Michaela L. Walsh ’57

Michaela L. Walsh ’57

Written by Nataly Cifuentes ’16

Michaela Walsh '

Michaela L. Walsh ’57

The 1960s marked the beginning for Michaela Walsh’s career in the business world, one that was completely dominated by men and would present her with barriers, because of her gender. Through her work, Walsh was able to fight for her two passions: the sustainability of the environment and the economic independence of women.

Although it was unusual for a Midwesterner to go to college on the East Coast, Walsh was encouraged by her father and inspired by her siblings to take a risk and move east. Given that two of her aunts were nuns (one of whom had attended Manhattanville, and the other was the Head of a Sacred Heart School in Canada at the time), it was important to her father that she attend a Catholic school.

Walsh came to Manhattanville in 1954 as part of the first class that would spend all four undergraduate years at the new campus in Purchase, New York. She was only able to attend Manhattanville College for her freshman year. However, the year was very influential and as she reminisced about this chapter of her life, Walsh said, “I was deeply moved by many of the people I met. And I think there is uniqueness to Manhattanville and its historical loyalties.” What stood out most to her was the atmosphere, which encouraged her to be creative and to not be afraid. She also mentioned how “Manhattanville’s environment helped [her] go back to [her] spiritual life.”

Manhattanville affected Michaela’s life in many ways, most notably by igniting her passion to achieve environmental sustainability. As a student, she would take walks around campus and feel connected to the world, which is often taken for granted. “My real sensitivity about the environment began walking in the woods on my grandparents’ farm, and then later at Manhattanville,” she remarked. “It has been a trip that has followed me through my life.” Walsh returned to Manhattanville as a professor in 1998 and was an advocate for the creation of the Ohnell Environmental Park, which included both the renovation of the Lady Chapel and the construction of the Environmental Studies Classroom in the back of campus.

After her freshman year at Manhattanville College, Walsh jumpstarted her career and secured a job at Merrill Lynch as the assistant to the Head of the newly created Foreign Department, while also attending night classes at a nearby university. She soon learned that Merrill Lynch was opening a new office in Beirut, Lebanon. Coworkers who were transferring overseas encouraged her to join them, and her boss was supportive as well. Unfortunately, this was at a time when women were not hired for Training or Sales positions. As a result, the Personnel Department denied her request to transfer to the Beirut offices, claiming it was too dangerous. Walsh made a decision – she resigned from her position at Merrill Lynch domestic, covered her fare to Beirut and applied for a job at Merrill Lynch International.

As she waited for her visa for Beirut, she spent six weeks in Europe, both in London and Madrid, where Merrill Lynch offered her a position at their offices. Walsh remembered spending a weekend walking around Madrid and thinking to herself, “If I don’t go to Beirut, I will always wonder what it was about. And if I go and it doesn’t work out, I can always quit and go home.” She was determined to go Beirut, and when she did, she learned a great deal about herself as well as how to interact with people from many different cultures.

In 1965, Michaela returned to New York, where she began working on Wall Street as a partner at Boettcher & Company. At the same time, she took evening courses at Hunter College, where she graduated with a degree in English Literature in 1971.

The following year, Walsh joined the Rockefeller Brothers Fund as a Program Associate. This was a pivotal year in her career; the company sent her to the First United Nations Conference on the Status of Women in Mexico City. Walsh admitted that when she was first offered this opportunity, she knew nothing about international development or Mexico, but she took the chance nonetheless. “It changed my life, and I never looked back,” she said.

As the only woman in attendance from the world of finance and Wall Street, she saw that there was no connection between finance and international development at the time, and there were few active non-government organizations. After meeting with a group of women who wanted to start an international development bank for women, Walsh realized how little she understood about the financial challenges faced by women around the world and wanted to be involved in improving international standards.

At the time, women in many countries had little to no access to credit or any banking services without a male signing off on the action. She decided that she wanted to help women gain financial independence with opportunities to develop and manage their own businesses.  After visiting banks, foundations, and law firms for support and guidance on how she could accomplish this feat, the organization gained legal structure in 1976, and Women’s World Banking was born.

When Walsh brought the concept to the United Nations, she was offered a quarter of a million dollars to have meetings around the world to examine the network’s potential.

Women’s World Banking held its first meeting in Holland. The group of forty professionals worked very hard to come up with solutions to the challenges facing women around the world. She was determined for women “to have their own equal seat at the table to participate in the economic development of their country or community.” Walsh and her team worked  around the clock. “You can’t just have ideas. I don’t want to see more ideas” Walsh affirmed. “I want to see implementation. I want to see products and projects.”

Founding a Movement:  Women's World Banking  1975-1990

Founding a Movement:
Women’s World Banking
1975-1990

Following her retirement from financial services, Walsh decided to visit the friends she had made along the way through her work with Women’s World Banking.  Over the course of her visits, Walsh realized that these women were an inspiration worth sharing with the world and published the collection of their stories in a book titled Founding a Movement, Women’s World Banking 1975-1990. “My objective was to make sure that people understood this was a movement – that it was not a bank,” Walsh remarked. She was proud that these groups of women are still communicating and sharing ideas about their business and development, proving that the movement was not just a part of a banking transaction. Today, 40-50 million women in approximately 40 countries are part of this network. In fact, “Women’s World Banking is one of the only organizations that came out of that 1975 UN Conference that is still alive and well,” Walsh stated.

In 1997, Walsh reconnected with Manhattanville when she attended a dinner in honor of Elizabeth McCormack ’44 and offered to help with anything the College needed. Two weeks later, she had lunch with President Richard Berman and then Dean of Studies, Meg Causey. During their meeting, Walsh shared her interest in working with high school students and encouraging young women to be strong leaders, while also instilling an appreciation and sensitivity toward our environment.  Impressed by her ambition, President Berman offered her a position at Manhattanville as a professor. She was astonished by the offer but excitedly accepted.

She started working at the Duchesne Center and built a program for women and leaders. In the program, she challenged students by having them write personal reflective essays about what they thought it meant to be a leader. Students were also instructed to interview young professional women working in New York City and identify the characteristics that attributed to their effective leadership.

After noticing the absence of students on campus during the summer, Walsh developed the Global Student Leadership Program. Undergraduates from around the world would congregate on campus to attend a 6-week course about leadership. As challenging as it was, Walsh was determined for these young women to return to their native countries with the confidence and ability to be leaders in their communities. The program was active for eight years, and out of 120 students who participated, Walsh remains in touch with about eighty-five of them.

Despite a hectic, yet gratifying professional life, Walsh also recognizes the importance of family and friends. She also affirmed that “loving the world and loving your life comes from a commitment and from having a lot of integrity.” Subsequently, when asked what advice she would give to current students, Walsh responded:

“Raise your voice. Don’t be afraid to speak up. Have courage to really speak and be loud and clear and go for what you really want to do. You have to have a passion for that. You need to have courage to be who you are. Do what your passion is. Don’t listen to somebody else tell you what that should be.”

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One thought on “Michaela L. Walsh ’57

  1. Wonderful. These mini bios make me so proud of my fellow alumnae. There is so much good in the world it is good to have it shared along with the news we usually hear. I guess a theme of these women might me, “Don’t tell me about wonderful people, show me!” and you have. Thank you. Dacia Van Antwerp ’52

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