Maria Clawe – President, Harvey Mudd College

Harvey Mudd College (HMC) is led by Maria Klawe, HMC’s fifth president, who began her tenure in 2006. A renowned computer scientist and scholar, President Klawe is the first woman to lead the college since its founding in 1955. Prior to joining HMC, she served as dean of engineering and professor of computer science at Princeton University. During her time at Princeton, Klawe led the School of Engineering and Applied Science through a strategic planning exercise that created an exciting and widely-embraced vision for the school. At Harvey Mudd College, she led a similarly ambitious strategic planning initiative, “HMC 2020: Envisioning the Future.”

Maria joined Princeton from the University of British Columbia (UBC) where she served as dean of science from 1998 to 2002, vice president of student and academic services from 1995 to 1998, and head of the Department of Computer Science from 1988 to 1995. Prior to UBC, Maria spent eight years with IBM Research in California, and two years at the University of Toronto. She received her Ph.D. and B.S. in Mathematics from the University of Alberta.

Maria has made significant research contributions in several areas of mathematics and computer science, including functional analysis, discrete mathematics, theoretical computer science, human-computer interaction, gender issues in information technology, and interactive-multimedia for mathematics education. Her current research focuses on discrete mathematics.

Maria is one of 10 members of the board of directors of Microsoft Corporation, a board member of Broadcom Corporation and the nonprofit Math for America, a fellow of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences, a trustee for the Mathematical Sciences Research Institute in Berkeley, and a member of both the Stanford Engineering Advisory Council and the Advisory Council for the Computer Science Teachers Association. She was elected as a fellow of the Association of Computing Machinery in 1996 and as a founding fellow of the Canadian Information Processing Society in 2006.

1. How do you define success?
I’m very goal-oriented so, to me, success is making progress on my key goals.

2. What is the key to success?
It’s a combination of picking the right goal (namely, something important), creating a strategy to achieve the goal, assembling a team or network to work on the goal, persisting in the face of difficulty (everything important is hard to achieve), being willing to re-evaluate the strategy when needed, and asking for help from others.

3. Did you always know you would be successful?
When I was young (under 30 or so), I was sure I would be successful. As I grew older (and became more successful), I developed the imposter syndrome which was exacerbated by a serious head injury at the age of 43. So, these days I feel like a failure most of the time, but I don’t let that stop me from constantly trying to make the world a better place.

4. When faced with adversity, what pushes you to keep moving forward?
It’s a combination of having a strong support system (my husband, my children, my sisters, and my friends) and an intensely stubborn nature. The easiest way to get me to work on something is to tell me that it’s impossible.

5. What is the greatest lesson you’ve ever learned?
That I learn more from failure than success. I hate failing, but over time, I have recognized that each time I fail, I have to learn new skills and approaches to overcome the failure.

6. What do you enjoy doing in your spare time?
Watercolor painting, kayaking, hiking, reading, bird watching, being with my family and friends, and being with my cats.

7. What makes a great leader?
A leader creates a community and a vision that empowers everyone to do their best work and to support each other in jointly making progress toward the vision.

8. What advice would you give to college students about entering the workforce?
Choose a workplace with a mission you believe in and that has a supportive environment and a manager you respect. Try to help others be successful. Volunteer for projects that will help you learn new skills and knowledge. Build a professional network outside your workplace. Don’t let fear of failure stop you from taking on ambitious challenges. Mentor more junior colleagues or students. You will learn as much from them as they will from you. If you can’t find work that inspires you, learn some new skills that will increase your opportunities. For example, no matter what your area of interest is at the moment, learning some computer science will make you more desirable as an employee.


This interview is an excerpt from Success: 30 Interviews with Entrepreneurs & Executives by Jason Navallo.

This interview was conducted for research purposes by Jason Navallo for his upcoming book, Underdog.