Helen Drinan is the President of Simmons College, an all women's institution. Prior to Simmons, Drinan was Senior Vice President of Human Resources at Caritas Christi Health Care. She also served as President and CEO of the Society of Human Resources Management, a professional organization with the largest human resource membership in the world, and as Executive Vice President of Human Resources for BankBoston. Ms. Drinan has been recognized by numerous organizations for her work on behalf of women's and girls' education and leadership. Her awards include: Strong Women Strong Girls "Phenomenal Woman" (2014), Girl Scouts of Eastern Massachusetts Leading Woman (2013), Woman LEAD "Woman Who Leads in Academia and Inspires Others" (2013), and the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce Pinnacle Award for Excellence in Arts & Education (2012). via Simmons College
M: You have had a very successful professional life, and have been the president at Simmons College since 2008. Before you came to Simmons, you were a Human Resources executive. How did you make the transition to higher education?
Helen Drinan: I was working as the CEO for the largest Human Resources membership organization in the world, The Society for Human Resource Management. In that position, I got the bug for being a top leader in an organization. While I was working there, I joined the Board of Trustees at Simmons College. Simmons' previous president stepped down without much warning, and the board asked me if I would take over the position. I worked hard to get where I was and then everything fell into place. Never in my lifetime did I think I would end up as a college president, but here I am.
M: In September 2014 you were diagnosed with Breast Cancer. What was your motivation for making the courageous decision* to work through your treatment?
H: I was diagnosed with breast cancer at the beginning of the school year. For a devastating moment it seemed that all my plans would be put on hold, but my oncologist and radiologist informed me that the outcomes are generally better when a patient keeps as normal of a schedule and lifestyle as possible. I do have to make adjustments in my lifestyle for treatment. For instance, I've needed to get more rest, alter my diet, and avoid large crowds. However, remaining active in the Simmons College and higher education community has been very therapeutic for me.
I try to be as open as possible about my prognosis with the Simmons Community. I send out weekly emails to the Simmons community about things that are on my mind which has been a natural way for me to share my breast cancer journey. I hope that sharing my experience might help others to face their own challenges with tenacity.
M: You have served as a tenacious leader as the President of Simmons College, an all women’s undergraduate institution. What are some of the benefits you’ve seen of a gender specific education?
H: I went to Mount Holyoke for my undergraduate education, and Simmons for graduate school, both all women’s undergraduate institutions. I left these schools with a strong sense of identity and a voice that I was excited to use. When I entered a professional business environment I was astounded by the amount of women who didn’t say a word during business meetings. It never occurred to me to wonder if I should be speaking. I thought that the expectation was that, everyone should be contributing, but I often felt backlash as a result of that belief.
I watch women come here as anxious first year students and leave four year later as leaders in possession of a strong sense of self, and with the willingness to take risks.
M: I very much agree with that. I transferred to Simmons from a large co-ed university and have had two very different higher education experiences. Simmons had a very positive impact on my life.
H: There has been a lot of positive research done on a women’s undergraduate education and a successful leadership correlation later in life.
M: Some people believe that the higher education system is a broken one. Many families can’t afford it, and students are graduating with massive amounts of debt. How do you think higher education will be changing in the future?
H: I think all those criticisms are spot on. Higher education has been given a pass for decades. The financial crisis of 2008 made people take a step back. They’re reevaluating their options.
I think the business model of higher education is broken. It is way too expensive for most people. Only about 15% of 18 year olds in this country have the privilege of an education like the one we offer here at Simmons. We think of the college experience as a coming of age in the United States, but if only 15% of 18 year olds in the country have access to it that leaves many young people at a disadvantage. The solution is not a quick fix, but Simmons works hard to keep the cost of enrollment relatively flat. We've launched a major effort in our online graduate education. We use the surplus from this to support financial aid in our undergraduate college. When you take into account all of the social interaction, leadership, and aptitude growth that takes place at an institution like Simmons, we believe that the opportunity to attend college should not be undervalued. That being said, we are actively working to make this experience available to a wider demographic.
M: What are some of the challenges facing young women entering the business world today, even after receiving a great college education?
H: Well recently I spoke to a non-Simmons alumna who is working for a large insurance company in Boston. She said that her male and female peers are pretty supportive of each other. However, when she goes to meetings involving employees with more tenure, they have less tolerance for young women in the room and it’s obvious. Unfortunately there remain biases in the workplace, but I think what will overcome these biases is the increasing number of women in high-powered positions in the workplace that don’t take this behavior for an answer.
M: Do you think that the feminist movement that is happening in the media will help change this?
H: Feminism has become such a hot topic, especially with young people; more and more young women are getting on board and educating themselves. It is my belief and hope that this will absolutely result in advancements for women in the workplace.
Gloria Steinem visited Simmons last spring. She said that, “Feminism is the belief that men and women should have equal opportunities for the things in life that are important to them”.
M: In laymen’s terms it basically says that women are people.
H: Exactly. It’s hardly controversial.
M: What advice would you give to young women who want to hold leadership positions in their careers? How do you gain credibility?
H: Leadership is so much more of an art than a science. We can all learn specific building blocks of leadership effectiveness, but in the end leadership is about having a passion for something and focusing on helping that organizing perform at the highest level.
On a more technical note, you need to understand how an organization runs financially as soon as you can. If you have an understanding of how the organization supports itself and keeps its doors open, and you hone that skill, you have power.
M: What was it like interviewing Hillary Clinton at the 2014 Simmons Leadership Conference?
H: It was a privilege to interview Mrs. Clinton, because she has made a huge impact in the world; particularly on behalf of other women. She’s role modeled for all of us that jobs that look overwhelming and complex are doable. She’s a risk taker. My favorite moment was when I asked her what she would do over again if she had the opportunity.
M: So what would you do over again?
H: When I worked at Bank Boston I made the decision to take a staff position instead of a profit generating position because I didn’t want to be away from my children. I’ve often told myself that I could have run that organization, but I don’t regret the road not taken.
Truly, the only thing in my life that I would love to do over is that I wish I had studied abroad. My 2nd semester sophomore year of college I was applying to study abroad. My boyfriend, whom is now my husband, asked me to get married. I threw away my application to study abroad. That’s the only thing in my life that I really wish I could do over. Lucky me that that’s my only regret.