20 Sep 2013

Connections Add Up

For Nan Morrison (MBA 1987) and Sally Wood (MBA 1983), access to the HBS alumni network has made all the difference.
Re: Mr. David W. Nelms (MBA 1987) ; Ms. Cynthia A. Hallenbeck (MBA 1985) ; Ms. Melinda J. Mount (MBA 1987) ; Michael E. Porter; Howard Raiffa
by Jill Radsken

Topics: Psychology-Social and Collaborative NetworksSocial Enterprise-Nonprofit OrganizationsManagement-Management TeamsRelationships-Business and Community RelationsFinance-Personal FinanceEducation-Business Education
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It takes a village to raise a game-changing non-profit, and Nan Morrison (MBA 1987) and Sally Wood (MBA 1983) have found a community of support among their HBS friends and fellow alumni.

"I'm proud of my whole management team, but so many of my HBS connections in my class and outside my class—that whole network is working for me to make a difference," says Morrison.

Morrison has been making an impact since 2010, when she assumed the CEO role at the Council for Economic Education, based in New York City. Today, more than 55,000 teachers teach the organization's personal finance curriculum to 5 million students, who range from kindergartners to high school seniors across the country.

Morrison says her charge is to prepare the organization for the future.

"I need to make sure we're doing the right thing to reach the right kids," she says. "I wasn't the founder, but I'm the steward. I aspire to that HBS mission of being a leader who makes a difference."

The metrics show that CEE is effecting change. Last year, 10,000 students took part in the National Economic Challenge, almost double the number of participants in 2012. Morrison is also regularly heartened by the stories she sees at the grassroots level. At a recent visit to Ariel Community Academy, a magnet school in Chicago, she watched kindergarteners learn principles of trading and fifth graders doing analyses of companies.

"They were asking thoughtful questions," she recalls.

Morrison says some lessons about choices and tradeoffs are about more than money—and even more powerful. "An economist in my network in Memphis was asking kids what they had learned, and one said, 'I learned not to join a gang.'"

Her passion needed a math-minded chief operating officer "to keep the trains running on time in every dimension," and last year she invited Wood to take on the nonprofit's COO position. Wood came to the not-for-profit agency with decades of management experience in finance and publishing.

"I was very excited for her vision," Wood says. "Nan was really in the growth phase. I thought, given my background, I could come in and make a difference."

Wood's prior career included working for Gil Kemp (MBA 1976) in direct marketing for Bertelsmann and for Pearson Education publishing companies. In 2005, she decided to hang a shingle for her own consulting business, and in 2008, she cofounded the online investing firm Kapitall.

"I was really focusing on start-ups and early-stage businesses. I love to come in and find ways to start and grow businesses and create opportunities," she says.

It's a passion Wood says was fomented by HBS Professor Michael E. Porter in a class on business policy. "I loved that course because it really had the general manager's approach in each case. It allowed me to experience being a general manager, taking the whole business view, not just the accounting aspect, positioning the company, what was the strategy, the tactics."

Like the students who benefit from CEE, Wood knows the benefits of a strong math class—even one that didn't come easily at first. For her, it was an HBS class taught by Howard Raiffa, the Frank P. Ramsey Professor of Managerial Economics. "He was brilliant," she says. "I was lost for the first four weeks. Then I got an HBS tutor and it opened my eyes and I just loved the class."

Morrison believes every skill she learned at HBS has helped her at some point. But the class she says made most impact was Competition and Strategy, taught by Andrall Pearson. "He taught me the importance of strategic focus—What's the one-sentence strategy and what will keep your customer coming back?—and he also took the time to know and understand me and help develop my confidence. It was a really great gift and something I try to emulate," she says.

At CEE, the utility of the HBS alumni network has astounded Morrison. She recounted calling on friend Cynthia Hallenbeck (MBA 1985), who helped CEE as an interim CFO, as well as section-mate Melinda J. Mount (MBA 1987) and funder David W. Nelms (MBA 1987), CEO of Discover Financial Services.

"Alumni have been really closely involved with me and in making me successful in this job," she says. "Even the general New York City HBS community—it's nothing I could have known or appreciated when I graduated."

Yet she believes it's the path she was meant to take.

"You have to be a good learner, a little deliberate in your plans, but I really think when you spend time putting good into the universe along the way and build your network in a variety of ways, that stuff comes back to you," she says. "Plus you get to feel good at night."

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