Michela English ’71 accepted Sweet Briar’s 2013 Distinguished Alumna Award the way her friends and colleagues would expect — with her usual grace and good humor.
She drew laughs at the mention of Professor Ralph Aiken, who gave her an F on her first English paper and again when recounting the political tumult of her college years and how it played at Sweet Briar — including a boycott of final exams to protest the Kent State shootings and expanding war in Southeast Asia.
“President Anne Gary Pannell, who had served with distinction for many years, was so exhausted by dealing with the strife on campus that she decided to retire when our class graduated,” English said.
“But today we are enjoying a nice lunch at the beautiful Cosmos Club, and I have just received a wonderful honor from this very special College. I’m not sure any of us thought there was the slightest chance of that back in 1971.”
The award honors alumnae who have brought distinction to themselves and to the College in a volunteer or professional capacity. It was presented by President Jo Ellen Parker at a May 8 luncheon in Washington, where English lives and has served since 2006 as the president and CEO of Fight for Children.
Although her daughter, Eleanore, could not be there, her husband and son, Rob and Will Quartel, were in attendance along with classmates, alumnae representing several generations and College officials.
Alumnae Association board president Sandra Taylor ’74 introduced speakers Sara Lycett ’61, who preceded English as chair of the Sweet Briar Board of Directors, and another fellow board member, Gregg Petersmeyer, who also was her colleague at the management consulting firm McKinsey & Company earlier in her career.
English retired from Sweet Briar’s board in 2005 after 11 difficult but fruitful years. Lycett and Petersmeyer both noted her creative optimism and her doggedness.
English would take the “worst problem and nibble at it until she found a solution,” Lycett said. “I am in your debt, my dear.”
Petersmeyer cited characteristics he admires about her, including her integrity, her deeply held belief in our responsibility to help others, and a “thirst for action” and risk-taking approach to solving problems. She also sees opportunities to have fun while doing a job and faces challenges with humor, he said — and there were many while they served on the board.
Finally, he noted how much she values personal relationships, but none more than her family.
“Michela enjoys her family unconditionally and gets more entertainment and fun out of family than [anything else],” he said.
English, an international affairs major, began her working life in child welfare, but forged her professional career in the corporate realm. She rose steadily to president of Discovery Consumer Products and president and COO of Discovery.com. She also held senior positions at National Geographic, Marriott Corp. and McKinsey & Company.
Along the way, she served numerous committees, community boards and nonprofits, including in the area of public education. By 2006, her successes in business and management expertise allowed her to do full time what she’d always wanted — help children in need. At Fight for Children, she is working to improve D.C.’s schools by raising money for education and healthcare programs benefiting the city’s low-income children.
“Moving into education and heading an organization focused on local issues has been energizing and rewarding for me,” English told Sweet Briar College Magazine in 2012. “I’ve enjoyed becoming a mentor to a number of younger education reformers who bring great passion and commitment to their work but sometimes lack management experience.”
English grew up in the small tidewater city of Suffolk, Va., the only child of conservative but doting parents. She likes to joke that peanuts put her through college. Her father went to work for Planters right out of high school and retired 46 years later as president and CEO.
At home, she learned strong values such as doing your best, hard work, perseverance and respect for others. As a student and active alumna, her Sweet Briar experiences built upon that foundation, she said in her acceptance remarks. They have done so in different ways, beginning with the political, economic and cultural awareness that the liberal arts engender. Participation in student government, the Judicial Board and other leadership roles gave her the confidence to embrace change, which propelled her career.
The times played a role too, however, “even at a relatively conservative place like Sweet Briar,” she said. “The activism of the sixties instilled in me a sense of the importance of social justice and civic involvement. I wanted to make the world a better place then, and I still do. That has been a driver of most of the professional and volunteer activities in which I’ve been involved throughout my life.”
English’s complete remarks from the award luncheon are available here.
Category: Alumnae and Development