I haven’t had an easy path.
I grew up in poverty. My father died when I was only eight years old and, as the oldest of eight children, it was a struggle. We had no life insurance, lived in a rented home and my mother did whatever work she could to get by.
But the thing she taught me more than anything else was determination.
“Don’t make the same mistakes I did,” she told me. So I decided at a very young age – as I spent my time cooking, cleaning and changing the diapers – that I was going to get out of there.
The kid I was then – who had to share a room with four other girls, and had one pair of jeans that had to be patched over and over – would never believe where I’ve gotten to today. But now, after running my third major industrial business as CEO, I can look back and see that, ultimately, my unfortunate circumstances drove me to create my good fortune.
And I worked my butt off for it.
I became a caddy at a country club at a time when women weren’t accepted. My brother begged me not to do it. “I don’t want you to be a caddy – there are no girl caddies. Everyone will make fun of us,” he said. But I didn’t listen. I walked right in there, sat down with the caddy master and told him I wanted the job. He took a chance on me, and I went on to be named rookie of the year.
“Hey, I can do this,” I thought.
Then I set my sights on going to college. It wasn’t in the cards for me – there was just no money. But then I heard about these full scholarships the caddy association gave out. As a twelve year old, I was determined – I set my laser vision right on it. And I nailed it.
And engineering? I’m not going to lie, it was hard. I was in the minority – a woman in a field dominated by men. But I loved math and science, and I wanted to get a degree where I could go on and get a great job.
Then a friend convinced me to try out for Harvard Business School. “I’m not the kind of person that gets into Harvard!” I said. But she convinced me to try. And I tell you, when I got in I was floored. Once I got there, I realized that that they’re all just humans. Sure, they were smart, but so was I.
When you’re a young woman, you think, “Wow, I’ll never be good enough to do that.” And yeah, you’re going to get knocked down, you’re going to be treated unfairly, and you’re going to be discriminated against.
But with every little victory along the way and every little success, you gain a little more confidence and push a little farther. And I’ve never let being a women stop me from doing anything. In fact, I always took it upon myself to just take the sex factor out of the equation. I’ve never want to be the best woman in the room. I’ve always just wanted to be the best.
And you know what? There’s a lot of CEOs out there who don’t care if you’re black, white, purple or green. They just want someone who’s going to work hard and make them look good. So that’s what I did.
I’ve never let being a woman stop me from doing anything…I’ve never want to be the best woman in the room. I’ve always just wanted to be the best.
When I think about my career, I can look back on Michigan Engineering and see that it was pivotal – it was one of the corner stones on which I built my success. I knew I wanted to give back to the College, but I wanted to make sure it was personal. That it was for something I was passionate about and wanted to be involved in for the long haul.
And I knew the one thing I wanted to see in the field was more women who are strong leaders. I wanted to give them the confidence to succeed, and let them understand that they can make it.
So I decided to give $1 million to the College to create these scholarships and funds because I wanted to give young women a target to aim for. When I got my scholarship years ago, it was a game-changer for me. And my goal is to give those same sorts of opportunities to others.
My hope is that the funds – which will help with summer camps, leadership weekends, scholarships and activities for female-oriented organizations – will encourage women to pursue engineering. They’ll support programs that allow women to shine, and create strong leaders who can inspire the next generation of engineers.
But I don’t want to give it to them just because they are women, or even because they are underprivileged like I was. I want to give it to them because they work hard and are willing to go the extra mile. Because they come to campus as one of the top recruits, and they stand out as the best of the best. I want to make a difference in people’s lives. I want them to give an opportunity they might not have had before to accelerate their success, or to gain confidence that they can achieve more.
So, if you’re willing to work hard to grab opportunities, if you’ve got perseverance and the will to succeed, then I’m ready for you. I had to hunt hard for my carrot, but I’ve got one waiting for you right here. Now come and get it.
Mary Petrovich is an Operating Executive at the Carlyle Group, focused on U.S. buyout opportunities in the automotive and transportation sector. Petrovich received her BSE in industrial and operations engineering from U-M, and an MBA from Harvard Business School. She has established the Mary L. Petrovich Endowed Scholarship Fund for Future Leaders, Expendable Scholarship Fund for Future Leaders and Leadership Program Fund.
The funds will have a comprehensive impact on the experience of female engineering students at Michigan by creating substantial leadership experiences, enhancing marquee programs like Women in Science and Engineering, and providing critical financial assistance to enable the best and brightest to succeed as engineers.