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Pioneering on Purpose

By Ian Ybarra

Features Columnist

Next time you’re in Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport, know that nearby on West Bryn Mahr Avenue, there’s an MIT alumna running a $1.5 billion business.

Ilene Gordon ’75, President of Alcan Food Packaging-Americas, works from a standard executive corner-office-with-a-view in one of several silver towers which house the headquarters of such corporate giants as Alcoa and Wilson Sporting Goods. Inside, on dark wood cupboards, sit stacks of empty packages for products like Capri Sun and Keebler cookies. And on Gordon’s mind sit multi-million dollar decisions, like a recent one involving $5 million and the flimsy label on Dasani water bottles. Did she grow up dreaming of directing a gigantic manufacturing company? Does anyone?

Gordon attended MIT at a time when the world was just beginning to let women pursue jobs other than Secretary, Teacher, and Nurse. As a self-described “math whiz” in high school, Gordon’s plan was simply to pursue course XVIII and become a math teacher. Everything changed, though, when she met a few bold women at MIT who were determined to be not nurses, but doctors (gasp!). From then on, Gordon sought out the toughest of challenges and attacked them with an almost superhuman vigor.

We certainly can’t understand exactly what Gordon’s MIT experience was like years ago. A telltale sign of that: I hardly recognized her brass rat because of its protruding shanks. However, we can learn a few timeless lessons from her career.

You don’t have to know exactly what you want to do, just know a little bit.

As Gordon’s undergraduate studies came to an end, her only career insight was that she loved solving problems. It wasn’t much, but it was enough to get started. Upon a professor’s recommendation, she enrolled in a one year Master’s program at MIT’s Sloan School of Management, hoping to prepare for the complex, open-ended problems that all organizations face. As one of only 20 women in her class, Gordon excelled at Sloan and decided what she wanted next... sort of.

“I liked intensity. I wanted to be in an environment where people worked really hard,” she recalled. At Sloan, people naturally recommended she go into consulting. So she joined the Boston Consulting Group. While she enjoyed her time with BCG -- meeting her husband in the Boston office, working for a stint in London, and opening a Chicago office -- she grew tired of advising companies on how to run their operations. She wanted to run her own.

You can experience success and fulfillment in the most unlikely of places.

Initially, I thought it was coincidence that Gordon ended up in manufacturing. It’s hardly the industry to put women in power. Gordon set the record straight. “I always wanted to be a pioneer. In industries like consumer products, I saw lots of women. But there were none in factories.” To me, it sounded like she was looking to pick a fight she wasn’t supposed to win. I was correct.

“It’s almost like I wanted to stack the deck against myself,” she said. It worked, though. A few years after leaving BCG, Gordon found herself doing corporate development and strategy for Tenneco, a manufacturing giant. Finally, with the real responsibility for a company’s success that she lacked in consulting, she flourished. She acquired companies and grew them from $50 million businesses to, say, $100 or 200 million. She climbed the ladder at Tenneco for 17 years, eventually becoming vice president of operations.

There will always be more.

You can’t go much higher than Gordon has in the corporate world. In the Montreal-based Alcan Inc., a perennial Fortune Global 500 and Global Most Admired company, Gordon is merely two levels below President and CEO Travis Engen ’67. Contrary to the perennial joke, the Harvard alumni are working for her. Gordon also noted her roster includes several Northwestern MBAs, largely due to her office’s proximity to the Kellogg School

More proof she’s reached a coveted position: She’s served on the boards of six multi-billion dollar corporations and she’ll never have to write another resume in her life. She clearly enjoys her job, but what’s her ultimate goal? “I decided a long time ago that I want to be CEO of a Fortune 500 company,” she said.

I think she’ll do it. Though given her passion for solving problems and penchant for picking fights she’s not supposed to win, I don’t think her path will stop there.

As for the paths we are just beginning, Gordon advised, “Find a challenge. Then pick the people. And don’t ever let yourself be pressured into a particular industry.”