s, but I remember it, as children remember loving childhoods, serene, going to the beach, wonderful.
Liz Tinkham (04:30):
Does your whole family end up in New York City?
Maria Garcia Nielsen (04:32):
Yes, it took us 10 years, right? It’s not like you pick up and move. First, the older brothers and sisters were there, then my brother were there. As I said you know, we’re a very close knit family and I think that helped us so much. But similar to many immigrant families, you pull all your resources together, and you help each other out. I don’t think my mother … I think my father was, of course, involved, but I think I remember this whole planning an idea as my mother really egging us on and telling us that we should follow and how lucky we were to have this opportunity. So that’s the signalling that I received. I was the youngest. I was only 11. My transition was so much simpler, all I had to do was go to school. I would have had to go to school in Peru, and I went to school in New York City.
Liz Tinkham (05:28):
Now, your mother was really strong on education and instilled that in you. You ended up doing well in school and going on to Cornell. How did that all transpire?
Maria Garcia Nielsen (05:37):
Yes, as I said, I was 11. Went to Catholic school. Once again, that pooling of resources made a huge difference. I don’t recall who paid for my schooling, right? The way our family worked is that my mother would sort of set the plan and everybody would comply, which is very different from how I now run my family.
Liz Tinkham (05:58):
I was going to say, I don’t think that happens at my house. For sure, it doesn’t.
Maria Garcia Nielsen (06:01):
Exactly. I have to be so grateful, right? For all that manner of just accepting and being the beneficiary of all those hopes. I was sent to Catholic school, and I went to high school in the city, in a small school, Dominican Academy, very small school, on 68th, between Park and Madison, so wonderful to be able to leave Queens every day and go into Manhattan. It just opens up so many ideas and creativity and wonderful friends there. One of the teachers, Sister Mary Jo, she was our physics teacher.
Maria Garcia Nielsen (06:41):
She found out about a minority program in engineering because I was really good at math and physics, and told my parents that I could enroll in a program at Cornell, the summer between junior and senior year. I spent, maybe, probably a week, but it was so impactful, up in Ithaca, New York, with minority — I guess- high schoolers that were interested in engineering. They told us all about engineering, but also told us about how to apply. This is back when this was all paper based, right? They told us get a typewriter, don’t do it by hand. This is how you do your recommendations.
Maria Garcia Nielsen (07:20):
All of that prepping, which we were getting a lot of that in high school as well, but it was just so tailored to Cornell, obviously, to engineering. From my recollection, the most impactful thing is that they really cared about us. They understood that we didn’t have the benefit of parents and grandparents or extended family having attended college, right? They realized that all of this was new, and they gave us information. I remember coming back with so much paperwork for my parents to explain to them why this was a great opportunity.
Liz Tinkham (07:57):
You end up at Cornell. What degree do you get and what did you think you were going to do when you got out?
Maria Garcia Nielsen (08:03):
I did go for engineering. I followed the advice of Sister Mary Jo, Physics and math. I went for engineering. I wanted to be a professional, so I have to look back and in hindsight, I was not a vocational engineer, right? I think I followed the simplest path because of my academic results. The other thing is that I received a full scholarship. Cornell is just a wonderful place to attend, because you have all of the colleges, all different learning.
Maria Garcia Nielsen (08:38):
But it wasn’t until junior or senior year when I was really thinking of what to do next. I ended up interviewing for consumer goods companies that were looking for engineers for their manufacturing facilities. I interviewed with General Mills, and with Kraft Foods, Procter & Gamble, that made sense to me, right? Because that was familiar, I could understand, I could be engaged and I ended up working with Hershey- Hershey Foods — with Chocolate Kisses.
Liz Tinkham (09:12):
Okay. Yeah, of course. It’s interesting you had said that because I’m also an engineer and I interviewed — I’m an aerospace engineer. I remember going, not to Boeing, but to McDonnell Douglas and a bunch of the aerospace companies and I was just like, “I don’t want to do this.” It was like all men, I was going to design a screw, I’m thinking, “Eh. This isn’t for me,” which is how I ended up in consulting. You go to Hershey, and eventually did you go … You work for a while and then go to Wharton to get an MBA. Do I have the timeline correct?
Maria Garcia Nielsen (09:43):
Yes, that’s correct. I did. Once again, the standard path I had heard through career counseling at Cornell was that many people with engineering degrees work for two years and then pursue an MBA. I had that in the back of my mind when I went to Hershey. Once again at Hershey, I had a wonderful experience with… Just everybody around was so supportive. Yeah, I was one of the first Latinos to be hired into R&D. At one point, there was an opportunity for me to work in a manufacturing plant for Y&S Candies that they made liquorice. They made Twizzlers. I put up my hand. I was able to work shifts with the maintenance department as part of my engineering onboarding.
Maria Garcia Nielsen (10:35):
The plant manager there and the engineering, I guess, manager would have been, they were the ones that really encouraged me to look into an MBA, because I wanted to be a plant manager. I respected this plant manager so much. He would pull us together in the mornings and tell us about the plans. At that point, we were doing Total Quality Control, all of these management ideas, how they treated the employees, how they thought it was so crucial that I spoke Spanish that I leverage that to talk to the plant employees, all of that really seems so interesting, much more interesting than just the engineering work that I was doing. They were very supportive, as I said, and they wrote my letters of recommendations and so on and I ended up applying to Wharton. Once again, through General Foods, I received the full scholarship.
Liz Tinkham (11:34):
Did General Foods then expect you to come work for them after you graduated from Wharton?
Maria Garcia Nielsen (11:39):
No, they didn’t.
Liz Tinkham (11:42):
Just a separate scholarship. Okay.
Maria Garcia Nielsen (11:44):
Yes, and they did expect the summer programs. I did my summer internship with them. I actually did Hispanic marketing for their Jello brand.
Liz Tinkham (11:52):
Oh my God.
Liz Tinkham (11:53):
That must have been fun. Interesting target marketing.
Maria Garcia Nielsen (11:56):
Really fun. It’s really fun, completely, and it was very incipient, that idea that you had to market differently to Hispanics. What language do you use? And do you use Spanglish or not? Do you support the Puerto Rican Parade? I was also very surprised at that, but it made so much sense because we were- my family- was the target group. I would just go back home and ask all these questions. My parents would watch the programs that we were talking about at work. It was a learning experience, but wonderful. I mean, to see how that has evolved.
Liz Tinkham (12:43):
After you get your MBA, you somehow you end up in Spain working, or where did you go then? And how did that happen?
Maria Garcia Nielsen (12:49):
Yes. I did engineering so I wasn’t able to do the typical exchange program that a lot of undergraduates do. I wanted to at least explore whether, through Wharton, I would be able to do an exchange program because in engineering you would miss, you couldn’t really take off that easily, I thought. My sister, one of my — that sister that’s only five years older than me, she’d gone to Seville. She told me, “Oh my god this is wonderful. This is like Peru. People dance in the streets.” Because she had gone to the Seville fair, right? Where people do dance in the streets.
Maria Garcia Nielsen (13:24):
I thought, “Oh, my God, I want to do that.” Luckily, and this is serendipity, the day we had spoken on the phone, I see a sign up in one of the corporates on the walls that Wharton had an exchange program with ESA, in Barcelona. I just pictured myself doing my MBA, dancing in the street, and being fulfilled. I applied. I was accepted and I did my third semester. Typical two-year program, I did the third semester in Barcelona.
Liz Tinkham (14:00):
Another one of my favorite cities. Did you end up dancing in the streets while you were there?
Maria Garcia Nielsen (14:05):
No, and this is also a lesson to learn. I expected dancing in the streets and my sister had gone to Seville, south of Spain where it doesn’t get cold. I only brought all the summer clothes and Barcelona does have a winter season. So it wasn’t the same experience, but once again, it was the year … So this is prior to Spain joining the EU, prior to the Olympic Games. There’s just so much optimism and hope. Everybody was just so excited about Spain’s transitioning that there was so much energy and plans and it’s just fun. I mean, that still remains.
Liz Tinkham (14:54):
Do you end up then, after you graduate, you start your career in Spain. Is that correct and how does that transpire?
Maria Garcia Nielsen (15:02):
When I graduated from Wharton, I actually wanted to do operations research. I still had that engineering management. I still wanted to be a plant manager, that was very present in how I approached my search. However, McKinsey Iberia came to recruit at Wharton and they called me out. They were not my target. The Baines and BCGs, those were not in my target list for the US. But because they contacted me, they were actually interviewing. They said, “Would you come talk to us?” That was really what connected me to Spain professionally.
Maria Garcia Nielsen (15:41):
That office was growing, they wanted Spanish speakers, they wanted Ivy League graduates. Everything just fed and it was wonderful. In the meantime, my roommate, so when you … When I did the exchange, my roommate was this Danish student from Denmark, literally, after his university, also getting his degree in ESA, Barcelona, and we started going out. That was also part of the “Should we try this? And if we want to try this, we should probably be in the same continent.”
Liz Tinkham (16:21):
I’m going to fast forward, through sort of your second act, because you had a great career and different companies in Spain. Your last job, though, is with Office Depot, where you’re the CEO of Portugal, Spain. Then you retire in 2017. What was your thinking at that point and why did you decide to retire then?
Maria Garcia Nielsen (16:44):
Yes, Office Depot had reached out to me, because they were having tons of trouble with the model. I think this is … It’s still going on. It’s a challenge to be in retail in those big boxes and that format today. But this subsidiary was, financially, it was presenting a big challenge for the European management. One of the things that they were looking to do was to explore whether they should just close a subsidiary or prepare it for a possible exit at some point, either through private equity or through sales, because everything was on the table with the model and we were just coming out of the financial crisis.
Maria Garcia Nielsen (17:32):
When I was approached, I had such a clear vision on how to turn this subsidiary financially, because I had just done something very similar in my prior job, and that’s how I came to know them. Having worked for multinationals you know that the hierarchies, the complexities, all of those levels of decision making, make everything so slow, not as transparent as it should be, and definitely not efficient. Up until then, they hadn’t had somebody that could at least be close and negotiate on Iberia’s behalf at headquarters, because they had all these layers of European managers.
Maria Garcia Nielsen (18:23):
What I asked for is: I’m ready to take on this challenge, but give me some leeway, so that I can work directly through headquarters, rather than go through Southern Europe, then EMEA, and then US. They had nothing to lose. They gave me leeway. We turned this around much faster than they expected, and have to close it, right? That was one of the great stories out of that. The second thing is that, maybe two years into the role, HR calls me from headquarters to talk. I thought we were going to talk about the typical issues of cause and different programs or whatever.
Maria Garcia Nielsen (19:07):
And they asked me, “What do you want? How do you see your career?” That was so refreshing. I have to be so grateful for Office Depot for that, because they actually ask me to think about myself, about where I would be next. I didn’t see myself, having been fighting this hierarchical structure, going up to another European country or to the US. That was not really in my head. It was in those conversations that the idea of boards came up. The idea of perhaps looking at these other activities, complimentary, because they wanted to make sure that I was still engaged.
Maria Garcia Nielsen (19:50):
After the financial turnaround in the subsidiary, I could either grow and move or I could wait there until the plans for after the merger with OfficeMax, after the potential merger with Staples Center, all of that was settled, they did want to retain me. One of the things they offered was, “Let’s look into training.” Part of it was, let’s look into training that could also open up your eyes as to your next phase. That’s how the idea of boards came up. We pursued, and so for maybe three years within Office Depot, every perk that I could negotiate was always geared towards more training. I did my certificate, my NACD, all of that I did while I was still at Office Depot.
Liz Tinkham (20:40):
That’s a great idea. Probably some advice to our listeners, as well, as you think about your exit to try and negotiate as many of those perks as possible.
Maria Garcia Nielsen (20:50):
Yes. For example, they introduced me to all of the board members at Office Depot at that time. Whenever I went to headquarters, I made time to speak to the board. That was just wonderful, right? It was not the typical presentation on Spain’s results, but it was just coffee and lunch, just to talk to board members. That was very special.
Liz Tinkham (21:15):
One of the things when I was talking to you earlier prepping for this is, I just love this part of your story, is that you’re really diligent about how you planned your next phase, which I like to call the vocational freedom phase, right? That when you have the time, talent and treasure to do what you want, and you said you made a spreadsheet to figure it out. Can you talk us through that spreadsheet? We may have to post it because I have a feeling some people might want to replicate it.
Maria Garcia Nielsen (21:42):
Yes. That is part of how I am. I think in looking back when we were first married, I used Lotus 1-2-3 to plan my children. I do want to keep working, so I want three years because that would allow me to have maternity leave, to be in motherhood. All of these ideas of spreadsheets and ledgers have been in my life for a long time. I did the same thing with boards because you know all those reports … I think Spencer Stuart puts out a report on how the hours of board directors is increasing. You have the data. I wanted to make sure that some of the things that I wanted to pursue were already timestamped in there.
Maria Garcia Nielsen (22:33):
I didn’t want to just follow whatever came my way just because I was either bored or I had the energy or I had the freedom. I sat down. I wanted to not be over boarded, which was another concept that you come across when you’re looking at boards. I thought “What do I want to do with my own life?” It’s part of that introspection as well, right? What do I want to do with this newfound freedom? My children have finished college, I don’t have my 12 or 15-hour job really calling on my attention. One of the things that I wanted to do is make sure that I secure giving back.
Maria Garcia Nielsen (23:17):
I wanted to make sure that my … I didn’t know then, but something …whether it was service, whether it was a nonprofit or whether it was part of some sort of volunteering. That’s what I secured first in that spreadsheet. I wanted to give back to Cornell. That’s in my heart. I think it changed my life. That was one of the first things I did, is how can I have an impact at the board level or council level as they are so open to engage alumni to keep on giving back to the school. Not financially. They really are very open and explicit about ‘we want your time, your talent, your enthusiasm’. That’s one of the first things I secured.
Maria Garcia Nielsen (24:07):
I then wanted to have time, both in the US and in Spain, and so I jotted down the potential boards, two boards in Spain, two boards in New York or US East Coast, and I wanted to work out what does that look like? I took the average number of hours, and I multiplied by four to say, “Okay, what does that time commitment look like? Can I then include travel so that I can be in two continents?” I think that was very refreshing for me to understand, right? Because one thing is that you think, “Oh, I want to have this amazing life,” but then you have to drill down and say, “Okay, does that meet the type of lifestyle I want to have? Does that meet what my financial planning needs to be at this point in my life? Where am I in all sorts of aspects?”
Maria Garcia Nielsen (25:12):
Also, I did this Coursera course on … It’s called ‘Better Leaders’, ‘Better Managers’ or something like that by a professor at Wharton, and they talked about four spheres. There are many approaches to this, right? How are you personally? How are you professionally? How are you with your community? How are you with your personal life? I remember doing that in maybe 2015, and then I did it a year ago. One of the outcomes of that, when you try to think where are you spending your energy and your talents in your daily activities, I wanted to have more community service, right?
Maria Garcia Nielsen (25:54):
I wanted to have more time on me, on self growth. Board work allows for that, right? Because if I’m doing board work for nonprofit, it’s really addressing that community aspect. Boards are definitely a learning opportunity, right? I’m just re-energized by all of the things that I have to learn about with my boards, what’s going on with stakeholder capitalism? It’s not just putting your experience to work for the service of your boards. It’s really rolling up your sleeves and continuing to learn, and that’s so exciting.
Liz Tinkham (26:34):
I know you’ve pursued a lot of different resources, too, either for learning or to help you get on boards like NACD, and I think you told me you did … Was it PwC that did a course in Europe? Was that PwC that-
Maria Garcia Nielsen (26:47):
Liz Tinkham (26:47):
… you took the board? Yeah.
Maria Garcia Nielsen (26:49):
Yeah. I’ve been on since the program.
Liz Tinkham (26:51):
As you think about all of those resources, which ones did you find to be the most valuable?
Maria Garcia Nielsen (26:59):
That’s a really hard question. One of the things that was more transformational, perhaps, was that I did use some of my perks, as I said, while I was at Office Depot to attend a certificate course. One of the executive programs at Harvard Business School has four or five programs, and I attended ‘Making Boards More Effective’ in the summer of … I think this must have been 2016. They told me about it. The professors or people in the admin department there at HBS told me about this program they were launching for the first time called ‘Women On Boards’ in November.
Maria Garcia Nielsen (27:42):
I said, “Oh, I really can’t ask Office Depot.” I felt bad, and I was actually … I received a scholarship that I was partially funded for to attend once again, another corporate course at HBS in November 2016. What was transformational about that, it was an old women course, so the content was always very interesting and amazing. But the network that we created with the women in that cohort is and continues to be transformational. What we did, one woman took it upon herself to keep us connected, and she would organize by every two weeks, we would get on a call and just share with each other that the search firms were not calling us after completing our course, and that in the end we were just surprised at the obstacles at perhaps how slow we were to get our board bios done.
Maria Garcia Nielsen (28:45):
We just had so much to share. In the end, that network, that friendship turned into a 501(c)(6). I became very engaged. It’s called WomenExecs on Boards. I was president for two years, I’m now the chair of the board of that entity. It was putting my own journey in the middle of that, but expanding it not only to benefit me, but all the women in the network, and we were all the same. It wasn’t that I was just being the sacrificial person that was doing this on behalf of the rest. We were all like that. There are many initiatives like that, right? But because we were part of that founding team of that initial idea, of that way of sharing and helping each other out, that has been very important because of the networking effect that everybody tells you about, and you have to structure in order for that to be effective.
Maria Garcia Nielsen (29:48):
That’s how you I also became part of Athena because we reached an alliance with Athena at that group, and you know how Coco is so generous as well, right? One of our members had joined Athena. She put us in contact with Coco. Our two entities are now related, right? I think that’s also the way we’re seeing so many initiatives become so collaborative, right? It’s a space, I think, where people are looking out to help each other, make a difference on diversity in the boardroom.
Liz Tinkham (30:26):
You’re currently on a couple commercial boards in Europe, and still working on getting your US boards. As our listeners think about getting on to an international board, they have an interest in that, what are the considerations, aside from the travel and language and international work experience, the obvious ones, what other considerations should people be thinking about if they’re interested in an international board?
Maria Garcia Nielsen (30:51):
Yes, I think with everything, I think diversity, always, it’s such a positive effect, right? The idea of having the US perspective on an international board is so important, and that’s usually part of the specs, right? When corporations were boards, the nom-gov is looking at what does our board matrix look like? What are we missing? Where can we benefit? That may be one of the things that’s required or has been identified. I think a lot of it is does that business, in its context, does it meet your voice? Will it benefit from your experience? That’s, I think, the most important thing, right? Will you add value?
Maria Garcia Nielsen (31:38):
The second thing is that I do think, as I mentioned before, that this role of corporate board, being independent directors, requires learning, right? I think that learning can come from all sorts of experiences, places, and definitely the international aspect is crucial in how we approach businesses. I think no business can say, “We’re just a local business, and we’re not impacted.” Even if you are thinking of supply chain, of what’s happening with the commodities and metals, right? We’re all connected. It’s really impossible not to have that be a piece of value to bring to the table.
Maria Garcia Nielsen (32:24):
I do think that besides the actual business model, the context and putting your experience to serve as a specific board, I do think that there’s also lots to learn about the environment, right? What does diversity look like in the specific geography that you may be interested in? Where diversity now, especially in the US, it’s still gender, but it’s so much more, right? With race and ethnicities. I think if you look at Spain, we’re still in gender, right? That’s still the issue. I think those experiences from different geographies that are trying to resolve specific problems can also be so enriching because best practices can then be at least explored, right? Not everything is transferable, but I think that’s also really important.
Liz Tinkham (33:15):
In addition to your board work, you mentioned Cornell, and I know if I circle back, you’ve never really forgotten about the gift of education that you got from both Cornell and Wharton. What else are you doing at Wharton, and how do you think about giving back that gift of education as you think forward in your life?
Maria Garcia Nielsen (33:41):
Yes. I place both Cornell and Wharton really high up on the time where I wanted to give back. At Cornell, I’m part of this Diversity Council. It’s the president’s … We advise the President of Cornell on diversity and inclusion issues for students, for staff, and for academics, and it’s a six year mandate and that’s been a wonderful experience. It’s called PCCW, and it’s women only. Then at Wharton, what happened was that I went back to my 30th reunion thinking that it was one more network that I had to tap into as I wanted to obtain a board in the US and found that some of my friends were in the same spot where I was.
Maria Garcia Nielsen (34:31):
They weren’t any further ahead than I was, even though they’d been in the US for all these years. I just reached out to friends and said, “Would you mind connecting? Let’s connect once a month and talk about this.” That initiative, we started with eight people. Just by chance, my friends were women or men of color. It just happened to be that way. I invited more people, but it just happened that way. We were very diverse in that initial group. Because we’ve been committed, I’ve been committed, we’ve never missed the monthly call. Wharton has paid attention. They’ve been very supportive and they have come to give talks.
Maria Garcia Nielsen (35:19):
Wharton has a wonderful initiative. They give free coaching to all alumni that want to get on boards. I’ve connected dots. Yeah. Yeah. We just had a session yesterday with the Director of the Alumni Office, and they have a Wharton book and they reach out to alumni to say, “Hey, we have these wonderful alums that are board-ready. That call that I started with eight people, we now have 350 people in our emailing list because the Alumni Office has also put out the word. We were just featured in the Alumni Magazine.
Maria Garcia Nielsen (35:56):
People have just, by word of mouth, contacted me to say, “Can I get on this?” Then people begin to raise their hand, right? And say, “How can I help?” That just begins to become a virtuous cycle of activity and engagement. I’m having a wonderful time reconnecting with friends. I think boards also are part of maybe the answer for a larger topic, right? As your podcast addresses, “what’s next?” A lot of times when I connect with friends, I say, “Just come to the session,” because some of it is just plain old networking and we have people that are having or exploring different things, and some of it may be resolved by a board.
Maria Garcia Nielsen (36:43):
But maybe you come because you want to get on a corporate board. But really, it’s a nonprofit board that gets you excited, and that’s what you want to do and focus on for the next number of years. I think that works are amazing, and it’s wonderful to see how generous people enrich each other’s lives, right? I think somebody has to be there to make it possible or feasible, but it’s really individuals that put their best foot forward and get everything to happen.
Liz Tinkham (37:18):
For the people who are listening who are interested in, and you’re involved in so many different things, but many of them are related to Cornell or Wharton or Harvard. Which of the groups that you’re in are not affiliated with a group that you had to have gone to? If I’m not a Harvard alum, I’m not a Wharton alum, what else do you do that you might recommend to our listeners that you found beneficial, aside of course from the Athena Alliance? That’s open to anybody who wants to join or apply.
Maria Garcia Nielsen (37:47):
Some things I did that I found really useful. When I first went to the US to network for myself, I joined women in the boardroom with Sheila Ronning in the East Coast. That was very helpful because she’s down to earth, very pragmatic, and she would always call me out, saying, “What are you doing for you?” Because I would tell her, also, “I connected all these people and my Wharton group is growing and the Harvard group is getting a 501(c)(6),” and she would call me out, and I think that was very healthy to say, “Go back to your spreadsheet, think of how many of those things are conducive to your getting on board,” because that’s where you’ll also have impact.
Maria Garcia Nielsen (38:38):
I found that really wonderful. I was part of Women In The Boardroom and found Sheila to be very, I think, candid with me, which I needed. It’s not for everybody, but I need it. I’m also part of Elevate Networks. I don’t know if you know Elevate Networks. They also have a cohort of women, executive level, that are exploring boards. We’re also doing some programming there with Elevate Networks to at least make it available, right? To people to explore, to understand what is this opportunity for an executive level individual? I also engage younger women to understand why corporate boards are important.
Maria Garcia Nielsen (39:26):
It’s obviously important to me because that’s what I’m doing. But I recently shared in a mixer with younger women that as citizens, as employees, as consumers, as investors for our pension plan, or whatever, right? Corporate boards make such a difference in our lives. Because if we’re concerned about the pay gap, if we’re concerned about certain inequities, if we’re concerned about a supply chain not being as it’s possible, many of those decisions, or at least conversations, are taking place in the boardroom. I don’t want everybody to be a corporate board member, but I think everybody should understand why it matters. Elevate is taking that approach.
Liz Tinkham (40:17):
We will list these in the show notes, but these are good suggestions. Wrapping up here, I love to ask my guests the same question at the end, which is I thought about naming this podcast I’m Not Done Yet, and you’re clearly not done. What aren’t you done with, yet?
Maria Garcia Nielsen (40:33):
I would say learning. If I could, I would go back to school tomorrow. If somebody said, “Do you want to get another degree?” I would. I am just so energized by all that we have to learn. My curiosity is now focused on blockchain technology and –
Liz Tinkham (40:53):
Maria Garcia Nielsen (40:54):
Because that distributed, autonomous organization, I think it’s also a reflection of failed governance on incorporation. I’m really amazed by what’s happening there.
Liz Tinkham (41:08):
Yeah. MIT has some good classes on that. I took one. My son’s very into blockchain and he’s trading cryptocurrencies. I decided if I was going to be able to have a conversation with him at the dinner table, I better get smart on it. It’s been a lot of fun. Maria, thank you so much for your time and all your advice on how to become an intentional international board person, and we look forward to continuing to hear about your journey.
Maria Garcia Nielsen (41:31):
Thank you, Liz. Thank you so much for this podcast.
Liz Tinkham (41:36):
Thanks for joining me today to listen to the Third Act Podcast. You can find show notes, guest bios, and more at thirdactpodcast.com. If you enjoyed our show today, please subscribe and write a review on your favorite podcast platform. I’m your host, Liz Tinkham. I’ll be back next week with another guest who’s found new meaning and fulfillment in the third act of their life.
Want to share the story of your own Third Act on our podcast? We welcome stories from executives who pivoted their careers to find their passion and purpose later in their lives. Tell us more about yourself to be considered as a guest.