Wonder Women is a blog series that lets me introduce you to amazing businesswomen doing remarkable work. Meet Marianne Fray, Chief Executive Officer of Maternity Care Coalition (MCC), based in Philadelphia, Pa., a non-profit organization dedicated to improving the health and wellbeing of pregnant women and their babies, ages 0-3.
In Philadelphia, more than 27 mothers die giving birth for every 100,000 live births in the city. Since 1980, the maternal mortality rate in Philadelphia has doubled. Between 2010 and 2012 alone, 74 percent of all pregnancy-related deaths in Philadelphia occurred among Black women, even though these women comprise only 45 percent of those who gave birth in that time period. Led by Marianne, newly appointed CEO, MCC’s mission is to stop this tragic trend. Marianne and I met through our service on the Advisory Council of Women of Color in Pharma. I spoke with Marianne about her leadership journey.
Q: Tell me about the first job you had and what it taught you.
A: The first job I actually had was a stock girl at a company called Lerner Shops in Philadelphia. I think that job really formed a lot of the ways in which I operate today. It taught me responsibility; I had to be there on time. It taught me understanding that there will be multiple priorities that will pull you; I had to follow instructions while simultaneously helping customers. I grew up in a somewhat different environment. I was raised by missionaries in urban Philadelphia in a Rescue mission so I had a lot of responsibilities there. With schoolwork, the mission, and my job, I really think that they were life lessons that I have followed throughout my career. Be on time, follow instructions, be a good leader, and that also means being a good follower.
Q: What about the path that you took to be in your current role? How did you go from that job to where you’ve landed today?
A: I, like many other leaders, will tell you that it was not a straight line. If you were to ask me what are the qualities of a leader who moves to the top role, I would say it is curiosity, flexibility, and a dab of serendipity. When I was in my junior year of college, I had plotted out a path to go to law school and was fortunate enough to be granted an internship with a federal judge in Philadelphia during the summer. I had been thinking I was going to go to law school and I majored in English Literature. I didn’t want Political Science; I wanted a nice rounded background that I thought would prepare me. Well, only to discover through conversation with this judge, “You know, Marianne, I don’t really see you as a lawyer.” And subsequent conversations that we had led me to question the path I thought I would be taking. And I discovered that he was probably right. I wasn’t really well-suited, personality wise, to be an attorney. I was at a crossroads. I pivoted and ended up getting an opportunity in New York City as a sales assistant. I share that story because had I not taken the leap from my safe, planned path, to one that was a lot more uncertain, but was probably closer aligned to my passions, I might not have landed where I am today.
Q: Do you ever look back and say, “Gee, I should’ve gone for that law degree after all”? Or do you feel like you chose the right path at that moment?
A: Nope, I chose the right path at that moment because I know that I am in a place where I’m more closely aligned with my passions. I think we’re all given gifts and my gift has always been around connecting with people and providing support and help. Not that a lawyer doesn’t do that, but I feel much more comfortable and within the space where I can make my greatest contribution with the role I’m in today.
A: We have several programs at MCC that are across 11 sites and these programs have a different funding stream and a couple different practices. Some are more intense than others. We have home visitors in family homes up to 90 minutes per week and others calling in. My exciting challenge is creating a bridge across all of those programs so that every MCC employee sees him/herself as an MCC employee and not an employee of a specific program. I believe that unity will create an even greater impact for all of our stakeholder groups. It’s unification of the staff, but it’s also stabilizing the funding streams that are varying across those different programs. That is a challenge because we have a high dependency on government grants. My challenge, as is the challenge of our executive team, is to figure out how to stabilize that and discover alternate ways of funding these critical programs.
Q: What is the one word that best describes you?
A: When I was doing executive coaching, I would practice with my clients and say, “You’re in career transition. How would you describe your value proposition?” Connecting back to that analogy, and reflecting on my value proposition, I consider myself a deliverer of hope. I can see the cup is half full; I absolutely believe that people are the generator for all kinds of change.
Q: What is the one daily practice that energizes you the most?
A: I have personal devotions I do every morning before I get out of bed and it is composed of reading a Scripture passage and reflecting on it. I have a very strong faith, and I don’t impose it upon anyone. That personal time with my Higher Being is the time that gets me centered and is probably the practice that has taken me through times that have been tough. Knowing that I can have a personal relationship and talk with God in a non-judgmental way helps me sort through things. I would say it is my faith and that time with God in the morning.
Q: What are you most passionate about?
A: I am most passionate about seeing my teammates, my colleagues, and the MCC family grow. Grow into their own passion. Even if it means that they leave us, which I really hope they won’t, but my greatest passion is partnering with others to see them become their best selves.
Q: In addition to being a CEO, you are also a mom. It takes a lot to have the career at the level you have sustained yours, and raise three kids. How did you do it?
A: Being a mom is one of my greatest joys in life and many times it’s been one of my greatest challenges. As we all know, that which we are most proud of often comes at a great cost. Yes, I am a mother of three strong, young men. I am proud of each one of them. I want to share this because I think it is relevant. In this day and age, raising three black men in this country has been a journey. There were many times that I, in my quiet time, was praying for their safety, for their growth, for their strong identity. I have a wonderful husband of 34 years who’s been with me every step of the way. I am grateful for him. We were not blessed with daughters, but I know that, in America, it is so hard to be a strong black man and it was our goal to raise them to be strong, independent men of faith. I give all honor to God. It’s been a lot of praying!
A: I advise ambitious people to speak their goals into existence and to believe. I have the joy of having a few Millennials on my team and they are very ambitious, juggling many things and I just tell them, you have within you the capability to be all that you can be, but you need to be open to all kinds of opportunities. The ambition can sometimes blind the path forward, thinking that the trajectory is this way when, as I learned in my career, that it is actually a lattice. It’s not necessarily a ladder. So I encourage them to be bold, try a lateral move, try a different industry, expose yourself to as much as possible because that is what’s going to make you the most interesting candidate for an opportunity that you may not have even thought about because you’ve got all these varied experiences. I advise them to be open, be curious, and self-aware. Be aware of what your gaps are, and of course you work on them, but build on your strengths.
Q: What does it take to be a leader?
A: Gratitude and an open heart. Being a leader today takes courage, but it really takes a heart. I believe that if you care about people enough and if you recognize how wonderful people along the way have been to you, it will help you be a best-in-class leader.