Entrepreneurial Risks and the Joys that Come with Them

By Myra Strober

Sometimes it is only with hindsight that one understands the benefits that come from taking an entrepreneurial risk. In 1974, Myra Strober helped to establish the center for research on women at Stanford, one of the first to be established in the US. These excerpts from Myra Strober’s new memoir, published last month by MIT Press, show her reluctance to take on such a risk, the price she paid, and the joys she ultimately experienced.


A few weeks before I start teaching at Stanford’s Graduate School of Business in the Fall of 1972, I get a call from Stanford’s Office of Public Affairs. They would like me to participate in a press conference in San Francisco with two other new women assistant professors at the university – Barbara Babcock, the first woman ever to hold a faculty position at the Law School, and Lili Young, a new faculty member in the School of Engineering. I am the first woman ever to hold a faculty position in the Business School.

“We want to show off our women,” my caller says, “show the whole world that Stanford has done the right thing.”

I ask Barbara what she thinks we should wear to this press briefing.

“We can wear whatever we want,” she says. “We are the dress code.”

She’s right. A study the year before found that women make up only 5 percent of all tenure-track faculty at Stanford, and 2 percent of all full professors. Of almost a thousand tenure-track faculty, only forty-seven are women and only nine are women full professors.

As a result of Stanford’s press conference for new women faculty, there are articles about me in both the Stanford Daily and the Palo Alto Times. Not only does the GSB have women faculty members for the first time, they say, but imagine this: there’s an economist there doing research on women!

A study in 1971 found that women make up only 5 percent of all tenure-track faculty at Stanford, and 2 percent of all full professors.

One woman who reads these articles is undergraduate Cynthia Davis, and a couple of months later, she comes to see me during my office hours. Cindy has been taking a course called “Cross-Cultural Perspectives” with two new women faculty in anthropology, and she and some of the other women in that class have been meeting at the newly opened Women’s Center to think about how to connect faculty at Stanford who are interested in women’s issues, and, more generally, how to bring ideas related to women to the forefront of campus discussion.

Cindy is refined and soft-spoken, but decisive about her mission: “We don’t want to create a place for consciousness-raising,” she says. “We already have that at the Women’s Center. We want to create a research center, maybe something like the Radcliffe Institute at Radcliffe College.”

I have heard of the Radcliffe Institute, started in the early 1960s by Radcliffe’s dynamo president, Mary Bunting, and I know that it is not an institute for research on women.

“Oh, well, then not like the Radcliffe Institute,” Cindy says. “We don’t really care. We want an institute for research on women.”

“That’s a terrific idea, Cindy. What can I do to help?”

“We need faculty members to start it. Can you help start it?”

I laugh as the memory of the recent debacle at my childcare seminar comes to mind, and I think about what my economist colleagues might say if they learned I was trying to start a research institute for women.

“What’s so funny?”

“I’ll tell you: assistant professors don’t start research centers. You need senior faculty for that. I support you 100 percent, but I have to support you from the sidelines.”

A few months later, when winter quarter begins, I start teaching my course on women and work. Two of my students, Beth Garfield and Susan Heck, have the same idea as Cindy: each wants to start a center for research on women at Stanford.

Beth is a junior, planning to run for student-body president in the spring and to go to law school when she graduates, and Susan is a first-year doctoral student at the School of Education (SUSE). Both are outspoken and funny. I also put them in touch with Cindy, and a few weeks later, the four of us meet in my office.

I reiterate that junior faculty don’t start research centers and encourage them to brainstorm about senior faculty they know who might be helpful. Susan says she’ll talk to organisations theorist James March and sociologist Elizabeth Cohen, both in SUSE. Cindy says she’ll try to get an appointment with psychologist Eleanor Maccoby, and Beth agrees to set up a meeting with Leah Kaplan, Dean of Women, whom she knows from her work in student government.

A few weeks later, the three students and I meet with the four senior faculty and staff the students have corralled and in the course of the meeting, Eleanor and Jim agree to be co-chairs of a planning committee including all those at the meeting. They also agree to send a joint letter to the Ford Foundation requesting a small planning grant of $25,000.

When Mariam Chamberlain, the program officer at the Ford Foundation in charge of grants on women’s issues, writes to Jim March and Eleanor Maccoby approving their request for a planning grant for CROW, and saying that she will be pleased to entertain a proposal for more substantial funding, Stanford’s president and provost approve the center on an interim basis. We put together a nine-member Policy Board with Eleanor and Jim as co-chairs; and Elizabeth Cohen, Tom Ehrlich (Dean of the Law School), and I as additional faculty members.

Eventually, there will be more than one hundred Centers for Research on Women in the US, but in 1974 Stanford and Wellesley College are the first two.

At the beginning of fall quarter, we formally launch CROW at a well-publicised reception. Eventually, there will be more than one hundred Centers for Research on Women in the US, but in 1974 Stanford and Wellesley College are the first two. After the reception, full of excitement, we hold our first official Policy Board meeting. But a few weeks later, when the board meets for the second time, Eleanor and Jim report that they have done nothing to move a new grant proposal along and say they wish to resign as co-chairs.

“Myra, you should chair the Policy Board,” Eleanor says. “You’re the one with the enthusiasm for this.”

After much soul searching, I violate my own rule that junior faculty don’t head up research centers. It’s one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.

My first step is a trip to New York to meet with Mariam Chamberlain. I’ve never been to the Ford Foundation and am hugely impressed by its soaring glass building and inner courtyard. But the most remarkable part of my visit is getting to know Mariam. Already in her fifties, she is a seasoned program officer. She’s an economist with a PhD from Yale, and she wants to be not only my financial benefactor but also my mentor. She suggests that I ask Ford for $100,000 and tells me exactly what I need to do at Stanford to get permanent status for the center.

My two most important tasks, she says, are to get to know Stanford’s provost and to start raising money from other sources. If Stanford wants money from Ford for a center for research on women, its provost is going to have to promise Mariam that Stanford will also put money into the center. In addition, I’m going to have to show that we can get funding from foundations besides Ford. Fortunately, Mariam has a list of those other likely foundations and is happy to share it with me.

What a challenge I’ve taken on! I spend the six-hour cross-country flight making a gigantic to-do list – all the people I need to talk to, all the ideas I need to gather. It feels overwhelming but exhilarating.

Sam is less than enthusiastic about my new role. He (rightly) doesn’t see that a reduction in my course load is going to make up for the time I’ll be spending starting the center, and he’s not all that excited by my feminism. He much prefers the woman he married to the one he lives with now. He comes to hear me lecture and is appalled by the applause and “right on” comments in the audience when I talk about the need for women to take their careers as seriously as men do, the need for women to be admitted to men’s careers, and the need for women to have paychecks equal to those of men. Although I see myself as struggling to attain power and influence, he sees me as radical and powerful, and he’s not happy with that view of me.

I’m not sure what to do about Sam’s concerns. I’m on a roll. I can’t turn back. I redouble my efforts to keep the house clean, cook food that he enjoys, be as sexy as I can in the evenings (hard when you’re dog-tired), and be a supermom. But I’m definitely no longer a woman who jimmies locked doors with screwdrivers; I’m a woman learning to construct new doors, wide open from the start.

And, of course, Sam is no longer the man he was when he first took my breath away at the Windsor Hotel. Years of seeing very sick patients have taken their toll. He was always serious, but now he’s often somber, the world’s distresses directly on his shoulders.

I’m definitely no longer a woman who jimmies locked doors with screwdrivers; I’m a woman learning to construct new doors, wide open from the start.

In 2009, CROW celebrates its thirty-fifth anniversary. It’s now called the Clayman Institute for Gender Research because it has been endowed in perpetuity by Michelle Clayman, who received her MBA from the GSB in the mid-1970s, when I was on the faculty, and who has become extremely successful as the founder, partner, and investment officer of a money management firm in New York. When I started CROW, we had great difficulty raising money, in large part because there were few women of independent means – and those who did have substantial assets were generally not free to manage them as they wished. Today, there are women with the ability and desire to put their money into research on women.



Michelle R. Clayman Institute for Gender Research, Serra House, Stanford University.
Photo courtesy: http://gender.stanford.edu


In 2010, Clayman gets a new director, Shelley Correll, who invites me to serve as a life member of Clayman’s National Advisory Board. In May 2011, I attend my first meeting of that board, along with the three former students who helped me start CROW back in 1972. I am stunned and elated by the progress Clayman has made since its first days. The budget is solidly in the black, and we have a close and cooperative relationship with Stanford’s development office. We have a board of women and men who are managerially wise and generous in their gifts, and an associate director who is super-savvy about public relations and social media and frequently gets the institute’s research into the public eye. We also have Shelley, an energetic, brilliant sociologist whose vision for Clayman’s future is exciting and far-reaching.

When an opportunity that you know you will love presents itself, take the chance! Risk-taking can pay off and bring enormous satisfaction.

As these excerpts from my memoir indicate, I was a reluctant leader. And I paid a huge price for agreeing to be the founding director of CROW. When I came up for a tenure decision at the Stanford Graduate School of Business, I was turned down. But eventually I was offered a tenured position at the School of Education at Stanford (now the Graduate School of Education) and had a most satisfying and productive career there.

Also, my husband’s dissatisfaction with my taking on a leadership position combined with his other dissatisfactions with our marriage led to divorce in 1982. But nine years later I remarried Jay Jackman, who has been not only a supportive and loving husband, but a co-consultant and co-author.

I hope my story is an inspiration to other young women and men. When an opportunity that you know you will love presents itself, take the chance! Risk-taking can pay off and bring enormous satisfaction. You should also read about the famous female risk takers who have taken the challenges and become successful in their life.


Excerpted from Sharing the Work: What My Family and Career Taught Me about Breaking Through (and Holding the Door Open for Others), by Myra Strober (MIT Press 2016).

About the Author

strober-webMyra Strober is a labour economist at Stanford University, where she is Professor Emerita. Her research focuses on gender issues at work, balancing work and family, women in the professions and management, the economics of childcare, and feminist economics, and she has been both an expert witness and a consultant on these matters.


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