From Corporate Boardrooms to the Family Room: the Davidson Lessons That Transcend Time

a newspaper clipping headline that reads "Let's Hear It For Girls! Davidson Is Now Coed"

My brother, older by 13 years, thought it would be cool for his little sister to attend an all-male college. 

That was the Davidson he knew when he graduated in 1971, and coeducation wasn’t a topic of serious conversation among students. Compelled by the challenge and enabled by the family of Edward Crosland Stuart, that’s exactly what I did in 1980, just a few years after Davidson graduated its first female students. 

While those of us on campus had a great and rewarding experience, Davidson was struggling at the time with the concept of coeducation, trying to figure out how to navigate this new paradigm. In 1980, there was a 3:2 cap on the ratio of men to women on campus to ensure men remained in the majority. While fraternities dotted Patterson Court, the campus offered one all-female dining facility. Admissions changes required a vote of the trustees, and another female eating house required an appeal to the administration—and proof that there was a demand for a second establishment. Not realizing how deeply set many of the opposing opinions were, a small group of us lined the halls of Chambers, met with the administration and trustees, and joined the case for change. And our voices were heard. The second all-female eating house, Warner Hall, resulted in a wait list after self-selection for both female houses. It took a little longer for the trustees to eventually lift the cap on the percentage of women students, but that change came in time, as well. 

Not unlike what we see in corporate America, increased diversity of gender, race, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation and thought has made the campus experience more rewarding, the dialogue richer, and outcomes stronger. 

Change is rarely easy and can be met with resistance, and sometimes even fear. We’re human; it can feel threatening when the status quo is challenged. But it also takes just one person with a good idea who is willing to be the fi rst to stand up, lean in, and be the catalyst to get the whole room to their feet. The move to coeducation at Davidson wasn’t about women students on campus. We were beneficiaries for sure, but it was about making the institution stronger and more durable. 

That’s not always easy to see until you understand that the risk of change is much lower than the risk of following the status quo. What if donors object? What if they stop giving? What if my son can’t get in because your daughter gets his spot? What if men are distracted by women and their academic rigor suffers? Won’t women make the campus less serious? What about our partnerships with all-female institutions?

Substitute words like donors for customers, giving for buying, and spot for job, and you’re suddenly in the corporate world.

The lessons I learned along the way in corporate America have been important not just to navigating my career, but also to living and raising our family. These lessons transcend gender, and one of those came very early in my career from Shannon Walters McFayden ’82, a Davidson pioneer and the president of Rusk, who embraced that new eating house and demonstrated that women supporting other women make us stronger. She recruited me to join First Union and I have repeated her advice hundreds of times: “the best way to get your next job is to do a great job at the one you have.” It’s a simple but powerful reminder that great talent is most easily noticed through great results.

There are other lessons I’ve shared with so many over the almost 40 years since I graduated from Davidson. Not too long ago, I received a letter from a man who started a letter writing hobby with his two young sons many years ago. Over the years, he and his sons collected three-ring binders full of letters from sports and entertainment celebrities, writers, playwrights, astronauts and presidents. He had recently retired when his second grandchild, the fi rst girl in generations, was born. Her arrival compelled him to restart his letter writing hobby. He sent letters to women around the world asking them what advice they might give to a young woman who would come of age in the year 2031. I was thrilled to be a part of her story.

Here’s the advice I offered to his granddaughter, which is the same advice I share with my own daughters: 

  • Be authentic. Don’t waste precious energy reinventing yourself to be someone that others want you to be.
  • Embrace change, new ideas and new adventures. You never know where they might lead you.
  • Be kind. Everyone has a story, and everyone goes through challenging times. Your gift of kindness may be just the motivating gesture they need.
  • Listen. There’s no greater way to value someone.
  • Do what you love. Find work that fulfills you.
  • Believe in yourself and others will, too.
  • Be a champion for others.

My years at Davidson gave me the opportunity to practice those very things. I’ve been accused throughout my career of being “just naïve enough to believe that it really could be done,” whether that’s female eating houses or widespread culture change. I believe that fortitude started at Davidson, where I had the opportunity to study with the amazing support of professors like Lou Ortmayer, Clark Ross, Charlie Ratliff and Louise Nelson. They helped me see opportunities rather than obstacles and goals rather than hurdles. More importantly, they were champions, mentors and sponsors.

When I graduated in 1984, some believed that a liberal arts education didn’t prepare you for the corporate world in the same way that more tangible, concrete fields of study might have. The Davidson careers office thought otherwise and began a campaign to demonstrate that those skills developed in liberal arts did indeed provide an enduring platform on which to build a bright future. We took it on the road and talked with CEOs across industries about the value and fundamentals of a liberal arts education and the importance of skillsets like communication, critical thinking, complex problem solving and collaboration—especially when they are all grounded in strong ethics.

The post-Davidson path for many of us can be uneven, but those fundamental skills together with an intense curiosity, a commitment to continuous learning, humility, resilience and the ability to reinvent yourself may be the most important skillsets of all. I know for me, they rest on a strong foundation Davidson nurtured back in the early 1980s that helped me embrace and promote positive change throughout my 40-year career. And for that, I will always be grateful.

Mary Tabb Mack ’84 led the transformation of Wells Fargo’s retail branch network as CEO of its consumer and small business banking division and served as president and head of Wells Fargo Advisors. She also sponsored the CSBB diversity, equity and inclusion council. The group focuses on increasing representation of minority communities at CSBB, improving internal career mobility and promoting inclusive, respectful work environments.

This article was originally published in the Fall/Winter 2023 print issue of the Davidson Journal Magazine; for more, please see the Davidson Journal section of our website.


  • November 29, 2023


  • Mary Tabb Mack ’84