Dr. Irma Becerra Blazes the Way for Female Educators in South Florida
Named First Hispanic and First Lay Woman President of Marymount University
With a career in South Florida spanning over 30 years, seasoned educator and university administrator Dr. Irma Becerra continues to set new bars for women and Hispanics in U.S. academia as the newly-appointed President of Marymount University. Dr. Becerra shares her thoughts on her storied career, the implications of her new role, the importance of mentorship, as well initiatives she has spearheaded that have greatly impacted South Florida students and the community at large.
Q: You have been pushing boundaries as a Hispanic woman in your distinguished career since day one. What are some of the moments that have been particularly meaningful for you?
A: Interestingly, I never realized I was “blazing trails” until I was well into the trail. For example, I studied electrical engineering at the University of Miami at a time when I was frequently the only woman in my class. I was particularly challenged with the electronics lab class, because as a kid I never tinkered with electronics—while most of my male classmates had prior experience. My first lab resulted in burning the transformers and my classmates refused to let me connect anything the remainder of the term. As a result, I chose to become an electronics lab instructor when I started my masters at the University of Miami, so I would push myself to master the topic. I still remember my outings with my friends, when one particular friend loved to tell everyone we met how I was studying engineering, which resulted in surprised looks all the time!
Later on, after working as an engineer for a few years at Florida Power & Light, I decided to go back to school to pursue a PhD in engineering and became the first woman to obtain that degree at Florida International University (FIU), which of course makes me very proud! I am now again a first, the first lay woman president at Marymount University, and again I am delighted to be blazing the trail for those coming after me.
Q: According to a study by Inside Higher Ed, less than 1% of university presidents in the United States are Hispanic women. How is being named Marymount University’s newest president an important moment in the history of U.S. academia?
A: Now more than ever, it’s important that we continue to persist to shatter misconceptions of gender-based limitations. One of the reasons I was particularly attracted to Marymount is because historically, Marymount was one of the first universities that opened its doors to women at a time that many state universities didn’t provide that access. In addition, Marymount was a pioneer in offering curriculum that prepared women for employment as early as the 1950s. Early on, Marymount was an innovator in providing students internships and engaged learning curriculum. Later on in the 1970s, it opened its doors to men, because men, most of whom worked for the nearby National Institute of Health, wanted to pursue the university’s phenomenal nursing program. Marymount’s mission of empowering women, providing access to all students and establishing a path to meaningful employment for graduates, aligns with my own mission and those initiatives that I’ve launched throughout my career.
Q: As a strong leader, manager and boss, you have mentored many others throughout your career. Why is mentorship important and what has the mentorship experience meant to you?
A: In my lifetime I’ve had, and continue to have, many mentors, but most of them didn’t look like me. I always say, if someone offers a hand, take it—and don’t forget to offer a hand to those coming after you. The recent announcement about my appointment as president has resulted in many congratulatory notes from prior students, direct reports, colleagues, superiors, friends and social media acquaintances, many who have shared ways in which I have touched their lives. I am both humbled and happy that this has served as an incentive and proof of what it is indeed possible. Perseverance does pay off.
During my career, I have launched many initiatives aimed at student success, including: launching the St. Thomas University Student Success Center, aimed at improving retention and graduation rates; FIU’s Fostering Panther Pride, in support of students previously in foster care; Miami’s Talent Development Network, aimed at creating an internship culture in Miami; and FIU’s Math Lab, aimed at improving student performance in mathematics. I am blessed that I had opportunities to make a difference, and that prospect is what continues to drive me.
Q: As a trailblazing leader in academia, business, engineering and entrepreneurship, what are some of your favorite projects and initiatives that have impacted the South Florida community?
A: One of my favorite initiatives was launching the Americas Venture Capital Conference. Having just returned to be the Pino Entrepreneurship Center Director at FIU from an appointment as a Sloan Scholar at Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Center for Information Research, it was clear that Miami’s entrepreneurship ecosystem was largely non-existent. I formed a team of high-powered entrepreneurs in South Florida and we ignited entrepreneurship in Miami and the region through this event. The rest is history: the eMerge Americas conference, The LAB Miami, Venture Hive, and many other entrepreneurial incubators, accelerators and venture conferences followed. Fast forward to 2017, the Kauffman Foundation ranked Miami number one for launching new ventures. It’s amazing how one initiative could have such an impact in our South Florida economy, as well as throughout the Americas!