Growing up in New York, Harriet Edelman caught the business bug early, from listening to her father’s dinnertime stories about his work as a vice president for production at a company in the garment district. But she also had a passion for music. So she studied piano performance at Bucknell University, thinking she might eventually be able to combine music with business later on in her career.

But shortly after graduating and accepting an offer from a master’s degree program in music, she realized she was taking the wrong path.

“It sounds like an apocryphal story,” Edelman admits, “but I woke up one morning and said, ‘I’m doing the wrong thing.’ So I took the GMAT, applied to Fordham, and started going to business school at night that September.”

She was attracted to Fordham’s Gabelli School of Business because of the University’s culture, which the 1980 grad describes as “scrappy, diverse, with no pretensions. And you can still feel that now.”

Two years after enrolling in Fordham’s MBA program, where she concentrated in marketing and operations research, she got a job in marketing at Avon. Over the course of 25 years there, she worked her way up through several marketing and product development positions and later led the sales organization and global supply chain—until she ended up in IT. “I had not written a piece of code since I had been in the seventh grade,” she laughs, “but they felt I understood the Global IT area well enough to run it while we recruited a CIO.” She fell in love with the job and ended up as senior vice president and chief information officer for eight years.

She left the company in 2008 to deal with family matters and, for flexibility, decided to focus on expanding her positions as a board member for two public companies. But she was soon recruited as vice chairman at Emigrant Bank, which Fordham founder Archbishop John Hughes helped establish. The bank’s values and ethos have a lot in common with those of her graduate alma mater, Edelman says, noting that both were founded to support Irish immigrants. And, she adds, she loves working for an organization whose “footprint is primarily in the community.”

“It almost seems like, no matter who I meet, if I tell them where I work it’s like, ‘Oh, I had my first mortgage with you,’” she says. “It’s terrific to see the values and legacy of the bank in action.”

Edelman especially enjoys using the diverse experiences and knowledge she’s gained to support young women as they begin their own careers, something she does often with her own daughter, Julia, now a first-year law student at Fordham, and her friends.

“I’m close with several of her friends,” Edelman explains, “and I’ve met with several of them often, either helping them write resumes or coaching them on how to handle work situations that sometimes get political. Early in my career I had terrific mentors, people who explained the dynamics that weren’t apparent to a young person starting out in the workforce. And that was tremendously beneficial to me. So I have a great time with her friends, soaking in the stories, and helping them if I can.”

Though sometimes, she says, they already know exactly what to do. “I’m so impressed with this generation. Sometimes they tell me the situation, and I just ask what they think they should do next, and they’ve got it. They just need to hear themselves speak it.”

She hopes to touch on some of these themes during her keynote speech at next month’s second annual Women’s Philanthropy Summit at Fordham, which will be held on October 24 on the Lincoln Center campus.

“Part of what’s important for women and women’s development,” Edelman says, “is leadership, not only in terms of your professional life but your full life.”

This generation of young women, she says, “is focusing on supporting each woman’s personal choice, on self-reliance and independence, which I think is positive. So a focus on personal principles is important.

“We’re in a world right now with a lot of mixed signals. So individuals who have a constancy to them, a set of beliefs, an inner strength—they are going to prevail and lead.”

Fordham Five

What are you most passionate about?
I am most passionate about my family and our extended family of friends. I’m very fortunate that both my parents are still alive, and I’m very close with my sister and brother. And then there’s my daughter, Julia, and her friends and their parents. We are loving, close, together constantly, and help each other navigate life.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?
It came from a friend in the form of a quote from Shakespeare’s Hamlet: “This above all: to thine own self be true, and it must follow, as the night the day, thou canst not then be false to any man.” Because the reality is that, in business and in life, there often can be multiple “rights.” But if you operate in a way that’s consistent with your values and with what you really believe, you can’t look back with regret. Everything may not work out, but you have your integrity.

What’s your favorite place in New York City? In the world?
In New York, it’s Lincoln Center, especially the Metropolitan Opera House. I think it’s an extraordinarily beautiful place, with an energy and a dynamism all its own.

In the world, I have two. First, my home in rural Connecticut. It’s very quiet. It’s very slow. It’s very nature-filled. And I love that. But also Florence, Italy. I inherited that one from my dad. We traveled there together, and I’ve been there since. I’ve brought Julia and her friend and her friend’s mom there too. There’s this intersection, particularly from the Renaissance period, of the highest order in architecture and art and music—all in one very walkable city.

Name a book that has had a lasting influence on you.
I am a student of human behavior. I have to name three. Daniel Goleman’s Emotional Intelligence for me filled in the blanks about certain characteristics of high-performing leaders that translate into more success than others. Because I don’t know how you can be a great leader if you do not have self-awareness, if you don’t listen, if you don’t have empathy. It’s the glue that holds together why certain people make certain situations—situations that by all rights should never have worked—work. Next is John Krakauer’s Into Thin Air, about tragedy on Mount Everest. It’s an incredible story of a plan that goes awry, of team dynamics, of individualism and—to some degree—selfishness. And then Endurance, by Alfred Lansing, about Ernest Shackleton’s ill-fated trip to Antarctica 100 years ago—an incredible story of leadership, resilience, integrity, and persistence.

Who is the Fordham grad or professor you admire most?
Alan Alda. He is a man of diverse talents and interests, humble and honest, and forever young. He is still trying to change the world for the better, including through his podcast and his book, If I Understood You, Would I Have This Look on My Face? I saw an interview he did recently where he said that the question he most likes to ask people, either as an icebreaker or just as a way of getting some noise out of the system, is “what are you passionate about?” Because people are absolutely willing to talk about that, and all of a sudden you learn something about them, and all of a sudden maybe you have a connection you didn’t know about.


Alexandra Loizzo-Desai can be reached at [email protected] or 212-636-6536.