11 Jul 2013
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Making Lives Better

Alison Tepper Singer (MBA 1993) is using her business skills to build a 'pipeline of scientists' to solve the mystery of autism.
Re: Daniel Singer (MBA 1993); Michael Jensen
by Jill Radsken

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When her daughter was diagnosed with autism, Alison Tepper Singer's life changed both personally and professionally.

The 1993 HBS grad had been planning to build on her career as a TV news producer—first at WTKR in Norfolk, Virginia, and later at CNBC—when she decided to shift course.

"I think every parent whose child is diagnosed with autism becomes an advocate to some extent," she says. "Everyone goes to the walks, but there are a handful of people who want to take their professional training and use their skills in the advocacy world."

Her time at HBS gave her precisely the tools with which to make that jump—first, in 2005, into the role of CEO of the newly formed Autism Speaks, a science and advocacy organization founded by her former NBC boss Bob Wright, and later, in forming her own non-profit Autism Science Foundation.

"In autism advocacy, I could make a real difference every day, and I knew I had the skills to do it," says Tepper Singer, who is married to section-mate Dan Singer. "Not that many people have come to the non-profit field with business training."

Her business skills helped on a multitude of platforms, from analytics and running a payroll to knowing how to reward employees. "All those things you learn in business school make that successful," she says.

In particular, Singer recalls her Coordination, Control, and the Management of Organizations (CCMO) class, taught by Professor Michael C. Jensen. "He talked about how people are motivated. You have to understand how and why people are motivated so that you, as a leader, can help them do their best work," she says.

The lesson has translated profoundly at the research-focused AFS, where Tepper Singer manages a large, diverse group of stakeholders. "We are bringing scientists and parents together in a way that is respectful so they can learn from each other," she says.

She leads with an outlook honed at HBS, that "every person brings a unique perspective." "That's something I apply every hour," she says. "Everyone has his or her own agenda. You have to bring them together."

Autism Science Foundation, which she founded in 2009, was a result of Tepper Singer's passion to fuel scientific research. To that end, ASF, which is based in New York City, funds pre- and post-doctorate fellowships for young scientists who can use the data to apply for National Institutes of Health grants. "It's an important metric. We track grantees," she says. "When you can get early funding, it makes a difference."

Building this "pipeline of scientists" takes time, and Tepper Singer, 47, doesn't expect to solve the autism mystery in the next few years. "It's going to be 10 to 15 years," she predicted.

It's a long-term goal, but daughter Jodie, who is now 16, motivates her mother every day.

"I'm helping her, and all the kids and adults like her, to have a better future. I'm fortunate that I went to business school and I can use those skills to make lives better," she says. "The work I do I feel good about every day."

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Featured Alumni

Featured Alumni

Class of MBA 1993, Section H
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