Anne Welsh McNulty, WG’79, determined 10 years ago to honor her late husband, John McNulty, WG’79, by growing and focusing on their philanthropic work. Theirs was a storybook Philadelphia romance. Growing up in the modest parts of Philadelphia, they met at a large, 4,000-student Catholic high school, attended Philadelphia colleges and married soon after.
Attending Wharton for graduate school felt like a big risk. Wharton was local, so they didn’t expect a fundamental transformation, and thought it would be more fun going together. But they would give up their salaries — his was $20,000, after three years at Arthur Andersen and Anne’s was $16,0000 at Coopers and Lybrand. Giving up two years of income, not to mention taking on student loans, was intimidating.
And their parents counseled against it. John’s dad, a landscaper, had not finished high school because, at the age of 12, he was orphaned in Ireland. John’s mother was also from Ireland, and her first job in the U.S. was as a maid for a New York investment banker. Anne’s parents had been children during the Great Depression, and were extremely risk-averse.
But John saw that the MBAs at their firms were making more than they were, and he hated that. So, they arrived at Wharton somewhat anxious, yet it would be one of the best bets they ever made.
What do you do at the McNulty Foundation?
We believe that individuals can learn to lead and can transform themselves. This notion of “change yourself, change the world” is infused in the work I do through our family foundation
The McNulty Foundation invests in higher education through the Leadership Program at Wharton, Institute for Women’s Leadership at Villanova, and Scholars Program at St. Joseph’s and at Hunter College. We focus on higher education to develop the capacity for leadership in the next generation.
Our first John P. McNulty Prize winner, for example, was Jordan Kassalow, who was doing impressive work with VisionSpring when we honored him. His original model was to sell an optometrist “business in a bag” to women in developing countries so they could sell affordable eyewear to people. Since then, he’s done something brave, which is to go back to the drawing board, after realizing the problem is so huge that it required new solutions. Now, he’s co-founded EYElliance, which involves major eyewear makers to address affordable eyeglasses on a planetary scale.
Wharton was a transformative experience for me and John. It challenged and stretched us. The John P. McNulty Prize celebrates my husband John’s legacy by honoring individuals who have pivoted into social change work, and are using their expertise, resources and networks to drive highly effective change. I think this is part of why I’ve come to believe in the ability to learn leadership and in the value of those experiences that enable individual transformation.
What are you looking for in a McNulty Prize candidate?
We are looking for courageous leaders who are having a multiplier effect on other individuals and communities. They create sustainable change rooted in the autonomy of those they seek to help. We’re also looking for individuals with local expertise who are equipped to respond to the social, cultural and economic context in which they work.
What was your experience at Wharton?
On the challenging side, until Wharton, we had never been in class together. John was a year ahead in high school, and we had gone to different colleges. Wharton admissions back then had never had a couple who entered married and left still married.
We soon learned that being in class together at Wharton was a bad idea. We had totally different approaches to studying and even to where to sit in class. We took a total of two classes together — macroeconomics with Professor Mansfield, who wrote our introductory economics textbook; and statistics with Professor Krieger. We were a disastrous study group of two — we actually made each other worse. Fortunately, we reached the amicable resolution of never taking classes together.
On the inspiring side, after we chose the first courses, it hit us that this was the most extraordinary opportunity ever! The professors were fascinating, and our fellow students were from all over the country and all over the world. We had a real feeling of Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz: “Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore.” The level of discourse and interactions, not just in the classrooms, but also with the various speakers and executives who came to campus, were exhilarating. And, frankly, it was fun for us as grads of Villanova and St. Joseph’s to be in classes with students from Harvard, Penn, Princeton, Yale, etc. and to learn that, despite what we expected, some of them were not all that smart — and some of our parochial biases were confirmed because a few really were arrogant jerks. Of course, almost all were bright and engaging, and challenged our thinking, and that is what we enjoyed the most.
What did you learn from your husband that you want to share?
What stands out most for me about John from the early years, was seeing John’s personal transformation.
We met in high school at the first dance at the beginning of the school year — I was a sophomore, and he was a junior. When I first knew John, he was, let’s say, a somewhat indifferent student. I was a serious student. After John and I started dating, he suddenly started paying attention. He took his class rank from about 385th in a class of 500 boys to 40th two years later when he graduated. Given the math of trying to change class rank, it was compelling. Once John put his mind to something, he was determined and disciplined.
This is why I’ve come to believe in the ability to learn leadership and in the value of those experiences that enable individual transformation. John was a true leader — and that was something he learned. He practiced. He got better and learned from his mentors, peers and examples in the world around him. He made me a better leader — showed me how to stand up for myself, how to listen to others and how to motivate people.
John had a powerful reputation at Goldman. What made him such an effective business leader?
He was a big personality and a man of action. He had the vision to take the asset management business at Goldman Sachs — a sleepy stepchild business — and make it bigger than anyone could have imagined. Within a year, he doubled a division with 100 people in it. Today, the division has more than 10,000 people.
He was a talent hawk. He built a dynamic new team of incredible young people, hiring a number of talented women. He was eager to pay it forward by interviewing and hiring young candidates himself — my kids called his employees John’s “other children.”
He fought the battles to protect his business from the doubters and the critics. And he set out the clear ambition that this would be a global enterprise — that all involved in building it could (and did) take pride in.
How does this tie in with the mission and programs of the McNulty Foundation?
In the years since John’s passing, we have dramatically expanded the work of the foundation, and we have gotten laser-focused on inspiring, developing and driving individuals at different stages of their leadership journeys. Transforming others is a significant part of the McNulty legacy, as well as a defining feature of the McNulty Foundation’s programs. The foundation’s guiding principles are:
Urging individuals to stretch for challenges that they may not realize they’re ready for
Challenging and mentoring women to reach their full potential
Focusing on leadership, which can be learned through education and experiences that push individuals to understand and expand their abilities
The McNulty Leadership Program at Wharton is unique in working with undergraduate, graduate and executive education students to develop personal leadership capacity through experiential learning, reflection and experimentation.
I have a particular interest in women’s leadership. When I was at Wharton almost 40 years ago, the women on campus were ambitious and adventurous and ready to take on the world, even if Wharton was not fully ready for us. After all, Vance Hall had only one women’s restroom, and it was in the basement.
Since I was one of the women, it was exciting because everything was going to change, and everything was open to us in terms of opportunities that hadn’t been. Of course, it was not as straight a path as many of us thought it would be.
The new Anne Welsh McNulty Institute for Women’s Leadership at my alma mater Villanova is becoming a national voice on women’s leadership. It is a place where women can develop the skills and experiences that can help them excel in their chosen fields and act as agents of change. The Institute is inclusive, welcoming women and men of all backgrounds, disciplines and abilities, since men are clearly part of the solution.
Which leader inspires you and why? What leadership principles work for you?
I was reminded the other day of a sign in my all-girls high school algebra class that read: “It’s nice to be important … but it’s more important to be nice.” After a year of this, I finally talked with Sister Alma Maria, my tough-as-nails math teacher (who, by the way, was not especially nice). She said the sign wasn’t hers — and she definitely didn’t think it was more important to be nice. I’ve always carried that experience with me, and it reminds me to fight the impulse to teach all women to be nice instead of making themselves heard.
Throughout my career, I have seen this conflict between women’s desire to be effective and the expectation that we be nice. I’ve seen it in the financial world, in the philanthropic world, and for that matter, as a mom. Nice is nice — but nice is not enough.
I don’t want to say everything should be a shouting match. But we all have to develop those verbal elbows to get back on top of a conversation when someone’s talking over us or ignoring us. We have to be ready to speak up, to use our voice.