A career as a female corporate executive taught Beverly Ryder “how cultures change to become more inclusive.” (Photography by Jason Smith)

Women’s work

A corporate career led Beverly Ryder, MBA’74, to the board of the National Women’s Hall of Fame and back to the public schools in her hometown of Los Angeles.

Beverly Ryder, MBA’74, was among the first critical mass of women to attend business school and take up executive positions in the corporate world. “It was an interesting time,” she says. “There were certain doors that were not necessarily open.” Graduating less than a decade after Muriel Siebert won her historic seat on the New York Stock Exchange in 1967, Ryder says “there were still what they called ‘the muscle industries’ where women couldn’t, for instance, be account managers.” Even now, corporate boards are overwhelmingly white and male.

Ryder took a job with Citibank in New York and spent 16 years there, eventually rising to vice president in the corporate-banking division, where she helped structure financial transactions for Fortune 500 clients. In 1990 she moved back to Los Angeles, her hometown, to be a senior manager at electric utility Edison International.

It was there that she began volunteering in the city’s public schools. Raised in a middle-class family in LA’s Baldwin Hills neighborhood, Ryder had grown up in the public schools, and she returned to find many of those she’d known as a child devastated by poverty and rising dropout rates. While at Edison in the 1990s she began working to improve parent engagement in the schools. She spent one year at a high school in southwest Los Angeles, working to help establish connections with local communities and businesses. Retired since 2007, Ryder remains involved in the schools, volunteering with civic organizations and on nonprofit boards. “I’m not an educator or an administrator or an expert, but this is a passion, trying to help figure this out,” she says. “People outside education, if they roll up their sleeves and help, they get an appreciation, not only for what has to be done, but for the true value of schools. Schools do so much more than teach knowledge.”

Ryder’s other consuming passion is the National Women’s Hall of Fame in Seneca Falls, New York, where she is president of the board. Founded in 1969 in the city where women’s rights pioneers Lucretia Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton organized the first women’s convention in 1848, the hall of fame recognizes achievements in the arts, athletics, business, science, the humanities, and education. Already, 247 portraits hang in the organization’s gallery; a new class of inductees will be announced next year. At a September alumni event organized by the Chicago Women’s Alliance, Ryder shared the stories of a dozen or so hall of famers. Among them were Bessie Coleman, an African American who earned her pilot’s license in 1921, two years before Amelia Earhart; Maria Tallchief, who was born on an Osage Indian reservation in Oklahoma and became a prima ballerina with George Balanchine’s New York City Ballet; and physicist Maria Goeppert Mayer, who worked at Argonne and the University of Chicago and in 1963 won a Nobel Prize for her research in nuclear physics. Before her talk, Ryder spoke with the Magazine about her life and career.

Women's history

I went to college just before Title IX. I’ve seen the impact of that law, and what it’s done for young women today. In the ’50s and ’60s, when I grew up, there were certain restrictions, some outright and some by custom. Women were required to play half-court basketball—you had three dribbles, and then you had to pass. I guess they thought women were too fragile to play by the same rules as men. ... I can name the schools where I couldn’t apply as an undergraduate because they didn’t admit women: Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Columbia, Williams, others. They changed within probably three or four years; I was sort of on the cusp. The University of Chicago admitted women in the first class, as did Stanford, where I went.

Keeping doors open

We have to look at the way doors open to women and people of color. It’s one thing for one or a few to get through, to become prominent. But it’s another thing to have a critical mass. Only then do norms and culture change. Whether the door stays open for the people who come behind you—that’s the discussion we need to have.

Missing from the hall of fame

I have my personal favorites, like the playwright Lorraine Hansberry, but I don’t make these decisions. The American public nominates candidates for the hall, and an independent panel evaluates them. The public has nominated exceptional women.

Education enriched

I’m interested in extracurricular enrichment. It’s an essential component for an educated citizenry. Everything from exposure to science and the arts to experiences that we take for granted. For instance, in Los Angeles there are kids who have never been to the beach, even though they live maybe ten minutes away. Other kids haven’t had the experience of going to a restaurant. They’ve never acted in a school play. That enrichment is something that I, as a member of the community, can contribute to.  There are other questions like, how to use technology? Low-income communities don’t have access to technology in the same way as wealthier communities, and that gap will widen if we don’t address it.

Source of light

No matter what the environment, there will always be superstars, kids who beat the odds. There are people who know how to be successful no matter what. And there are kids for whom we need to put in a lot of time and effort. And then there’s that big middle—those who may get bypassed and lost. I think our success has to be in learning how to raise the big middle up. It’s easy to carve out the top kids, because they’re the ones who are responding. But with the middle, you never know when the light bulb’s going to turn on. Some just haven’t woken up—kids develop at different ages. We need to help them turn on their light.