“Are you sure this is going to mean something to them?” The question from my boss, Dr. Marta Loyd, the Winthrop Rockefeller Institute’s executive director, was a search for reassurance more than it was an invitation for me to offer an opinion. She asked after showing me a final draft of a speech she was preparing to deliver last week.
“Absolutely,” I say, smiling.
She, like other humble people, has a hard time seeing herself as inspiring. We who have worked with and for her know better, and now a number of central Arkansas businesswomen know, too.
Marta (to her staff she is always Marta … Dr. Loyd is a title she’s proud of but not one she expects people close to her to use) was the keynote speaker at last week’s Women in Business luncheon, hosted annually by the Little Rock Regional Chamber of Commerce. She was asked to speak when Chamber officials learned about her story and recognized the power behind it.
Marta has accomplished a lot in her life, both personally and professionally. For 17 years, she was instrumental in the growth of the University of Arkansas – Fort Smith, helping the school blossom from a solid community college to, arguably, western Arkansas’ greatest educational resource. She served 12 of those years as vice chancellor for university advancement, raising tens of millions of dollars that served to fund the university’s expansion and helped hundreds of students have opportunities in higher education that would not otherwise be available to them.
That part about the students, that’s where Marta really lights up.
“Back when I was at the University, every time we’d go out to eat in Fort Smith, I’d ask our waiter or waitress what their plans were for their education,” she says. “A number of times, they’d tell me, ‘I’d like to go to school, but I just can’t afford it.’ And I’d give them my business card and tell them to come see me and I’d help them figure out how to make it work.
“It embarrassed the heck out of my kids when I’d do that, but it was always uplifting when those young people would call for an appointment and enroll in college.”
I’ve heard that story from Marta a number of times now, and it doesn’t get old. It’s a microcosm of who she is.
That desire to help people has always been there, but her career goals shifted pretty distinctly in her mid-30s.
“I put very little serious thought into my future when I was young,” she told the packed house at the Women in Business luncheon last week. “I wanted to be a dental hygienist because I could work part-time, make a good wage, and be a wife and mother. I accomplished all of that by the age of 26.”
She realized that while dental hygiene is a fine career path, she was meant for something else.
Her opportunity to step into higher education came when Westark College (now UA-Fort Smith) was hiring a part-time continuing education program coordinator. The job requirements were a bachelor’s degree and “organizational experience.”
Citing her organizational experience from church committees and the school PTA, Marta got the job. Not too long after, she was approached about helping to start a dental hygiene school at the college. She took that on for no extra pay, but proved herself and made connections with key people in the college’s administration.
Along the way, the University earned her loyalty by giving her an opportunity to stay home and care for her son after he was involved in an accident that almost claimed one of his eyes. Marta had to take off two weeks to care for him, and the timing couldn’t have been worse. It fell right when she was supposed to finish and submit a key application for the new dental hygiene school, and her taking off the two weeks meant a six-month delay in the project.
But the college’s president at the time, Joel Stubblefield, didn’t hesitate in telling Marta to take the time off.
“You do what you need to do for your son and don’t worry about this until you’re ready to come back,” he told her.
She’s never forgotten that. In her own words, Marta determined then “that if I ever became a leader, I would do all I could to make sure people didn’t have to choose between work and family.”
After returning to work and successfully starting the dental hygiene school, Marta was hired to work in development. The university’s vice chancellor for university advancement at the time, Dr. Carolyn Moore, brought Marta under her wing, promising her she would teach her everything she knew about development and that someday Marta could take her job. Dr. Moore also encouraged Marta to pursue advanced degrees, first her master’s in educational leadership and then her doctorate in educational leadership and policy analysis.
Dr. Moore made good on her promise. When she left to pursue another opportunity, Marta was named as her replacement. She was Marta’s first true mentor, and their relationship framed how Marta has approached her work ever since.
“I have always looked for opportunities both to be mentored by others and to mentor other people myself,” Marta says.
I am among a long list of people who have benefited from Marta’s mentoring. It’s not just a sentiment with her, an abstract concept in which she expects people to learn by her example from afar. It’s a muscle she actively exercises. She builds time into her schedule for it and expects her mentees to do the same.
What that has done is create a unique kind of culture, first among her staff at UAFS and, for the past 2 ½ years, here at the Institute. It’s a culture where people aren’t afraid to make mistakes, so long as they learn from them. Where it’s understood that the good of the team always comes before the good of the individual. Where we all believe in the concept that Marta used to close her speech last week, which was a quote attributed to Frances Moore Lappé:
“If you expect to see the final results of your work, you simply have not asked a big enough question.”
Marta’s story is indeed inspiring, not simply because she has found success, not even simply because she proved that you can change directions in your career mid-stream and still accomplish a lot. Her story is most inspiring, to me, because of how she’s gone about her career. She is the type of Level 5 Leader that Jim Collins writes about. She leads with humility and by sticking to her values. It’s refreshing to see that a person like that can find such success, and it’s a privilege to be part of that story.