As president of Say Yes to Education, Mary Anne Schmitt-Carey is committed to transforming lives by making higher education a reality for inner-city youth. Though having already achieved success on her own terms, Mary Anne pursued an MBA, catapulting her career in ways that had not been possible otherwise. As a mother of one and a stepmother of three, with the help of a supportive spouse, Mary Anne manages to stay on top of everything by always keeping an eye on what’s most important and having the flexibility to prioritize.

Mary Anne took time out of her very full schedule to share with GoGirl her personal motivations behind her focus on education, and dishes about the indispensability of having a work-life balance.

Right out of college, you worked on Michael Dukakis’s 1988 presidential campaign. What did you learn from that experience?

Being part of something that had the potential to have such a dramatic impact on the country, learning that you can do things you feel passionate about and jump in with both feet…it was incredible. After the election, I moved to D.C. and ended up spending almost 18 years there. People assumed that I would go to work in the White House. When I asked to work at the Department of Education, they thought I was crazy!

What motivated you to pursue a career with the Department of Education?

I felt in my heart of hearts that it was the area in which I could make the most difference. It just connected with me on a very personal level. We had a lot of challenges in my childhood that created instability in the family, as well as challenging financial circumstances. We lived in a community where the public school was strong and where the expectations for me were high, but the expectations for my friends who grew up in the projects were dramatically different. I saw myself moving into honors-level courses and my friends disappearing. That had a profound impact on my world view.

I felt this sense that social justice wasn’t a reality for other kids and thought if I learned more about public policy, I might have the opportunity to help level the playing field. While I was with the Department of Education, I kept hearing a common refrain from people within the public school systems: they needed more hands on deck, a retraining of teachers and principals, and a restructuring of the school systems.

Where did you go from the Department of Education?

To the not-for-profit New American Schools. It focused on, “How do we build a new infrastructure to provide hands-on support for urban schools?” I did that for 11 years, eventually becoming president. We started with about 120 pilot schools and ended with 10,000 schools implementing the approaches we’d supported. Meanwhile, I went back to pursue my MBA at Wharton while working full-time. I spent two crazy years commuting between Philadelphia and D.C., but learned how to effectively manage a not-for-profit utilizing all the tools and strategies of the for-profit world.

And then the most important thing that happened for me at that point in my life—my late-thirties—was that I got married. I had my daughter, Hannah, and I have three wonderful stepchildren. Then I had the opportunity to come back to New York.

How did your return to New York  come about?

A headhunter called me about the position at Say Yes. After I learned more about it, I realized that they had the model right. So I took the job. There’s a very big team behind Say Yes, but as president, I’m a little bit more visible. Just two weeks ago, I had to rent a car in Syracuse, and when the person saw my credit card, she said, “Are you with Say Yes to Education?” When I said yes, she said, “My grandchildren are going to be the first in our family to go to college. Thank you! You’ve changed our family’s life.”

It must feel great to know you’ve made a difference. How do you stay on top of everything?

It is possible to have a work-life-family balance. I was very clear when I interviewed for the Say Yes job that my family had to be the priority, because my daughter was so young at the time. I’ve stuck to that. I’ve never missed an important event in my daughter’s life and never will, because you can never get that time back. I have a deal with my daughter—she’s in second grade now—that when I travel I’m never away for more than two nights. It’s about partnership; my husband gets home earlier the nights that I’m away. It’s really about involving your whole family in your larger life’s work so they feel equally committed.

What experiences have helped you to grasp the importance of financial literacy?

When I first graduated from college, I was thrown into a “sink or swim” situation. My family did not have the resources to provide any type of safety net for me and my mom had to sell our house which was immediately tied to the terms of her divorce agreement with my father. As a result, I had to find gainful employment, a place to live, and learn how to develop and manage a budget which would allow me to begin my new, independent life. At that point, I moved to Boston to work on the Dukakis Campaign and took on waitressing work to pay the bills. I convinced my best friend to move there with me, and we shared all the expenses in a two-bedroom apartment in the North End.

Later, in my mid-30s, I recognized that I was not married and really should move forward to own my own property and plan for my future financial sustainability. Many women focus on getting married for stability, but I decided I could and should plan to be able to make it on my own. I bought a penthouse condo in Washington, DC and made sure I maxed out my retirement accounts. A few years later, I got married, as well, but it was good to realize that I could make it on my own, if needed.

What advice do you have for women in terms of personal finance?

I strongly advise woman to consider getting an MBA. I went back to school at the age of 35, knowing that this tool kit and network would help me to be more effective in taking research-based education programs to the state and national scale.

While I was reasonably successful at that point in my life, it’s hard for me to explain how much people looked at me in a different way when I was accepted to and attending this Ivy League school, particularly the older men on the board where I served as COO. At the end of my first year in the Executive MBA program, I was actually promoted to CEO (after the board had passed me over for a senior Wall Street executive just one year prior).

I also urge women to max out their 401K (or other retirement programs), starting in the very first years of work. The multiplier effect of early savings and investment is substantial!

What career advice do can you share with young women?

Set very high goals and know that you can achieve them. Don’t allow anyone to set artificial limitations as to what you can do. Also, pursue higher education—it’s made a big difference in my life.

But the main one is: focus on what really means something to you. What do you feel passionate about? The pressure of the last two decades has been around achieving success financially, and I think values really got skewed in that process. Plenty of my Wharton classmates make a lot more money than I do, but I make a wonderful living doing something that every day I’m thanked for, and I wake up in the morning excited to get to work. It’s a much better way to live your life.

Photo Source: Education Resource Strategies