In this episode of Partnering Leadership, Dr. Irma Beccera, the seventh president of Marymount University, talks about her journey becoming a higher education leader, her research in knowledge management, how to see setbacks as opportunities for growth and her vision for the future of Marymount University.
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Welcome to partnering leadership. I'm really excited this week to bring in to you a conversation I had with Dr. Irma Beccera. She is the seventh president of Marymount University, when she took on to helm on July 1st, 2018. Dr. Beccera has been a big advocate for education because she understood as a Cuban born immigrant to the United States that education can never be taken away from you.
So she has led all throughout her life, and now the school at Marymount with the understanding that education can truly make a difference on so many people's lives. Her own life stories’ inspirational and also the leadership she has shown all throughout, most especially, since the beginning of the pandemic has been absolutely inspiring too.
Now don't forget to subscribe to the podcast or follow depending on your platform of choice. And if you listen to it on Apple podcasts, please leave a rating and review that will make it easier for more people to find the podcast. And as always, love hearing your ideas and your thoughts, firstname.lastname@example.org or on PartneringLeadership.com, there is an icon for a microphone. You can leave me a voice message there. Now here's my conversation with Dr. Irma Beccera.
President Irma Beccera, welcome to Partnering Leadership.
Hello, Mahan and hello to our audience. I'm so happy to be with you today. Thank you for the opportunity.
I am absolutely thrilled, knowing a little bit about your background, your commitment to education, and especially higher education and to our entire community. Can't wait to share some of that with our audience.
Now I know you were born in Cuba and as an eight month old, you immigrated to the United States, growing up initially in Puerto Rico. How did that upbringing impact the kind of person and leader you've become?
Thank you, Mahan. Great opportunity. Yes, I had a chance to reflect on my early childhood, actually in one of the exercises that we did, I think together in Leadership Greater Washington, because a lot of times you don't think about how do those first 10 years, 0 to 10, how they impact the person that I am today.
And as I reflected on that, first of all, the experience with my parents having to leave Cuba, really something that came about in an unexpected way, because for those that don't know, many of us that left Cuba early on, at the onset of the Cuban revolution, thought that this was a temporary thing, that it was going to be quickly fixed by the United States, and that we were leaving to escape the turmoil at that moment, but that we will be back.
So my parents left with nothing and none of their assets. So essentially, with an eight month old under their arm, right. And started a new life in Puerto Rico where they had no family, they came with no money, and it's a pretty interesting experience. We learned a lot from it.
And the one thing that has stayed with me all along is the famous words that I heard from my grandmother over and over: “No matter what happens, no one can ever take away your education.” And I think her words, they guide me every day and why I'm so passionate about access to education for all.
And why I, you know, we say that education is the great equalizer. It really is the American dream. I am a believer on education for all, higher education for all. And I, there's a lot that I can say about why the importance of education, which is a rhetoric that you hear frequently nowadays, is there value in higher ed? And I am all for yes, there is tremendous value and it's with you forever, essentially.
President Beccera, we will touch on it later, but I think a lot of the people that questioned the value of higher education are the people that are themselves sending their kids to higher education so they question it for others, and I know you're a big advocate for that.
Now you chose to study Electrical Engineering at University of Miami. That is a tough field. And most specifically, not many women pursue Electrical Engineering. What got you to pursue Electrical Engineering?
So I have to tell you, Mahan, I kind of bumped into engineering because when I was in 10th grade, I took one of those standardized tests. And I remember that at that time I wanted to be either a journalist or an attorney.
My counselor told me, no, the test says you should be a Mechanical Engineer. And I told her, what is that? And she said, I don't know. I said, forget it. That sounds too geeky. I don't want to do that.
And, sure enough, when I started [at the] University of Miami, my grandmother, who was a very practical woman, she said, you have to be a pharmacist. And I thought, well, I don't know. I just, I didn't see myself as a pharmacist, but okay.
I started studying chemistry. I was terrible at chemistry lab. I mean, I had all these accidents, you know, the chemicals would spill over and I said, well, I don't think that this is coming naturally to me. Hence why I am really bad in the kitchen, I have to say.
So I started taking mathematics, interestingly enough, I said, well, I don't know if I want to study math because then I would have to be a professor. At that time, I didn't know that that was what was coming in my future. So [I] took a class in Electrical Engineering as a, really, as an elective. Fell in love with it, changed my major at the end of my sophomore year, which is why I think it's so important that students give themselves the time to explore, when they enter college, to make sure that they really find their passion. And I think you mentioned learn with purpose. When you find your passion, you can find your purpose in life through your career.
So I switched my major to Electrical Engineering and yes, I did observe I was oftentimes the only woman in my class. My secret was I would sit in the front of the class so that way I would not have to notice that I was the only girl there because the guys were all sitting behind me.
But I was not that afraid. And in fact, I was very good at it. Usually, would recite the class to a group of my classmates afterwards. So I just approached it as something that I really liked. I thought I had a knack for it and I did well in it, so kept on going.
And that's fantastic, you were a trailblazer from that point on. And obviously, you know, you ended up getting a great job eventually at Florida Power & Light. You had a two-year-old son, a six-month-old daughter and you chose to go back to school. What got you to make that decision?
So I chose that I wanted a very technical job when I finished college and I actually was halfway through my master's when I started working at Florida Power & Light, managing the reliability of the power system grid. And I mean, of course I had to code in Fortran like 10, 12 hours a day. I think that people that, the higher ups at FPL had no idea that the 23 year old was in charge of the reliability of the power system grid.
But, you know, to be honest, even though I did have a knack for this coding, I miss the people aspect of just coding all day long. So I had this opportunity. I volunteered to be a statistics professor like one week out of the month or one week every two months at a total quality management program FPL was running. And that was my first experience as an adult educator and I really fell in love with it. And then I said to myself, this is my passion. I want to go back to school, get my doctorate.
Yes, by then I had a six-month-old daughter and a two-year-old son, but I decided to go back, get my doctorate so that I could become a professor. And many times, I will come with a double stroller when I was working at the lab, doing my research, and I would sit my kids in front of two computers and back then they didn't have any other fancy games they have now, they just color on the screen. But, they grew up with me as an academic and I actually enjoyed also the flexibility that an academic job provided me and I thought it was a perfect match with being also a mom.
Yeah, but it's fabulous because you broke another barrier becoming the first woman to earn a PhD in electrical engineering from Florida International University, wanting to become a professor there, but finding out that you couldn't immediately get your PhD there and become a professor.
That's correct. So after I've done with my PhD, I’m thinking, I'm going to get a job here at FIU at the School of Engineering, they say, oh no, we forgot to tell you that there is this unwritten rule that if you do your PhD here, we cannot hire you as a professor. I'm like, what? You guys just waited to tell me now. So I went and I accepted a job at this NASA funded center at the University of Florida.
And this is what you would probably catalog as a setback. I didn't get the job that I have worked so hard to get for four years working on my doctorate, but the job that I took at UF, even though it was not the job that I initially wanted, helped me create the relationships and the partnerships with my future funders at NASA that ended up funding all my many years, 12 years of research in the area of knowledge management.
So this is, when we talk about setbacks and how do you recover from them? One of my ways of going about it is I try really hard, Mahan, for something that I think it's in my plan, but when things don't come through, you've tried really hard and then you say, you have to say, well, there must be something better in store for me. And essentially this job was really ideal at that time and it helped me create the partnerships that later on, when I became a professor at the College of Business at FIU, will fund my research projects for many years.
What a superb spirit and perspective on looking at setbacks as an opportunity to learn and grow. Now, you did spend a lot of time, eventually also with FIU in knowledge management, what is knowledge management all about?
So knowledge management is how organizations manage their intellectual assets. How do they go about to putting place both processes, mechanisms, but also technology that allow their employees to discover knowledge, to share knowledge, to capture knowledge that has been created and also to apply knowledge.
And NASA was very interested in this for a couple of reasons. One is a lot of the knowledge that have been developed as part of the space exploration missions and the mission to the moon, as many of the engineers and scientists retired, this knowledge really left with them.
That was a huge preoccupation for NASA leadership. And also, you know, as we saw, as we look at some of the accidents, like the Columbia accident, revealed oftentimes in large organizations, it's hard to move the knowledge from the people that have it to those that need it.
So this is all part of knowledge management. It was really an emerging discipline as I finished my doctorate. And actually, interestingly enough, my doctorate was in cybersecurity, but I'm moving to knowledge management because I was fascinated by the topic at that time and actually would spend the next 12 years working primarily with NASA, but also with the Air Force Research Lab and National Science Foundation in many projects related to this field.
And I imagine with so much more data that companies are generating now that knowledge management becomes even a more essential function for the organizations.
Yes, certainly we have such an abundance of data that is created now, but sometimes the data is created and stored in ways that A) is not easy to find it, or B) it's not easy to reuse it.
So that's one of the areas that knowledge management is very interested in. And then once you have cataloged it, store it somewhere, how do you get it to the right person that needs to use that data? So quite fascinating, actually.
It absolutely is. And I could spend an entire time focused on that, but we go on to the fact that you got an opportunity to come up here in the greater Washington DC region and lead an institution of higher education, Marymount. Why did the board reach out to you? And why did you accept the opportunity to become the president of this institution?
So, great question. First of all, I wanted to tell you that in those 12 years that I was a professor and a researcher, I really loved what I do. And if you would have asked me back then, Mahan, “Irma, do you think you want to be a university president one day?” I had no clue that that was in my future.
I really, you know, was so excited about the impact that I was having on my students. I had about 63 students that worked in my research lab that I founded at FIU, many of them, it was the first experience they ever had in research, they had great opportunities. Once they had that kind of research experience with me working at the lab in all these such interesting projects.
But it was, I did spend some time at MIT after I became a full professor and it was the Dean of the College of Business where I was a professor that asked me if I would lead their entrepreneurship center, which had fallen into some hard times. And this was my first, I'm going to call it turnaround, an academic turnaround. And I really enjoyed it.
And from the success I had there, including launching a venture capital conference, the provost at FIU said, well, I need you to help me turn around student performance at FIU. So I went to work with the provost for some time as a vice provost.
From that job, I was invited to be provost at St. Thomas University. And I was there at St. Thomas also doing a turnaround when our board chair and the search committee at Marymount found me. And frankly, I came here. I fell in love with a university that for years had such an interesting history.
70 years ago, it was founded with the purpose of preparing women for work. And even though today, it's coeducational and it has become a doctoral granting, is moving up in a research productivity, but it's still this kind of practical focus underpinned by the liberal arts that resonated with me.
Remember my grandmother saying you need to have a practical degree, be a pharmacist. So this practical focus for Marymount, it resonated with me personally. And I, actually just said, well, I think that this is me. This is me, it’s perfect for me. And the board unanimously selected me as the seventh president. So here we are.
Here you are, and you immediately got to work with a new strategic plan on focusing on four key pillars. What made you select those pillars, distinctive identity, transformative experience, vibrant community, and sustainable future, as the strategy to move Marymount into the future?
Our strategic plan momentum is really the work of about 300 people that includes faculty, staff, students, trustees, friends of the university. Once I joined Marymount in July of 2018, we started a strategic planning process right away. And by the day of my inauguration on March 28th of 2019, we used that day to unveil our plan. So this is not my plan, but our plan.
And actually what is different, even though it builds on the same mission, and the mission has not changed for Marymount, is this bold goal that Marymount, a leading Catholic university, will be nationally recognized for innovation and commitment to student success, alumni achievement, and faculty and staff excellence.
So Marymount is a university that really has been on the go, I'm going to say, since it was founded 70 years ago. And now our goal is take it to where it wants to be. And this nationally recognized university based on these four pillars that really describe what our distinctive identity, our history, transformative experiences, which is what our alumni tell us that it was so special for them about Marymount, the fact that we are part of this vibrant community, at just a few miles away from a capital, and also our focus on a sustainable future for the university.
So you have this strategic plan, Irma. You are charging full force ahead. About a year or so after the unveiling of the strategic plan, we are hit with a pandemic that has hit all kinds of organizations and institutions, including institutions of higher learning, and you had to transition all of your courses online. How were you able to handle the initial phase of the crisis?
So to be frankly honest, we did, in a matter of a couple of days, transform from a primarily face to face, very personalized education, to one that provides students with remote access to education, all 700 courses, like you mentioned, in a matter of days.
If somebody would have told me, do you think you can do this? I would probably would have said, Mahan, I don't think it's possible. But I think it was really the pure will of our faculty and staff to really enable our students to continue learning in face of the adversity of the pandemic.
Interestingly enough, we, when it came to May, time for graduation, we did graduate about a thousand students. Many of our nursing students, we have a nursing program that is considered to be among the top 10% in the nation, many of our nursing students went from stage, virtual stage because our commencement was virtual, to working in ICU, helping patients with COVID. So I'm so impressed with what our students have done.
But the important thing is around April, we reached back to our students and said, well, so how are we doing? And students were very frank. And this is a little bit of my “aha” moment from the pandemic. They said to us, you know, thank you, Marymount faculty and staff. You really, I know you've done everything to keep us safe, but we don't like learning remotely. We feel that we are distracted, that our performance is not as well as when we are in the classroom. And I get distracted, not only because of my siblings and my parents in my same space, but also the internet, and it's not the same.
So we knew back in April that we needed to find a way to come back in some kind of face-to-face or hybrid form. So as soon as we have the approval from the state council on education, we started repopulating the campus back in June, and we welcomed students back to campus in August. So about 80% of our students, they chose to return to campus, only 20% chose to remain online.
And that's fantastic with the pivot that you and the entire team at Marymount made to meet the needs of the students where they were at, give them what they were looking for.
Now, if we fast forward to a few years from now, what would you think would be the ongoing changes at Marymount and with higher education that the pandemic, the learnings that we've gone through will cause for higher education?
Well, one big aha moment for us, and for many years, we have industry pundits telling us that all education will be remote. All of it will be online. And what I have learned is that my intuition, you know, Mahan, had told me that that's not likely because I think what makes our country so great is this, just phenomenal fabric of universities that we have in our nation that really enable our students to success, successful careers, not only our own students in our nation, but all over the world.
And they're different, and each one of them is willing to meet students where they are. Like you mentioned before. So I do not think that this will be replaced by online education based on the experience that I've had because students have told us, it's not the same for us.
And I think it's a challenge for us educators, that even if we are going to be preparing for future pandemics, that we know that the remote education or online education is not a panacea and doesn't really meet all the needs of our students.
So it will be a challenge for us, in terms of how does higher ed need to pivot, so we can provide access, continued learning, but really, the full set of experiences, the immersed experience that our students have come to appreciate and want, which is what a traditional American university provides for our students.
Fantastic. Now, Irma, I know your contract was renewed for another five years, which is fantastic. So five years from now, we are looking back and Marymount is at an even higher, more impactful level than it is right now. What is that vision of the future that you have for the university and its role in this region?
So, first of all, we are looking to grow, Mahan. We are about 4,000 students right now and we think that an ideal size for us based on the capacity that we have for growth is about 8 to 10,000 students. That of course includes some students that will be learning remotely because we do know that there is a group of students that want to have Marymount education and because of the circumstances in their life at this moment, they would prefer to study remotely.
So this year, for example, we started a very successful doctorate in education and both our master's and our doctorate in nursing being offered fully online. And these fully online programs that are designed from the get-go to be online delivery is one area that we're definitely going to continue to grow.
Also, our graduate education will continue to grow. Today, we are about 75% undergrad and 25% grad. And I think, in another five years, we'll be more 50-50. So think about the fact that we probably could have on-ground, about close to 7,000 students and that about half of them will be undergrad and the other half will be graduate.
And that is because we are continuing to grow our master's and doctorate programs to really respond to the needs of this region and the nation. We have a doctorate in cybersecurity program that has a waiting list of students that want to get in. So we want to continue to grow in those doctorate that prepares our community for the jobs of the future.
We've done also a lot of work in these stackable certificates where students can pick masters that they can actually kind of build their own masters by picking like three certificates, maybe one in cloud computing, or maybe entrepreneurship, or maybe analytics, and they can build their own masters by stacking these certificates together.
So we have a lot of innovation going on in terms of new programmatic offering including, as you may imagine, a new engineering program, because that had to happen by default.
Fabulous. That's an outstanding vision, both for Marymount and something that is going to be impactful, as you said, for this entire region and beyond. Now, if you were to give advice to a younger version of yourself, a younger leader, aspiring to become as impactful as you have been, what leadership advice would you give them?
So one thing is, I think you need to be tenacious. And oftentimes I have, like, you asked me, can you mention one setback? And I told you, oh Mahan, I have had so many, so we picked one.
It's always important that we accept that success doesn't necessarily come around the first time around. So you have to get used to sometimes getting a “No” and getting a “No” means I'm going to rethink and I'm going to try again.
Also don't let anybody ever tell you, oh, you can't do this. You're not good enough or you can't do this because you need to follow your heart. You need to follow your own intuition about what you can achieve and don't let anybody tell you I'm not ready.
That given, is importance of preparation. I always tell aspiring leaders, make sure that you take the steps, make sure that you resist the temptation to take a big leap if you haven't had the steps in between because you don't want to set yourself up for failure.
And the other day, I was asked if I could give a quote that I live by, and I'm going to tell you my own quote: “Every barrier that you have overcome in your life has prepared you for the great leader that you are today.” So as I look back in my life, I've had to do many things early on, right? Like be responsible for the reliability of the power system grid at 23. Well, those responsibilities that you take on in your life or those barriers that you overcome in your life early on, are practicing, you're practicing for the great leader that you will become. So think about, even the barriers that you overcome, as an opportunity for growth rather than a setback. I just got this barrier, I overcame it, I’m standing on top of it, I’m ready to move on.
What magnificent advice from a person that has achieved a lot in her career as you have, is leading an institution to impact so many more lives. Really appreciate your leadership in this region and community, and impacting so many people. Thank you so much, Dr. Irma Beccera.
Thank you, Mahan. One last thing, if I may, to my audience, as you move forward in life, don't forget to reach back and extend your hand because there's someone else coming after you.
Thank you for the invitation, I'm so happy to be here. Thank you for what you're doing, Mahan. And for sharing all this positivity and good vibrations, so thank you.
7th President of Marymount University
Dr. Irma Becerra took office as the seventh President of Marymount University in Arlington, Va., on July 1, 2018. In her first six months in the role, she launched the University’s new Strategic Plan, “Momentum,” which will guide the University over the five-year period from 2019 to 2024. The plan calls for Marymount to achieve national and international recognition for innovation and commitment to student success, alumni achievement and faculty and staff excellence.
After just two years as President, Dr. Becerra has already introduced several initiatives with long-lasting effects in support of Marymount’s mission and vision for the future. This includes adding market-driven academic programs that prioritize career preparation, overseeing the transition to a new academic structure, acquiring The Rixey luxury apartment building next door to Marymount’s Ballston Center and improving the university’s IT infrastructure through the implementation of the state-of-the-art enterprise resource planning application, Workday. She has also navigated the school community through the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Dr. Becerra is known for expanding educational access for students and keenly targeting programming to meet societal needs and changing demographics. Her academic career, both as student and professional, has blended mathematics, engineering and systems thinking and processes in her studies, teaching and administrative leadership. An educator who began her career in the private sector and the holder of four patents and copyrights, Dr. Becerra is an ardent advocate for a STEM-educated workforce and holds the mindset of a trained scientist and seasoned entrepreneur. Catholic-educated throughout her primary and secondary years, she understands the great importance of faith-based instruction and plans to raise Marymount’s profile and spur growth in enrollment and academic programs. This will be accomplished, in part, through innovative partnerships, scholarship opportunities and broad initiatives.
A Cuban-born American, Dr. Becerra immigrated to the United States with her parents when she was an infant, living in Puerto Rico through high school. Those formative experiences ignited her mind, imbuing her with a passion for knowledge along with a deep-seated belief that “no one can take away your education.” She earned both bachelor’s and master’s degrees in electrical engineering from the University of Miami and went on to become the first woman to earn a Ph.D. in Electrical Engineering from Florida International University (FIU).
Prior to Marymount, she served as Provost and Chief Academic Officer at St. Thomas University in Miami Gardens, Fla., and also spent three decades at FIU in a variety of positions that include Vice President, Vice Provost, Entrepreneurship Center Director and tenured professor in Management Information Systems. She founded FIU’s Knowledge Management Lab and led major projects as principal investigator at the National Science Foundation, NASA (Headquarters, Kennedy, Ames and Goddard Space Flight Centers) and the Air Force Research Lab. She was also a Sloan Scholar at MIT’s Center for Information Systems Research.
Dr. Becerra has authored four books and numerous journal articles in the areas of knowledge management and business intelligence. Her original research has also spanned such areas as enterprise systems, disaster management and IT entrepreneurship, making her a sought-after speaker and presenter both in the U.S. and internationally.
Dr. Becerra is the mother of two adult children. Her son Anthony earned his J.D. and M.B.A. at St. Thomas University, and received his undergraduate degree from Emory University. Her daughter Nicole is a Boston College alumna and current director at Macy’s.