Following the Road Less Traveled

Elizabeth Miller '81 endows a lecture series that inspires students to take risks

by Lars Asbornsen

Annie and Jeannie

Jeannie Cho Lee and Annie Morita, both class of ’90, were featured in the 2013 Elizabeth Miller ’81 Lecture Series. Click here to watch an interview with them about living and working in Asia.

When Elizabeth Miller ’81 was considering how to direct a recent donation to Smith, her college roommate suggested funding a lecture series that would encourage Smith undergraduates to consider nontraditional career paths after graduation. The Elizabeth Miller ’81 Lecture launched last year with a presentation on risk-taking, and with plans to invite other emerging leaders in business and nonprofits to campus annually. This year’s lecture featured Jeannie Cho Lee ’90 and Annie Morita ’90, both of whom have found success working and living in Asia. Miller herself was on campus for the lecture and sat down to talk about the inspiration and goals for the series.

How did the idea of annual lecture series on risk-taking come about?

My Smith roommate, Alexandra Stafford ’82, and I were talking about how to allocate a gift I had recently made to the college and she said to me, ‘You know, what you’re really about is thinking about different ways of going about your life. Why don’t you promote the idea of taking risk?’ At that time the job market was not very good and positions were not available in traditional sectors such as banking or financial services, so it was a good time to think about doing things differently and taking risks. The economy has rebounded a bit, but I think it is becoming increasingly advantageous to follow a less-traditional, expected path and show a commitment to a passion or vision.

How do students benefit?

Smith women have always broken traditional roles and made their own place in the world—even today. So I think it’s invaluable for students to hear from alumnae who have successfully taken different, unexpected paths, and the alumnae we’ve brought back to campus have been excited to meet the students. I think this experience of meeting Smith alumnae who have taken risks illustrates the relevance of a Smith education today and the strength of the Smith network.

What is your goal for the series?

My goal is to open students’ eyes to opportunity and to question what they really want to do with their lives. Not necessarily to think what they want to accomplish by the time they are 60, but rather, think about what can they accomplish in the next five years.

Describe your career path after you graduated from Smith.

I graduated in 1981 with a degree in art history, and I had to support myself, so I took a job with Lazard Frères, an investment bank, solely based on economics. (By the way, one of the main reasons I was offered the job was on the recommendation of Mina Herrmann Gerowin ’73, who was an associate at the firm.) I was there for about a year, and I realized the next step expected of me was to apply to business school, which I did. I went to Harvard Business School. After I graduated I went back into investment banking. I am sort of the opposite of what I’m promoting with the series. In fact, I am promoting it because I followed a very traditional path.

What factors have gone into your decision to invest in Smith?

I was very keen on doing something different for Smith. It was important for me to illustrate the relevance of a Smith education. I’m a big believer in a liberal arts education, so I wanted to highlight that factor to students. I wanted students to realize there is a special quality to being a Smith student and alumna, and that we have a legacy of Smith women doing interesting things in the world and giving back to the college.

What are your hopes for the college’s future?

I think Kathleen McCartney is an exceptional choice for president. Her reputation at the Harvard Graduate School of Education was beyond wonderful. She recognizes how education has evolved from a passive experience to a much more interactive one. She was very involved with edX [the nonprofit online learning website created by Harvard and MIT], and understands the dynamic elements of education that are essential in today’s world of high education

Lars Asbornsen is director of campaign communications at Smith College