Melinda Wolfe MCRP 1981 leverages her Kennedy School education to expand opportunities for individuals in the workplace and around the globe.
By Mari Megias
February 11, 2015
Melinda Wolfe may live in Manhattan, and work in countries across the world, but she is proud of her midwestern upbringing. While she chafed at the seeming homogeneity of her suburban hometown of Skokie, Illinois, she loved the strong values imparted by her family and her community.
When Wolfe was growing up, Skokie was predominantly Jewish: At its peak in the mid-1960s, Jews composed 58 percent of Skokie’s population, the largest representation in any Chicago suburb. As a young Jewish woman, Wolfe craved knowledge of the world outside this enclave. “Growing up in Skokie made me want to seek out experiences that were different from what I knew,” she says.
She left Chicago at age 18 to attend college at Washington University in St. Louis. “My parents would have loved for me to have stayed even closer to home, but I was hungry to understand how the rest of the world worked. I had a deep experience growing up—it gave me strong and wholesome midwestern values that I’m proud to have—but I wanted to live in a more ‘Technicolor world’ and spread my wings.”
An interest in architecture and design, fed by summer internships and a nonprofit job in which she worked to make cities more livable, brought Wolfe to Cambridge for the Master of City and Regional Planning program jointly offered by HKS and the Harvard Graduate School of Design. “The Kennedy School offered a broad platform of policy and practice that enabled me to do really interesting work,” she says. “It provided important lessons, wonderful relationships, and opportunities to explore my passions.”
Grateful for her Kennedy School education, Wolfe has given consistently to the HKS Fund since her graduation more than 30 years ago. She says she is eager to support the development of aspiring students who yearn for social impact, especially those who could not otherwise obtain a quality education. She also enjoys the intellectual stimulation the school provides, whether through her personal network, alumni events, or hearing from faculty on pressing issues. “The truth is, I like staying connected to the school. It gives me brain food,” Wolfe says.
After graduating, Wolfe looked for a job in the public sector—a difficult task in the midst of the Reagan administration—so instead she took a job offer from Merrill Lynch that allowed her to work on public finance with state and local governments. “It was interesting, impactful work,” she says. “And the skills I learned at the Kennedy School were very important in helping me interface with public officials and understand their needs and constraints. I took advantage of what I learned in analytics and communications, stakeholder management, and subject matter areas such as housing, health care, and public and private sector partnerships. Also, collaborative work at HKS—where often we had joint accountability for our results—was a very important lesson that I’ve used in my professional life ever since.”
During her 14 years managing billions in dollars of municipal utility and project finance transactions in Merrill Lynch’s Fixed Income Division, she experienced what it was like to be outside the majority in the workforce. “In the early days, it wasn’t easy for women—or other underrepresented groups—in trading-floor environments.” So, later in her tenure as a managing director, when the opportunity arose for Wolfe to engage at the top level of the company as the head of diversity strategy, she made the switch. “I didn’t realize that it was a whole new turn in my career—I thought it was a diversion. It was a compelling proposition to change the dynamics in the workplace to create more equity for all—and that wasn’t inconsistent with many issues at the heart of my Kennedy School education.”
After Merrill Lynch, Wolfe worked at a variety of companies, including Goldman Sachs and American Express as chief diversity officer. She eventually became the global head of human resources at Bloomberg. Today, she is the chief human resources officer and a member of the executive committee at Pearson, which provides educational products and services in more than 70 countries.
In addition to her day job at Pearson, Wolfe sits on the boards of several nonprofit organizations, including Planned Parenthood of New York City; ZanaAfrica, a social impact organization offering educational tools and sanitary napkins to keep Kenyan girls in school; and Auburn Seminary, which equips multifaith leaders to address issues of social justice around the world. Wolfe also focuses on increasing the number of women on corporate boards. In 2016, for instance, only 21 percent of board seats at Fortune 500 companies were held by women; 24 of the companies had no women on their boards at all.
Describing herself as “pathologically optimistic,” Wolfe says it is important to advocate for change even when successes are few and far between. This is not always easy, however. The number of women in executive roles and on corporate boards has increased only glacially over the past several years, and much of the progress she had seen in the promotion of underrepresented groups was wiped out by the 2008 market crash. And the 2016 U.S. presidential election—particularly the way women were depicted during the campaign—has dampened her spirits.
But she says she cannot give up. “Institutional change is needed in many places across the globe, in fundamental areas such as day care and parental leave in addition to overall representation. We need more role models, people out there advocating.” Wolfe emphasizes that she feels strongly about diversity in the workforce, not just for women but for others. “Further, enabling change requires engagement from all of us, not only those who are underrepresented.”