Nancy Thornborrow: Leading a new wave of female business leaders

Nancy Thornborrow has broken ground at Mills College in more ways than one.

The dean of the graduate school of business at Mills — which was rechristened the Lorry I. Lokey Graduate School of Business this week — Thornborrow was instrumental in creating a degree at Mills in business economics in the late 1980s to combat the poor representation of women in business education.

She has helped raise $30 million so far — much of it from Lokey, the founder of Business Wire and a major supporter — for the MBA program she helped found in 2001, the first program in the West and the second in the nation aimed specifically toward women.

She has also presided this year over a groundbreaking of a more literal sort, for a 28,500-square-foot, environmentally sustainable new home for the business school, designed by architectural firm Bohlin Cywinski Jackson. The building will open in the fall of 2009.

When Thornborrow first arrived at Mills College in 1980, she had already had a fruitful and eclectic experience in higher education —and encountered obstacles due to her gender.

After obtaining her bachelor’s degree in mathematics at Northwestern University in 1961, at a time when there were few women in that field, she sought work in the private sector in Hartford, Conn., as a computer programmer.

Offered work as a customer-service representative instead, she moved on to work at the astronomy department at Yale University.

“This was at the time of the Apollo project and putting a man on the moon,” Thornborrow said. “I didn’t know much about astronomy, but I was good at computer programming.”

Thornborrow had served a stint at her alma mater working in the department of bio-medical engineering and had three children by the time she decided to expand her education.

She earned a masters degree and a doctorate from UC San Diego, and by 1980 was teaching economics at Mills, a women’s liberal arts college in Oakland.

Something clicked. Instead of moving onto another job, Thornborrow stayed at Mills College for the past 28 years.

Fall 2009 will also see the launch of the Center for Responsible Business, part of the business school’s focus on social responsibility.

“We will also focus on poverty, urban planning and other aspects of social responsibility that businesses may not traditionally think are their responsibility,” Thornborrow said. “A lot ofpeople haven’t focused on those kind of issues in the past in business.”

Another unique focus of the business school has been the field of nonprofit management.

In addition to her role as dean, Thornborrow still teaches a class, “Senior Seminar in Economics,” for undergraduates.

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