MBA alumna gives students insights into a senior executive's role in the not-for-profit world

Friday, May 1, 2015

Olena Paslawsky, Rutgers MBA ’78, was 30 years into a career in corporate finance when she decided to interview for a senior executive role with a not-for-profit. After nearly 20 interviews, she landed the job as chief financial officer for the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

"Not for profits," she said as she began a lecture highlighting the differences between the worlds of corporate and not-for-profit businesses, "like to interview."

Paslawsky, who also holds the titles of treasurer and senior vice president at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, was the featured speaker at Rutgers Business School’s CFO Lecture Series on April 23. With candor and humor, she spoke about her transition into the not-for-profit world as well as her enduring awe for one of the world’s most famous museums.

Olena Paslawsky, Rutgers MBA'78, poses with Rutgers Business School Dean Lei Lei.

The lecture series was created as a way of connecting Rutgers Business School-Newark and New Brunswick students with successful alumni and senior executives from across the region. "It’s very important for students to meet with prominent members of the business community,” Rutgers Business School Dean Lei Lei said in remarks welcoming Paslawsky and her audience.

Hear more: Olena Paslawsky's visit and insights captured on video

Lei recited the companies where Paslawsky had senior executive roles – Prudential and Chase, among them – before moving into the job of chief financial officer at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. "More importantly," Lei said, "she is a proud alumna of Rutgers Business School.”

The lecture series, which began in 2010, has showcased such other notable alumni as Michael O’Neill, chief executive officer of Broadcast Media Inc., Sheri McCoy, chief executive officer of Avon Products and Thomas Renyi, who led The Bank of New York Mellon from 1997 until 2008.

In her talk, Paslawsky said while private businesses typically measure their success by profits, not-for-profits base their success on how they well they are carrying out their mission of providing access and building membership. "Working in a not-for-profit is not for people who need a report card," she said.

After more than 30 years in Corporate America, Olena Paslawsky transitioned into the not-for-profit sector. She is CFO at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

At a not-for-profit, even senior level executives wear different hats, which is one of the things Paslawsky said she most enjoyed about her job. In addition to overseeing the museum’s budgeting and information technology department, she also runs the mailroom and the loading dock.

"You have to have an ability to accept that things are different at a not-for-profit," she said, "and know there is a balance between what the not-for-profit offers and the skills and abilities you bring."

As the current generation of executives retire from museums and other not-for-profits, Paslawsky said there will be a demand for individuals with business and management experience to step into leadership roles.

Olena Paslawsky chats with current MBA student Susan Smith at the CFO Lecture Series event.

"In the U.S., we are going to experience a leadership and skills gap. People who came through the ranks of the not-for-profits are retiring,” she said. “Not-for-profits are going to be looking for people who have business development and entrepreneurial skills.”

Paslawsky, who grew up in Newark and returns regularly to visit family, answered a few questions from Rutgers Business School before she began her talk inside Bove Auditorium on April 23.

Q: Do you find working at a not-for-profit more rewarding than working in Corporate America?

A: "I think it’s more rewarding. It’s more challenging. It is an entirely different career experience. After working for 30 plus years, you don’t expect to be surprised or to have an entirely new challenge so I think that brings a number of rewards with it. Also, walking into the museum every day and being confronted with the art and the beauty of the place and knowing that, somehow, I’m responsible for some small portion of that day-to-day operation is in and of itself each day a sort of renewal. I once asked the previous director, who had been director for 40 years, when does that feeling go away. He said, ‘Never.’"

Q: Do you have a favorite piece of art or a favorite spot in the museum?

A: "People always ask that question and there’s probably a few pat answers, but the fact is, the museum is massive that walking through it every day, I literally find something I haven’t seen before. It’s almost like where did this come from so I pause, I read something about it and for that moment it’s my favorite piece. I do have one or two places of serene quiet that are my go-to places when I need a moment of silence or solace. We have something referred to as the Astor Court, which is really set up to represent or duplicate a Chinese Garden and was actually built by artisans brought in from China. It is the closest thing probably to being in China, and it is one of my favorite spots."

Q: Can you tell us about the leadership gap that you see in the not-for-profit world?

A: "What you see happening with not-for-profits is they’re becoming more sophisticated. There’s much more competition and much of the current leadership was literally raised in the museum, not-for-profit environment. They’re retiring. They’re moving on, and there is no replacement population that has gone through the years of work experience that they have to provide the leadership but then again, they didn’t necessarily have the skills to deal with the realities of the current world so combine the two and I think we are going to confront a leadership gap."

Q: Why would you recommend the Rutgers MBA program to someone?

A: "The MBA program here opens up the world to you. It’s an amazing value for your money, and it’s viewed very highly in the business world. I never felt limited by not having an MBA from another program. The opportunities that were afforded to me at Rutgers, through internships and through the alumni, have been amazing.” 

-Susan Todd

TAGS: Alumni CEO Lecture Series Finance Full-Time MBA Lei Lei Thought Leadership