Alumna Nancy McGaw, who graduated from the Honors College at Michigan State University in 1969 with a Bachelor’s Degree in English, is now Deputy Director of the Aspen Institute Business and Society Program (Aspen BSP) where she leads corporate programs designed to cultivate leaders and align businesses with the long-term health of society.
“The people I work with are trying to drive change so that their businesses can be more attentive to creating value not only for their company, but within the world at large,” she said. “That has been the work that has truly galvanized me these past almost 20 years.”
McGaw says one of her greatest discoveries at Aspen BSP was seeing the power of structured dialogue.
“It is exciting to realize how much you can accomplish when you create space for people to learn from and share with each other,” she said. “After my time in banking, joining the Aspen Institute and having the chance to think about how you bring people together in those kinds of conversations felt like coming home to me.”
You create your own narrative with your own experiences. I realize now that my experience as a banker made it possible to do the work I do at the Aspen Institute, which I dearly love.
Prior to Aspen BSP, McGaw was a Managing Director at Bank of America. She became a banker after studying international relations at Johns Hopkins University where she earned her master’s degree from the School of Advanced International Studies. She also was a consultant at Orkand Corporation for four years while living in Washington, D.C.
“After studying international relations at Johns Hopkins, I had the opportunity to join a bank. I thought I might be in banking for a couple of years, but 17 and a half years later, there I was,” McGaw said. “You create your own narrative with your own experiences. I realize now that my experience as a banker made it possible to do the work I do at the Aspen Institute, which I dearly love.”
To prepare for any field, McGaw urges students to study other languages and cultures.
“It is hugely important to learn about other cultures and perspectives,” she said. “You do not necessarily have to study abroad to do so, but it is essential to be open to diverse points of view, regardless of the career or industry you are in. I work mostly with business people, and I see how they are really struggling to figure out how to make their organizations more diverse and inclusive. They know that if they do not do that, they will not attract the talent they need; and they will not be able to compete in the world that is changing so rapidly.”
McGaw says her MSU education helped prepare her for her career and served as a reminder of how important it is to be curious.
“It is essential to look for different ideas and to find the joy in learning. I came to college as an eager learner, but my enthusiasm was enhanced during my time here,” she said, “and the opportunity to study different subjects was great. Along with my English major, I had a Social Studies minor, and I took a variety of classes.”
McGaw’s MSU education also showed her the importance of the arts. She said she was fortunate to be in many small, seminar-style classes that emphasized sharing ideas and collaboration. Those experiences had lasting benefits.
It is essential to look for different ideas and to find the joy in learning. I came to college as an eager learner, but my enthusiasm was enhanced during my time here.
“When you are in this work of trying to change companies, you shouldn’t think that if you simply pitch an idea, everyone will be on board. That is not how it works,” she said. “It is all about collaboration and collective problem-solving. While people from all academic disciplines can do that well, having a liberal arts education really pushes you to understand the importance of having multiple perspectives on a problem. My background in the liberal arts certainly gave me the confidence to tackle complex challenges throughout my career – and it also has enriched my life in many ways over the years.”
One of the initiatives McGaw created at Aspen BSP is the First Movers Fellowship Program.
“Business thrives on innovation,” McGaw said. “At Aspen BSP, we believe the most exciting and significant innovation is the kind that delivers a great result for the business and also for society. So we wanted to create a program for the innovators in business – the ‘corporate social intrapreneurs’ – who are doing just that.”
As McGaw explained, “The individuals we select for the program are not necessarily in sustainability or corporate responsibility positions. They can work anywhere in the company. The important thing is that they see a different way of working – and a broader definition of business success.”
The program began as a pilot, but is now in its 11th year and thriving.
My background in the liberal arts certainly gave me the confidence to tackle complex challenges throughout my career – and it also has enriched my life in many ways over the years.
“It is thrilling to work with business innovators who are leading such important changes in their companies and to watch this community grow,” McGaw said.
MSU Then and Now
McGaw decided to come to MSU after a recruiter visited her high school.
“It was that chance encounter with an MSU recruiter that made me come; I had not even visited the campus before making my decision,” she said. “As for my major, I chose English because I wanted a broad liberal arts education. I knew I could find that at MSU.”
McGaw recently returned to MSU’s campus for Homecoming and saw how much has changed since her time here as a student.
“For one thing, the campus is bigger, but all of the changes are certainly good,” she said. “Being back is both energizing and nostalgic, and it is wonderful to be reminded of those four foundational years that I spent here.”
McGaw offers the following advice for both students who are just starting at MSU and students who will be graduating soon: “When you are conversing with someone, strive to be a deep listener. Ask questions that demonstrate your genuine interest in that person. You will be surprised by what you can learn. Mastering the art of inquiring and listening is a life skill that will take you far.”