Irma Becerra credits her grandmother with her decision to pursue a career in academia. When Becerra was 8 months old, her family fled Cuba and moved to Puerto Rico. As a child, Becerra would spend summers with her grandmother in Miami who would repeatedly tell her, Remember, whatever happens, no one can ever take away your education.
That life lesson still resonates. You may be stripped of all your assets, but your education will stay with you, she says.
Becerra was the first woman to earn a doctorate in electrical engineering from Florida International University. I was often the only woman in my class, she says. I could have been intimidated but it taught me to always be prepared and to prepare better than my colleagues.
She tells Marymount students about her first day in the electronics lab. Becerra had only seen photographs of electrical components in a book. They looked completely different in the lab, she says. The first time I tried to connect them, I burned the transformer. Her lab partners, who were all men, told her they wouldnt let her touch anything the rest of the semester because they didnt want her to bring down their group grade.
Becerra didnt allow their opinion of her to get in the way of her education. When she graduated, she even offered to teach the electronics lab to other students. I tell my students this story because its important they know we all face failures and we need to have persistence and grit to keep going, she says.
Fast-forward through many teaching and academic jobs, and its now been a year since Becerra was installed as president of Marymount, its first woman president of color. Under her leadership, the university purchased The Rixey, an apartment building next to the Ballston campus, allowing for more student housing options. She also spearheaded a five-year strategic plan in March aimed at doubling the schools enrollment and gaining national recognition. Less sexy, but more relevant to the daily lives of the university community members is her new, integrated system to better manage administrative functions such as timecards, class schedules and more for Marymounts 650 full- and part-time faculty and staff and its 4,000 students.
Given her background in engineering and business processes, Becerra thinks she may be more amenable than past presidents to take on challenges related to tech and innovation. For years, I advised NASA on how to become a knowledge-sharing organization and to eliminate silos, Becerra says.
At Marymount, where the fiscal 2020 budget stands at nearly $90 million, she plans to focus on how the university is organized and how it can become more innovative and agile. Im drawn to preparing students for careers and lives of purpose, she says.
First job: When I finished college, I was hired as an engineer for Florida Power & Light. At 23 years, I was placed in charge of supporting and enhancing the computer program that monitors the reliability of the power grid.
Lesson learned in that job: I missed interacting with people. For that, I volunteered to occasionally teach statistical quality control for the company. Thats how I discovered my passion for teaching.
What you wish you knew from the start: Find mentors who may or may not look like you, and seek their advice. And dont be the best-kept secret. Advocate for yourself and actively take the risk of pursuing opportunities that you are interested in.
What youd tell your younger self: It is possible to pursue your career passion and also have a successful family life. Dont worry about the feasibility of having both.
Businesswoman you admire: Ever since I read about the history of Marymount, I became inspired by Sister Majella Berg, who successfully ran Marymount for 33 years. Sister Majella transformed Marymount from a two-year womens college into a comprehensive coeducational university, offering bachelors and masters degrees. She was also a pioneer president. In 1986, in the middle of her Marymount tenure, just 9.5% of university presidents were women. In 2016, that number was 30%.
What youd do if not this: I would love to work in a global management consulting, private equity or venture capital firm.
- Title: President, Marymount University
- Age: 59
- Residence: Arlington
- Education: Bachelors and masters in electrical engineering, University of Miami; Ph.D. in electrical engineering, Florida International University
- Family: Son Anthony Fernández, daughter Nicole Fernández
Read the original article and watch the exclusive awards night video on the Washington Business Journal’s website.