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Lion Profiles: Debora Spar

Photo Courtesy of Barnard College.

To celebrate DSpar’s time at Barnard as we prepare to say farewell to her, we look back at the advice and personal stories she imparted during our interview with her.

As many people know, you have a doctorate degree in government, but you are also in the board of directors of Goldman Sachs and also a college president. So, those are two positions not normally associated with government majors. So what inspired and led you to pursue such a different career path than the one you actually studied for?

Story of my life! Uhm, you know, nothing specific. I’m always saying to students, based on my own experience, I think people’s lives move in zigzags rather than linearly. I certainly know mine did. I wound up getting a PhD in government largely because I always had thought when I was younger that I was going to be a diplomat or a spy, but then I actually decided not to pursue those paths, so I stayed in academia, even though that wasn’t really what my original intent had been. I’ve just been lucky, and I think, at some level, innately curious. So when interesting things come along, even if they are somewhat peripheral to where I am at the moment, I’m always intrigued to take a look.

On the subject of research, one thing that I was really surprised to read about was that you’re one of the first people to start researching and writing about the economics of alternate fertility, which I thought was kind of surprising. I’m interested to hear a little bit about that. What struggles did you face in the beginning when you decided to research this topic? Have you ever considered teaching a class at Barnard about that topic?

So this is a very specific, not all that interesting, story. Before I did that research, I read a book called “Rolling Waves,” which was on cycles of technological discovery. The book was really initially about trying to understand how the internet was likely to play out politically. My research has always looked to the intersection between business and politics.

So, I was working on the internet space, but the argument I made wound up having everything to do with these cycles of discovery, and when I was giving lectures about that book, which was in 2001-2002, inevitably, I would always get the same question, which was “Okay, what’s the next great technology that’s going to set off another wave of market creation?” And for about a year, I didn’t have an answer to that question, and then I figured I probably needed to get one, so I started looking around. I became increasingly convinced that the next sector that was going to have innovation big enough that was going to create a market, was going to be biotech. So, I spent about a year or so doing research about the biotech sector. This was early 2000s now, and I came to see that biotech wasn’t quite there yet; arguably, it probably is now, but it’s now 12 years later. 2003, it wasn’t, but almost by accident, I kind of discovered the world of assisted reproduction, and I was fascinated by it.

I hadn’t known anything about it, I didn’t go through it myself, but two things struck me as soon as I kind of saw what was happening. The first one was this was just inherently interesting, that people had been making babies the same way for millions of years, and all of a sudden, they are making babies a different way. That’s just cool! The second thing– and at this point I had been in Harvard Business School for 15 years–was that this was the first business I ever encountered where nobody was acknowledging that they were in a business. So generally, when you talk to business people, they brag about their business: “I’m making lots of money. You know, we have great market share.” In the fertility industry and years in the industry, everybody goes out of their way to tell you that they are not in business. The reporter in me that said somebody has to tell this story, and that’s how I winded up doing it. And I don’t teach a class, I teach a little piece of a class. There is a class here on science and public policy, and I do the fertility piece of that. I wish I had the time to teach a class because I’d really like to.

Would you want to? Do you think that you can have a class on this?

Yeah! You know, I taught some things about it back at Harvard Business School. I’ve just decided I can do my job, and I can either write or teach, but I can’t do both. So, I’ve decided to just stick with the writing and just teach a little team, that’s for better or worse.

Photo Courtesy of Steven DeCanio.

Photo Courtesy of Steven DeCanio.

Okay, so now, going off that, in your most recent book, I believe, “Wonder Women: Sex, Power, and the Quest for Perfection,” you addressed this idea that women still feel a pressure to strive for perfection and the problems resulting from that kind of thought. So, as president of an all-women’s college, how do you address what could be considered a vicious cycle of women trying to strive for this perfection among the student body here? And do you still feel like this challenge should be perfect, still?

Yeah, I think women in particular feel additional pressure to be perfect in lots and lots of different aspects of their lives. I see women today trying to be really successful in their careers, and at the same time, be wonderful wives, be wonderful mothers, be very sexy, look like models, be great athletes, and save the world. I think that pressure really winds up being a great obstacle for women because if your expectation is that you’re going to be perfect at everything, then by definition, you’re going to fail. And so I try to get that message out as best as I can without hitting my students over the head with it because I don’t see that as my role.

How have your experiences working at Goldman Sachs and Harvard Business School influenced your philosophy in leading Barnard, and how have those experiences impacted your development of The Athena Center for Leadership Studies?

Okay, I’m going to talk about HBS and not Goldman. You know, HBS is a complicated place, but it’s a well-run place, and I think I was very lucky to have spent such a large chunk of my career there and to have worked with older mentors who really went out of their way to give me a lot of experience. So, I worked for a dean who promoted me into a senior social dean position, pretty much right after I had tenure. And he was a great manager and a great dean, so I learned a lot from watching him. And of course, Barnard is a fundamentally different place from Harvard Business School, but managing a complicated enterprise is the same endeavor, regardless where it takes place, so I think I was lucky to be able to sort of watch management from a close place that doesn’t do everything right by every stretch of imagination, but it’s pretty well run: it has good policies, it’s transparent, people feel involved. So, that was a lucky thing for me.

What are some of your next long term goals for Barnard?

Well, we’re in an interesting moment right now because we’ve put a lot of initiatives. We completed the planning for a lot of initiatives last year, so we’re really in a sort of implementation moment right now. So, everything is ready for the new building, we just have to build it. We also spent lots of time last year thinking about transgender applications or transgender admissions, and now we have to figure out the fine details of that.

Photo Courtesy of Barnard College.

Photo Courtesy of Barnard College.

We wrote a strategic plan about 4-5 years ago, so no we’re implementing it. You know, I think in many ways, my greatest goal for Barnard is the one that the board laid out for me when I arrived, which was to elevate the college. Barnard is a wonderful place, it really is. But I see my role as being to make sure that anyone who might want to come here knows about the college, to make sure that if there is a smart young woman in Mississippi or Mumbai, Barnard is on her radar screen. So, we’re doing a lot to get the word out around Barnard. After that, it’s really to make Barnard the best Barnard it could possibly be, which I think means — we have a wonderful faculty, making sure that we retain that faculty, we have great students. We make sure we get exactly the students we want, and we do well by them. And then, as always, for any high rated institution these days, we have to make sure that we have the resources to do what we want to do, and that’s hard, but we’re getting there. I shouldn’t say we’re getting there, but we’ve had a lot of success in the past few years. Once people hear the Barnard story and understand it, they want to support it, so I just need to keep getting the word out.

So do you also plan to have more events? I think last year I remember seeing there was an event that happened for Barnard in Los Angeles. Can you talk a little bit about that?

Yes, it’s in the strategic plan which you can find on our website that we really want to expand the college’s reach and reputation. Part of that is doing Barnard events where there are interested Barnard people. We have the local symposium series now, so once a year we do a big event in another part of the world, which has been great for the college in many respects. We also experimented last year in LA, just having a fund raising gala in another part of the country, and it was terrific because the Barnard alumnae here in New York have a lot of opportunity to do Barnard things. The Barnard alumnae in LA don’t have that many opportunities, and they tend to be very devoted alumnae, and it’s just fun. People really had a good time at the gala, so we’re definitely going to repeat that. We’re doing more in the San Francisco Bay area, around Barnard in tech, building communities of our alumnae who are going into the tech fields. We’re really starting to look into some partnerships that will help us make sure that more young women stay in computer science, learn how to code, and those efforts probably will be entering in the Bay area.

Okay, that’s cool. So, it’s exciting to see Barnard expanding around the world.

Yeah, we’re getting there!

Kind of a vague question, but what advice would you give to women who are breaking into what is normally perceived as a male dominated field, like finance, government, or college presidencies?

That’s a good question. You know, I think the advice I’d give to young women is pretty much the same I’d give to any young person or any person. Anytime you’re going to be in a high-pressure environment, anytime you’re trying to make a way in a field–particularly if it’s a field that’s dominated by men or dominated by people who look different than you or dominated by people with different backgrounds–you got to be really good at what you do. I was on a panel last week with Indra Nooyi, CEO of Pepsi, and she was just describing how she’s constantly pushed into a corner and ignored. You could probably find it online because I don’t remember exactly what she said, and what she said was great. It was something like, “I just understood that I was going to be the best in the room, and at some point, they were going to have to come to me because I could do a better job than anyone else.” That’s a pretty good lesson to live by. So you don’t get by in anything by putting your hand up and saying, “Look at me, look at me, I’m the best.” Ultimately, success comes from actually being the best or being really good at what you do.

I like that. Okay, and then last question: what advice would you give to current students uncertain about what they want to do after college?

Don’t worry about it. I was supposed to be a spy; it didn’t work out. I have had a perfectly nice life. You know, life is going to throw you curve balls, so do not waste time in college worrying about what you’re going to do when you grow up. Most people I know my age don’t know what they’re going to do when they grow up, so take that off the worry buffet, as I say. You know, have a good time, learn stuff, have as many experiences as you can, and don’t spend too much time worrying about the next steps; they will happen.

I like it, it’s perfect. Thank you so much for sitting down with me. It’s just really exciting. I learnt a lot.

My pleasure!

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