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Interview with Mary Beth Keenan and Holly Means

Virginia Tech alumnae Mary Beth Keenan and Holly Means
Virginia Tech alumnae Mary Beth Keenan and Holly Means are two of the 14 women who make up the Inspiring Women in Lifelong Leadership (I WILL) council. I WILL is developing leadership education opportunities for women at Virginia Tech and beyond.

On paper, Virginia Tech alumnae Holly Means and Mary Beth Keenan don’t seem to have a lot in common. Means graduated in 1989 with a degree in accounting and for nearly 20 years was a top executive at Johnson & Johnson. Now an independent marketing strategy consultant, Means live in Newtown, Penn. Keenan graduated in 2015 with a degree in Human Development. She resides in Blacksburg, Va., and is Reading Hour program coordinator with the Virginia Tech AmeriCorps network.

What unites these women is a desire to help other Virginia Tech women succeed personally and professionally.

Means and Keenan are two of the 14 women who make up the Inspiring Women in Lifelong Leadership (I WILL) council, a group that comprises alumnae, friends of the university, and faculty and staff representatives interested in developing leadership education opportunities for women at Virginia Tech and beyond. For two years, the group has met and planned, quietly working behind the scenes to improve prospects for women leaders. Now, as the university celebrates 95 years of women at Virginia Tech, the I WILL initiative is ready to launch.

In a recent conversation, Means and Keenan talked about the ways their Virginia Tech experiences shaped their lives and their hopes for inspiring confidence in a new generation of Hokie women.

How did you find your “place” at Virginia Tech?

Means: Involvement in student organizations helped me find my place at Virginia Tech. It inherently made a large university feel smaller, and it also provided a space to grow and develop as a leader.

Keenan: From the moment I stepped on campus for a tour my junior year of high school, I knew that Virginia Tech was the place for me. I loved the school spirit, the community, and the mission of Ut Prosim (That I May Serve). The Newman Community Catholic Campus Ministry was my place to experience all three of those things daily, while living out my faith. The welcoming community, deep friendships, service opportunities, and leadership roles I experienced through Newman helped me to find my place at Virginia Tech.

What was the highlight of your time at Virginia Tech?

Means: Wow, it is difficult to choose. Overall having the opportunity to serve as a student leader in several student organizations provided many memorable moments and developmental experiences. I also really enjoyed the summer I spent on campus taking classes and working for the university leading prospective student tours, where I learned all kinds of VT fun facts and trivia. There was a slightly different vibe with fewer students and having classes every day, which I also enjoyed experiencing.

Keenan: Living out Ut Prosim on alternative break trips was the highlight of my time at Virginia Tech. I went on four trips -- three to Lima, Ohio, and one to Flint, Mich. It is hard to capture in words what these trips meant to me. They challenged me to examine my views of the world. They invited me to embrace others’ stories into the fabric of my life. They provided me with meaningful friendships, still active today. They gave me the opportunity to show others that the Hokie Nation is more complex and meaningful than just football and how we have grown since April 16th. Revisiting these themes each March kept me grounded in the school work that led to a degree through which I am able to live out Ut Prosim in my career.

Internships and real-world experiences add so much to a student’s success. Did you have that kind of experience?

Means: When I was at VT, there was a lot less of this -- aside from co-ops -- than there is today. I did have a formal internship experience at Johnson & Johnson during my MBA program at Duke University. It was a great way to test out career interests, and I ultimately joined Johnson & Johnson full-time. If I were a VT student now, I definitely would look forward to exploring different career opportunities through internships.

Keenan: As part of my human development degree I completed six credits of field study. Three were with the Montgomery County Department of Social Services in the foster care and adoption unit. Three were with Adult Day Services on campus. I also served as a part-time AmeriCorps member during my final year, serving with Reading Hour, volunteering about 10 hours a week. These experiences were so valuable in building connections and gaining a better understanding of what career path I am best fit for.

Co-curricular activities are also an important part of what students learn at Virginia Tech. In your case, how did learning outside the classroom complement learning inside the classroom?

Means: Involvement in co-curricular activities was a big part of my VT experience. Serving as a student leader provided great learning opportunities for leading in the business world -- e.g. aligning an organization around its mission, collaborating to achieve our objectives, etc. In addition to classroom learning, I frequently drew on my leadership experiences at Virginia Tech and applied those skills in different contexts in the course of my career.

Keenan: Learning outside the classroom was so crucial to my education here at Virginia Tech. My involvement with leadership at the Newman Community allowed me to practice facilitation skills and team management skills that I was learning about in class. My part-time AmeriCorps term with Reading Hour allowed me to practice professionalism as well as learn best practices in interacting with children. What I learned outside the classroom was more concrete and equally as valuable as what was taught in the classroom.

Mentors mean so much in one’s personal and professional development. Did you benefit from having a mentor to guide you? How did that relationship develop and what did you learn from it?

Means: I have had different mentors at various points in my career. Until recently, my mentors were predominantly men for whom I worked, perhaps because there were fewer women in leadership and management roles early in my career. These relationships initially started more formally as employer-employee or leader-team member relationships. They then evolved to more mentor-mentee relationships over time as reporting relationships changed. I also have developed mentor relationships through involvement in other organizations or with peers or colleagues in different functions. Regardless of whether they have been men or women, mentors have helped me to see aspects of myself -- both personally and professionally -- in different ways, be mindful of what’s needed in the moment, or think about how I might tackle challenges differently. The perspective is always invaluable and thought-provoking.

Keenan: I benefitted from have a few different informal mentors. Some were older students and some were staff members. Their authenticity and genuine care when asking me, “How are you?” helped to develop a mentoring friendship. I learned to not be shy in offering my talents to the community around me and how to encourage others to be confident as well.

Tell me why you became involved in the I WILL initiative. Why is it especially important for young women to have the kind of support and encouragement I WILL can offer?

Means: In addition to what I have learned from mentors, I also have learned a great deal serving as a mentor to others, both men and women. Perhaps because there were fewer women in management positions early in my career, and even as I became a vice president, I always have been inspired by and even learned from the mid-level managers and directors I’ve mentored; women who are finding and defining their own balance and rhythm in their personal and professional lives. It is not always easy to strike the right balance and feel confident in those moments and choices. As part of the inaugural advisory council for I WILL, I have been particularly inspired by young women, like Mary Beth, who have an incredible sense of self and purpose early on in their careers. I WILL provides an opportunity to support young women when they are developing skill sets for their personal and professional growth as they embark on their careers.

Keenan: I went to an all-girls middle and high school, which gave me the privilege of being empowered daily and seeing empowered women in all facets of life. I was sad when I realized many of my female peers in college did not have that type of experience in grade school. I am excited that I WILL’s work will highlight the stories of many women, doing many different things, in many different spheres in our society. I find it to be true that if you do not see someone who looks like you filling a specific role, you are less likely to think you are capable of that role. By telling many stories, I WILL can show that women are capable of any role.

I WILL uses the visioning statement, “Inspire women; impact the world.” What does that mean to you?

Means: At the heart of this phrase is the belief that everyone, and anyone, has the ability to make a difference in the world -- for someone, for a community, for society. Even the smallest act can have a big impact. Ultimately, the goal of I WILL is to foster a mindset, especially among young women, that leadership is about making a difference; ye, there is not, and should not be, a universal way to lead. Everyone has the ability to lead in their own way.

Keenan: This phrase is so action driven! I love the energy it invokes. It shows the power that we have as women to impact our worlds. By continuing to inspire each other, we can make bigger and bigger ripples for good in our communities.

What is your passion?

Means: I love to read, and particularly sharing the love for reading with my son. He’s old enough to read on his own now, although we both enjoy the connection that comes from reading a book together.

Keenan: I love seeing others thrive. It is so exciting to watch someone do what they were meant to do and what they love to do! I hope that through my work with children’s literacy, I can encourage young members of our communities to explore their own passions and find what they are called towards.

What are you most proud of?

Means: Definitely my son, although I can take only 50 percent of the credit. As any mother would say about her child, I think he’s incredibly special. I’m excited to see how he will share his gifts and energy with the world one day. He’s only 10 years old, so we are both a bit of a work in progress.

Keenan: This is a hard question for me! I think I am most proud of what I have been able to contribute to my communities since graduating. I am still really involved in my faith, but now through the local parish. I co-facilitate a mental health prayer and support group and serve during Sunday masses. My career still allows me to give back to the New River Valley and encourage a love of learning in preschool-aged children. I have a fantastic group of friends from my time here at Virginia Tech and it has been wonderful to cheer one another on as we enter careers, reach milestones, and build families. I believe that we cannot walk through this life alone, so I am proud of how I am able to support others and accept support as well.

What advice would you give to students – especially women – who are looking for the experiences that will set them up for a life of success, fulfillment, well-being, and deep engagement?

Means: Take this opportunity to get to know your professors. Don’t be afraid to reach out to faculty or staff to seek advice or help when you need it, rather than feel you should have all the answers. Get to know students very different from yourself. Take the time to meet new people. Listen and get to know them, and you will learn about yourself too. Strive to always learn something new and continue to push yourself. Don’t be afraid to try new things, get out of your comfort zone and take (educated) risks. Yet, be true to who you are. There will be lots of opportunities to pivot in life, and you will learn something about yourself at each fork in the road. Life is a journey, not a destination -- which can be difficult to remember sometimes. One of my good friends reminds me that “we are human BEings, not human DOings.” It’s good advice, and being in the moment is something I continue to work on.

Keenan: Do not be afraid to ask! Ask for opportunities that are engaging to you. Ask for help -- with homework, with job tasks, with course planning, with bad days, with anything. Ask friends and peers what their experiences have been. Ask professors for advice and mentoring. Ask questions of yourself that lead to deeper self-understanding. You never know what the response will be to each question, but I believe every question is a learning opportunity, so seek as many learning opportunities as you can!

Why is it important for alumni to be involved in current students’ college experiences?

Means: Alumni can serve as a tremendous resource for current students in their college experiences, with information about career paths, key factors for success and pitfalls to avoid. For alumni, it’s an opportunity to stay connected with prospective talent, what’s important to them in careers and life. Clearly it’s a learning opportunity on both sides.

Keenan: It is important for students to hear stories from “the other side,” if you will. It is so easy as a college student to put your head down, try to plow through your degree, and lose both perspective and hope. Alumni involvement is one way for students to gain back that perspective and hope. Telling stories that give students wisdom, motivation, and excitement for life after college is so important.

You are engaged with and support your alma mater. Why?

Means: Being a student at Virginia Tech definitely shaped who I have become as a person and as a leader. Being involved as an alumna has provided an opportunity to give back and, in some way, pass it forward.

Keenan: Virginia Tech and Blacksburg accepted me as I was entering freshmen year, but always provided opportunities for me to better myself and the communities around me. I want to make sure that future Hokies can feel that same sense of hospitality and see the many routes to self-awareness and Ut Prosim.

Do you feel you are a part of the Hokie Nation? What does it mean to you?

Means: Yes, I very much feel a part of the Hokie Nation! I have enjoyed reconnecting with Virginia Tech and seeing all the incredible ways and spaces in which the University is leading and inventing the future. Virginia Tech is on an incredible trajectory under the leadership of Dr. Sands and leaders like Dr. Perillo [Vice President for Student Affairs Patty Perillo]. It is a privilege to serve. It is exciting to be a part of it all -- and it even makes me want to be a student again.

Keenan: I certainly do! As cliché as it might sound, the Hokie Nation is an extended family to me. Hokies are so kind to everyone, but especially to each other and it is comforting to know that almost everywhere you go, you can find a fellow Hokie. The Hokie Nation and the stories of students, alumni, and friends, are so inspiring to me. They motivate me to keep seeking opportunities to write the story of my life in a way that will make my alma mater proud.

Written by Sandy Broughton