Changing the World – Swarthmore College
Our alums remind me of why this is such a special and important institution. To be able to take the intellectual curiosity, that passion for enthusiasm, the self awareness and confidence, those are all reflections of the mission of the college and how it shapes the lives of our alums. Seth and I met at Swarthmore. Our wedding was like a Swarthmore reunion. I came into Swarthmore a nerd, but I also came in as an introvert. Didn’t really know who I was in a lot of ways. As a kid I wanted to be an inventor, but as I got older I really wanted to have more of a direct impact on improving people’s lives. My day job is at the Mayo Clinic College of Medicine and Science.
I work there to facilitate a pipeline of underrepresented students into medical school and into our School of Health Sciences. The Division of Engineering serves the entire Clinic. We create a collaboration with these researchers to push the science forward, push the technology forward, to improve healthcare. We wanted to get involved with community. I started volunteering with the Boy and Girls Club. That would essentially be kind of like a lake. Thank you for joining us today on R Town.
I have also been in search of community, when I find it, I commit really hard to it. The great part is being able to shape the content and being able to tell those stories. Depending on the day, sometimes I have a lot of community meetings, and then rush to go pick up Zoe to bring her home and get dinner ready. It’s this paradox where it’s super exhausting but at the same time, I wouldn’t have it any other way. My time at Swarthmore really gave me certain frameworks to understand issues in a unique way that I think is really critical. It’s super satisfying that the work that I’m doing is directly impacting how healthcare is going to be delivered in the next 20, 30 years. Swarthmore launched me into a way of being that I had only imagined before I had started college. I was in my first teaching job.
There was a professional development opportunity to go hear someone named Carol Gilligan. Her first book was called In a Different Voice. It was a huge shift in the study of cognitive moral development. And I didn’t find out until much later that she was a Swarthmore alum. I got interested in teacher development and how to restructure schools so teachers wouldn’t burn out or just leave because they were frustrated. I work with a teacher group in Philadelphia. Other ideas for structured pair activities. You know something like turning points or landmarks in your practice. I think it’s been a pretty important professional support group for people. You’re each going to have three minutes. Swarthmore is a place that values what I value in terms of education. MBA students develop a critical way of knowing and have the interest and ability to go out and speak up for what they believe in. I want them to go away feeling like they now have this knowledge and they can go out and do something with it. She was talking about culture and cultural capital. And understand the difficulties of making change in the world. I feel really good about the work I’ve done and the lives I’ve touched. Alibaba started out with this idea of trying to connect small businesses to the world. Today, we’re probably about 100,000 employees so we no longer think of this a company but more as as ecosystem or a digital economy that now is global in nature.
The division I’m responsible for is called the Alibaba Global Initiatives Team. We recognize the change the world is going through right now. Our goal is to raise up emerging markets so they can leapfrog traditional economy and go straight at the digital economy. So we target emerging markets in Africa, Asia, in the Middle East, and Latin America. People say optimism is critical as an entrepreneur, but I think it’s critical to be a productive member of society. Took me awhile to get to this stage, but now that I have a family I think it’s more about creating a better future for your children. I think we have for the first time in our lifetime this opportunity to really make major changes using technology. A liberal arts education is probably the most valuable thing you can give your children because the future is going to be about your ability to think, your ability to create, and your ability to adapt. Medicine is not a constant, diseases come and go. I went to Swarthmore having already decided that my career was going to be in experimental science. And it seemed to me that a liberal arts school was the best place to get the kind of broad education that would prepare me for the future. In my career, which has involved both the administration of scientific institutions and the doing of scientific research, a lot of that is actually person to person interaction. You don’t learn how to do that, but you do practice it. And Swarthmore’s a terrific place for that. I won the Nobel Prize for the discovery of the reverse transcriptase, an enzyme central to the life cycle of cancer inducing viruses. It was enormously exciting. We weren’t trying to create a revolution, although in the end we created one. We were just enthralled with the opportunity to understand the fundamental basis of life. I also tried to catalyze the movement of the things that we were doing in the laboratory into clinical medicine, translational work. And that involved setting up companies and working on a very different scale and with different kinds of relationships. I’m very gratified by what I’ve been able to accomplish.
We lived in New York City for many years after we got out of Swarthmore but we decided to change careers. My husband was a trader at J.P. Morgan and decided to become a pediatrician. I went from publishing to law. So we both did big changes. I live in New York city during the week, come home to Havertown, Pennsylvania on some weekends. The whole focus of my legal professional life has been around social justice and social change. I spent 17 years working for the Juvenile Law Center in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. In the kids for cash scandal, several thousand youth had been adjudicated delinquent over a five year period by these judges. We successfully argued to the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania to dismiss with prejudice these adjudications. My new role at the NYCLU is growing and making the organization even more effective than it is now in terms of doing civil liberties and civil rights work. I was a Lang Opportunity Scholar. That was a big part of my experience at Swarthmore. I never get up in the morning and wonder why I’m going to the office, for sure. I feel like I have a mission. I realize that it’s a privilege to have a Swarthmore education. There is a sense that if you have this privilege it’s wrong not to use it to try to do something to better the world.
The idea of what identity is made up of and the multi-culturalism, is something that I’m constantly exploring in my work. I get to work with amazing people everyday who believe in me and who believe in the brand and who really become like family. I wrote a paper at Swarthmore about how brands would use art historical references to signify their brand messages. And I think it really opened me up to the idea of being a fashion designer. I’m originally from Paris. My mom is Chinese-American and my dad is French. I have a wonderful family and I’m also married and have a wonderful husband and dog. I’m a pretty simple guy. Women having agency over their bodies and what they want to wear without being objectified, that’s something that I feel is really central to the Altuzarra message. Speaking to women who want to look polished, who want to express their femininity and their sexuality and their power as well. I think that may seem like a small thing but I actually think it has a large impact on culture and on the world. One of the little pleasures of having graduated from Swarthmore is to be part of that community of people you never knew, you never met, you instantly feel that connection.
Swarthmore is a small college with an outsized impact. Our ability to live into our mission is not accidental. Changing the world depends upon being able to see and take seriously one’s responsibilities to others. The college was founded on the values of providing a rigorous academic education to prepare students to contribute to the common good. And I think we mobilize all of that when we think about what it means to change the world.