National business leader pays it forward in Idaho

Idahoans will have a unique opportunity this Thursday to hear from Mary Daly, the president of the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco, and one of the leading voices in business. President Daly will be speaking at Boise State about the “dual mandate” that the Federal Reserve has in our country, a timely subject given the Fed’s role right now in easing inflation. 

But there is another reason this week to think of President Daly and that is her passion for education, especially here in Idaho. Along with Idaho Business for Education, President Daly and her team are working to increase the go-on rate in our state. 

More on that later, but first it’s important to understand President Daly’s personal story, which also helps explain her passion for education.

In a commencement speech at Syracuse University three years ago, Mary shared her personal journey from a high school drop out to president of the San Francisco Federal Reserve. 

Mary was 15 years old, her family was in chaos, and she moved out of the house to stay with friends. A school counselor saw something in Mary and asked a friend of hers, a successful woman named Betsy, to meet with Mary. Their first meeting was in a McDonald’s parking lot.

“Betsy had the fanciest car I had ever seen,” Mary told the Syracuse graduates. “It had a tan leather interior, and when the sun shined in, it felt warm and safe. It was a refuge.”

Mary expected Betsy to give her all the answers to fix her life. Instead, Betsy said, “Mary, you have to bloom where you’re planted.”

Mary protested. “I said it wasn’t fair. I didn’t know how to manage my life. I was only 15. It all seemed too much. I blamed others, I blamed myself. For a moment I even blamed her. I felt lost.”

But Betsy said it again, this time more gently. “Mary, you have to bloom where you’re planted.”

After that first meeting, Betsy took Mary under her wing and encouraged her to get a GED. Then she encouraged Mary to attend college and offered to pay the first semester tuition. “Betsy is a nudger,” Mary recalled. 

“I never imagined college – I’d barely heard of it,” Mary confessed. “But I wanted to be like Betsy. And I certainly didn’t want to let her down. So, I went.”

But like a lot of young people, especially those who come from challenging backgrounds, Mary had a fear of failure, fear that she wasn’t good enough, and fear that she didn’t belong in college. “So, I worked day and night, and took as many classes as allowed, all in an attempt to catch up and boost my confidence. I told myself I could fake it until I made it.”

And make it Mary did. She received her bachelor’s degree in economics and philosophy and eventually ended up at Syracuse where she received her Ph.D. in microeconomics and social policy. From there she got her first job at the San Francisco Federal Reserve, rose through the ranks and in 2018 was named president of the San Francisco Federal Reserve.

“Now when people hear these details, they often conclude that I must be amazingly self-assured,” Mary told the graduates. “But the truth is, I’ve spent years struggling with my confidence. Wondering when, not if, I would be found out.”

Mary’s aha moment came when she realized other people weren’t judging her because of her past – she was her own saboteur. Instead of seeing her past as a negative, Mary decided to embrace it.

“We’re often taught to admire people who pull themselves up by their bootstraps and forge a path completely on their own,” Mary said. “It can make it hard to be vulnerable and ask someone for help. But I didn’t have that luxury of standing alone when I met Betsy at 15. It taught me that we all need Betsys – in fact, we need a lot of them throughout our lives.”

Mary discovered that her experiences “absolutely” defined her, but in a way she had never seen before. Her life experiences “make me focus on others, be tolerant of fresh starts, celebrate wins, and look for ways to contribute.”

So, what does Mary’s story have to do with Idaho and its students? Plenty.

Idaho is full of Mary Dalys, young people who come from disadvantaged backgrounds, students who lack confidence in themselves, and have no idea what career opportunities are out there or how to obtain the education and training to get one. But research shows that if they have a caring adult, especially a parent, they can get the confidence to go on and achieve personal and professional success.

Another reason Mary’s story is relevant is because she has made it a personal mission to help those Mary Dalys in Idaho become successful adults. In 2018, soon after she was named the San Francisco Fed President, Mary was in Idaho and met with the Idaho Business for Education Board of Directors.

At that meeting she listened to us talk about the challenges Idaho’s students face. We explained how Idaho has one of the lowest go-on rates past high school in the country. We explained that parents are the most influential people on the young people’s decision to go on or not. And, in Idaho, many parents even discourage their students from going on.

After meeting with IBE, Mary went back to San Francisco and asked her team how they could help more Idaho youth go on and achieve success in school, work, and life. They decided that if parents are the number one influencer on whether their children go on, that we should focus on educating the parents about the importance of postsecondary in helping their children obtain a good career.

Mary and her team brought the idea back to IBE and together we produced what is now known as the Within Reach program. The big idea behind Within Reach is that IBE and members of Mary’s team, along with local business leaders and educators, will conduct “lunch and learns” with employees – otherwise known as parents, grandparents, and guardians. We will explain how important it is for parents to become full partners in their young people’s education and how they can encourage their students to go on and get credentials for a good career.

We were supposed to launch Within Reach two years ago in the Idaho Falls School District, but it was delayed multiple times because of the COVID pandemic. Now we are launching Within Reach in Idaho Falls this week thanks to IBE members Idaho Steel, Hartwell Insurance, Eastern Idaho Regional Medical Center, and one non-member, the City of Idaho Falls. 

IBE and the Fed plan to launch the second pilot Within Reach program in southwest Idaho next winter. If we can successfully raise the go-on rate in these pilot programs, the plan is to take Within Reach to other school districts in Idaho. 

Mary Daly, that insecure and lost 15-year-old living with friends and having no idea how to improve her life, is now a “Betsy.” She is paying it forward, creating a virtuous cycle that began in that McDonald’s parking lot 40 years ago and continues this week helping thousands of young Idahoans obtain their own personal dream. 

Rod Gramer is president of Idaho Business for Education. Mary Daly will be speaking at the Special Events Center in the Boise State Student Union Building at 2:35 p.m. Thursday. You can register at this address: https://docs.google.com/forms/d/e/1FAIpQLSeydvtcmgWNPA2UJ8KusxZx_-Fjt6Z0cxlcvJAiSKEY3Jl1Ww/viewform

Rod Gramer

About Rod Gramer

Rod Gramer is president and CEO of Idaho Business for Education, a group of Idaho business leaders dedicated to education excellence.

Read more stories by Rod Gramer »

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