18 Jan 2012
After her graduation from HBS, few people could accuse Mary Burke (MBA 1985) of having led a dull life. As reported in the Madison, Wisconsin Capital Times (October 5, 2011), Burke first worked for McKinsey, then started a business that failed (“a great learning experience,” she said), briefly retired in her mid-30s for a stint as a snowboard bum in Colorado, and headed up Wisconsin’s Commerce Department as Secretary in Governor Jim Doyle’s administration.
In addition, she worked in various capacities for her family’s company, Trek Bicycle Corp., headquartered in Waterloo, Wisconsin. While there, she set up Trek’s sales and distribution companies across Europe and worked in forecasting and planning. Since 2007, she has devoted her energy and skills full time to the nonprofit community, passionately advocating for opportunities for kids of color.
“Both of my parents have always been very committed to volunteer work and they always encouraged us to give back to the community,” Burke told the Capital Times. “I feel incredibly lucky to have been given the opportunities I was given, and I took seriously the knowledge that many kids don’t have those opportunities.” An excellent tennis player, Burke volunteered to teach the sport as a teenager in Milwaukee’s inner city. “It taught me a lot,” she said. “You see kids with a passion for life and talents and you know if they could get the support they need they could grow into whatever it is that they want to be.”
A few years ago, Burke was asked by Wisconsin’s governor and Milwaukee’s mayor to analyze the finances of the Milwaukee Public Schools. About the same time, she got involved in an initiative that helps students who are the first generation in their family to go to college. “Long-term, it’s a way to change the income gaps that exist in our country,” said Burke. “For kids to succeed, they must have a vision of what they want to be and a motivation to succeed. Sometimes I think we put all the emphasis on other tools—extra tutoring, things like that—when really the thing that matters the most is the dream, and some expectation it could actually happen. What makes a country, or an economy, great is when everyone believes they have a chance at success. We all need positive role models around us, people who look like us, telling us, ‘You can do this!’”
Indeed, Burke notes that when she enrolled at HBS, she found numerous role models at the School that helped her become a businessperson. “I highly value the HBS experience,” Burke says, “particularly the case method for learning, and the quality and diversity of the other students and the professors. HBS also played a role in opening a lot of doors for me.”
Shortly after the initial Capital Times story about Burke, the paper ran another one about her a few days later. It announced that Burke had made a gift of $2.5 million for a proposed charter school, sponsored by the Urban League of Madison, in order that financing for the school would not become a further burden on the local school board’s already tight budget.
Class of MBA 1985, Section B