Women in Business: Woman executive of the year Mary Lou Young leaves mark on nonprofit, for-profit sectors

Last updated on July 3rd, 2019 at 12:04 pm

Having recently completed a successful decades-long career spanning the corporate and nonprofit sectors, Mary Lou Young says she wouldn’t change a thing.

With the perspective and reflection that retirement brings, Young said she sees how each step of her career led her to where she needed be, culminating in her role overseeing global community relations for Rockwell Automation Inc. and later helming the United Way of Greater Milwaukee & Waukesha County.

“How lucky am I that I would do the same career again?” Young said. “The entire thing; I would do the same route. I didn’t feel that way every day, but I certainly feel that way now.”

Following her retirement from Rockwell in 2009, Young joined the United Way as chief executive officer and president. During her tenure, she steered the Milwaukee organization’s merger with its counterpart in Waukesha County, oversaw substantial growth in its annual campaign and guided efforts to move the needle on social issues, including teen pregnancy.

“I would describe her as a force for good,” said Lynn Sprangers, a former United Way board member and co-chair of its 2009 campaign. “She has this unbridled passion for building a better community. In spite of the fact that most people would look at Mary Lou and say she’s such a success story and she’s done so much good, I know that she always thinks she could do more.”

For her contributions, Young will receive the BizTimes Woman Executive of the Year Award at the Women in Business breakfast during the BizExpo conference on May 30 at Potawatomi Hotel & Casino.

While United Way is known for being a funding agency, Young’s former colleagues said she helped expand the organization’s role as a community convener, where deep-rooted challenges could be addressed in collaboration with other partners.

Addressing teen pregnancy became a high-priority issue for Young early on in her time with United Way.

“I wanted to be part of the change; I wanted to be part of giving young women a stronger infrastructure and some hope,” Young said.

She was a founding member of the United Way-led Teen Pregnancy Prevention Initiative and Collaborative Fund in Milwaukee, which has gained national recognition for its successful efforts to reduce the rate of teen births over the past decade.

The United Way and the City of Milwaukee in 2013 announced it had surpassed its goal to reduce the rate of teen births by 46% three years ahead of schedule, and set another goal to further reduce that rate by 50% by 2023.

“Everyone at the table had worked for 20 years and hadn’t made progress, but they hadn’t worked together. We did collaborative impact before it was in vogue, before people talked about it,” Young said. “…It isn’t all about the United Way. It is all about the United Way helping to lead the community to get to the right social change. You have to get the right people at the table.”

Young is also a longtime member of United Way’s Tocqueville Society and founding member of United Way’s Women United in Milwaukee, which is the largest women’s leadership council in annual giving in the United Way network.

Cory Nettles, board chair of United Way, said Young’s impact, both as an influential woman leader and as someone who’s mentored women in Milwaukee, is another stamp she’s left on the community.

“She was a woman in a man’s world,” Nettles said. “She worked in a male-centric engineering company. To have been successful in that environment was no small matter, but to then translate into lessons for other people to learn from made her very effective. Because of her maturity and professional success and her high emotional intelligence, I’ve seen her translate that into being a strong and effective advocate for women, and a mentor and coach for women.”

Her final year as CEO brought the completion of a “bucket list” project for Young: the new volunteer center at the United Way’s Schlitz Park headquarters. The Johnson Controls Volunteer Center, which opened in August 2018 thanks to a $1 million gift from the company, today hosts group volunteer projects, training and workshops, community conversations, supply drives and donor events.

“I wanted it to be a hub,” Young said. “I wanted people to say ‘I’ll meet you at the United Way.’”

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Lauren Anderson
Lauren Anderson covers health care, nonprofits, education and insurance for BizTimes. Lauren previously reported on education for the Waukesha Freeman. She graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where she studied journalism, history and African studies. In her free time, Lauren enjoys spending time with family and friends and seeing live music wherever she can.