When Bentley University’s president talks about her career, the word “serendipity” comes up a lot. A self-described “half-glass-full Southern cheerleader type,” Gloria Cordes Larson means being in the right place at the right time. The opportunities she has seized along the way have lent an unpredictable, if not unplanned, quality to her trajectory.
“Someone looking at my resume could easily think I either can’t hold down a permanent job or that I have a huge amount of curiosity,” says Larson, laughing.
One undercurrent, however, is her passion for serving the public interest.
It was her one guiding star as a student at Vassar “when college was about exploring different subjects — and not about career planning,” and later at law school at the University of Virginia “where most of my classmates were headed for major law firms,” Larson says. It was what kept her in a job at the Federal Trade Commission in Washington, D.C. for seven years, while her husband was in Massachusetts. And to this day it is her barometer for growth in a career. “When I feel less passion for what I’m doing, it’s time to be open to change,” she explains.
Learn more about her route to becoming the president of Bentley and the lessons she learned along the way:
Finding Her “Sea Legs” After College
I hadn’t had a job in high school or during the summers in college, so I took two years off before going to law school to get my sea legs.
I worked in human resources for Arlington, Virginia. I had a lot of confidence from going to Vassar — my class was the last all-female one before the school went co-ed — and I talked my way into a job where I was in charge of hiring social workers and psychologists for the county. In retrospect, I think the job boosted my confidence even more.
Diving in After Law School
While at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, I worked on pro-bono mental health and environmental projects. After graduating, I then jumped at the chance to run a statewide program for the elderly that made sure those who were low income got the legal services they needed.
It was a phenomenal opportunity — and from it I learned how to present my ideas publicly.
Meeting a Mentor
Just before turning 30, I was picked to work for one of five commissioners at the Federal Trade Commission in Washington, D.C., the primary federal agency in charge of consumer protection and antitrust law. Her name was Pat Bailey, and she was only the second woman to be appointed a commissioner by the President.
Pat changed my whole perspective: in the 1980s, I worked for someone at the highest level — who happened to be a woman. She also hired women — three out of the four attorney advisors working for her were women. Pat was groundbreaking in both a broad and personally defining sense.
Getting a Call from the Massachusetts Governor
When William Weld was elected governor, he invited me to serve in his cabinet as secretary of consumer affairs and business regulation. It was the state version of what I had been doing at the FTC. After seven years of commuting to Massachusetts, where my husband had moved, it was a great opportunity to be in the same state as him. Two years later, I took a second, more prestigious cabinet post as secretary of economic affairs.
Entering the Private Sector
I left Weld’s cabinet to become a partner at the law firm of Foley Hoag, where I represented clients who were involved in educational and economic development in the state. I thought it would be great to get the perspective of the business community in a direct way.
Going Back to College
While at the firm, I would recruit at leading law schools. And on one of my trips to UVA, I had an especially eye-opening experience.
It was my first introduction to Millenials who think in a holistic way and who may very well be the first truly global generation that can begin to address big world challenges.
I was at dinner telling friends about this experience, and one of them said I should apply to be president of Bentley — they might be interested in someone like me. It turned out they were looking for a new model for a college president.
I’m now going into my 10th year here, helping the next generation make a difference at companies and in the broader world…I can’t think of a better capstone to a very long career.
Offering Advice to Women
When it comes to progress for women in the business world, my generation — the baby boomers — was breaking down walls, shattering ceilings, forging ahead. I felt like I was a part of a wave that couldn’t be stopped.
I don’t think any of us would have believed that progress would have stalled beyond midlevel managers, with so few women making it to the corner suite and on corporate boards in 2016. We all understand it’s because of the complexity of the situation — subliminal bias, women holding themselves back, the confidence gap — but in my era, complexity didn’t enter the picture.
If I could advise women only one thing from my experience, it’s find the ability to take risks professionally, so you’re not just treading water. It’s the only way you can move forward while we collectively address all those other challenges to progress.
A version of this article originally appeared on the blog for the Massachusetts Conference for Women, of which President Larson is also the president.