Name: Irma Becerra, Ph.D.
Current title: President
Current organization: Marymount University
Dr. Irma Becerra took office as the seventh President of Marymount University on July 1, 2018. In her near-three years as President, she has launched the University’s new Strategic Plan, added market-driven academic programs and overseen the transition to a new academic structure, acquired a luxury apartment building for residential life use, improved the University’s IT infrastructure and navigated the school community through the COVID-19 pandemic.
She is a nationally recognized educator known for innovation, entrepreneurship and transformational education. Prior to Marymount, she served as Provost and Chief Academic Officer at St. Thomas University, and also spent three decades at Florida International University (FIU) in a variety of positions that include Vice President, Vice Provost, Entrepreneurship Center Director and tenured professor. She became the first woman to earn a Ph.D. in Electrical Engineering at FIU.
1. What have you found most challenging as a CEO or executive of a large enterprise?
I’ve found that when leaders need to effect transformational changes, the process of impacting the organizational culture can be challenging, because transformation takes time. As a CEO or executive, you need to put many things in place before your initiatives can really start to catch on. For a while, it may feel like you’re not moving the needle, because it’s hard to measure the impact of your initiatives right out of the gate. So therefore, you need to anticipate how long it may take to produce the results that you’re expecting.
2. How did you become a CEO or executive of a large enterprise? Can you please briefly tell the story?
I was born in Cuba, and immigrated to the U.S. with my parents when I was just an infant to escape Castro’s Revolution. I then lived in Puerto Rico through high school. My family had to start again from nothing, and there were many challenges we faced. However, my formative experiences gave me a passion for knowledge, and my grandparents instilled in me a belief that “no one can take away your education.”
I earned both bachelor’s and master’s degrees in electrical engineering from the University of Miami, and went on to work at Florida Power & Light. Later on, I decided to continue my education and became the first woman to earn a Ph.D. in electrical engineering from Florida International University (FIU), taking classes where I was commonly the only woman in the room. I worked for a NASA-funded center at the University of Florida, and then joined the faculty at FIU’s College of Business. I would spend the next 12 years there working to become a tenured full professor in Management Information Systems, founded FIU’s Knowledge Management Lab and worked on many research projects in knowledge management, primarily for NASA.
Around this time, I discovered how I could make a greater impact on more lives through education administration. Leaving the classroom, I served in a variety of positions at FIU including Entrepreneurship Center Director, Vice Provost and Vice President. I then moved to St. Thomas University in Miami Gardens, Fla., where I was Provost and Chief Academic Officer.
Then, in the summer of 2018, I was blessed to be selected as Marymount’s seventh president, and I moved to Arlington and got started. Through this journey, I would tell others that if you want to progress in your career, you need to show tangible results from your leadership.
3. How do you structure your work days from waking up to going to sleep?
The first thing that I do is have coffee! Then I work out first thing in the morning, because with the nature of my days, I know that I would have a hard time fitting it in later. After that I look at my calendar, which helps me determine how I should dress for the day based on whether I’ll need to do a lot of walking around campus or attend an evening event.
I prefer to get to work before my day ‘really’ starts – if my meetings begin at 9 am, I’m here at 8:15 or 8:30. Of course, there are days where my meetings start at 7:30 or 8 am. Either way, I like to come in early and be prepared for what’s next.
My days are full of meetings, and then I’m usually involved in events and dinners after work. It’s not unusual for me to just get home at 9 or 10 at night, and it’s not uncommon to be busy on weekends, too. One of the hardest things for me to do is get enough sleep, but I’m beginning to be more mindful about getting the proper rest and scheduling time for decompressing.
4. What’s the most recent significant leadership lesson you’ve learned?
We learned a great deal from leading effectively during the COVID-19 pandemic, especially the importance of establishing a coordinating structure. In my case, thanks to previous training in disaster management, we formed a COVID-19 Task Force based on an incident command structure for making all relevant decisions during the pandemic. We met over 100 times during the first six months, and this allowed us to navigate through COVID successfully.
In complex and unpredictable environments like leading through the pandemic, it’s important to allow different perspectives on the problem to be heard. Often, leaders need to be courageous and make decisions based on what they know is right. In our case, we had to make decisions that balanced two things – the needs that our students voiced to us about how they learn best in person, as well as the need to keep everyone as safe as possible.
5. What’s one book that has had a profound impact on your leadership so far? Can you please briefly tell the story of how that book impacted your leadership?
The most impactful book for my tenure at Marymount is “Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap and Others Don’t,” by Jim Collins. The lessons from this book played a critical role in guiding the creation of our current Strategic Plan at Marymount University, titled “Momentum.”
The author’s findings are important when analyzing all areas of management strategy and practice. Some of the key concepts we have used are finding our “hedgehog,” which is how we help our students “Learn with Purpose”; making incremental pushes in strategic directions; using technology, such as Workday, as an accelerator towards our goal of national recognition; measurable goals to drive transformation; the right people in the right places; and allow brutal facts to be aired and resolved.
6. How do you build leadership capacity in a large enterprise?
I provide my cabinet members the opportunity to lead and make positive change in their respective areas. For example, one of our Vice President’s led our COVID-19 Task Force and Return to Campus Task Force. I empower my leaders to make decisions – I give my opinions on topics as well, but I give them the freedom to ultimately make the decision. With that, of course, you also pass to them the responsibility.
7. What is one meaningful story that comes to mind from your time as a CEO or executive of a large enterprise so far?
I think about our recent return to in-person commencement ceremonies, because there was so much happiness on our campus during those three days in May. They served as the culmination of our graduating class’s journey at Marymount, but they also represented the ‘light at the end of the tunnel’ with everyone back on campus and interacting again.
Also, this past January I testified to Virginia lawmakers about the importance of Dreamer and undocumented students receiving access to Tuition Assistance Grants (TAG). These bills ultimately passed in the legislature, and it was incredibly fulfilling because it will have such an impact on the lives of so many students for years to come.