Nancy Dorn arrived in Washington in 1981 with $1,000, seven cartons of stuff, and no job. The Texas native had been working on small-town newspapers but says, “I wanted to make news rather than report it.” Dorn, 47, started knocking on congressional doors and landed a job as a press assistant to Tom Loeffler, a Republican congressman from Texas. Six years later Loeffler ran for governor and lost, but Dorn had earned enough political points to move to the Reagan White House as a special assistant for legislative affairs.
A few years later, at age 33, President George H.W. Bush nominated Dorn to be the first woman and the youngest person to serve as an assistant secretary of the Army, heading the Corps of Engineers. How did a young female civilian deal with the senior military officers?
“I was not a known quantity in the Pentagon. I had a one-star Marine general who was supposed to work for me,” she says. “It took a few months before he realized that I had a wealth of experience in the legislative and executive branches. I had come from the White House. I had connections to the Secretary of Defense.”
Dorn’s secret of success: Bring something to the table. The corps had been having problems with the Office of Management and Budget. Dorn may not have known how to build steel bridges, but she did know how to build personal bridges among the Pentagon, the OMB, and Congress. As a result, the Corps of Engineers broadened its mission to include environmental cleanup.
When Bush left office in 1993, Dorn joined a lobbying firm. It was a welcome break for the young mother. “Being out of power, you have time to do things with your kids,” she says. But by 2000, when House speaker Dennis Hastert beckoned, Dorn was ready to go back. She worked for Hastert on foreign policy and defense issues, then moved into a new Bush administration, first as an assistant to Vice President Dick Cheney for legislative affairs and then as deputy OMB director.
But demanding administration jobs didn’t leave her much time to spend with her preteens. “If you’re lucky, you have choices,” she says. When she was offered the job of running General Electric’s Washington office, she took it.
Washington is a good town for “alpha females,” Dorn says. “Look at Condi Rice—she is so far from being a token.” So is Nancy Dorn.
Banking on the right priorities
Catherine West, 46, did not grow up dreaming of dollar signs. She got her first job at Chevy Chase Federal Savings Bank in 1984 because the bank had a solid reputation, offered a training program, and was located near her ailing father.
West, a Washington native, had just graduated from Lynchburg College. “I went in as a young girl, and Lynchburg touched my soul for four years,” she says. “I came out a confident woman.”
It was a heady time for young women. Geraldine Ferraro had just been nominated for vice president. “I had a sense I could do anything I put my mind to,” West recalls.
It was a heady time for Chevy Chase Bank, too. The bank was starting its first credit-card program, and West was one of the first three people hired. Being part of a start-up fueled her enthusiasm and ambition. Six years later, West was vice president of the bank’s credit-card serving operation, handling nearly $5 billion in managed loans. She moved to First USA Bank in Wilmington, Delaware, and joined Capital One in 2000.
In 2004, she became president of US Card, the largest division of Capital One Financial. She directs all product, marketing, and consumer-service activities for more than $48 billion in managed loans and $7.9 billion in revenues. Capital One is the last company she’ll ever work for, she says: It has a culture that “promotes women and diversity of thought.”
West’s secret of success: “It’s the company you keep. Seek out the kind of company where you can succeed, a company on a growth trajectory.”
West’s own idea of success changed when she became a mother. When her son, Will, was born nine years ago, West was working in Wilmington and returning to Chevy Chase most weekends. When she went into labor, she drove herself to the hospital and kept working on bank business until she was wheeled into the delivery room.
She took six weeks’ maternity leave. But after six months of juggling motherhood and management, she realized something had to change. At home in Wilmington one Saturday night when she and the baby were sick and her husband out of the country, she got a call from her boss at 10 o’clock asking her to come into work. West wrapped up the baby, went to the office, and asked a friendly security guard to keep an eye on Will.
After about an hour, West realized the absurdity of the situation. She picked up her baby and walked out and says she has never gone back to her workaholic ways. “A child helps you get your priorities straight,” she says. “It has made me a better person.”
And, she believes, a better manager. What impresses people who work for her most? “The fact that I’m a good mother,” she says.
Growing up in St. Paul, Betsy Nabel was fascinated by her father’s work as a scientist for the 3M Company. An inventor of ScotchGuard, he made research sound like an exciting voyage of discovery. But Nabel, 54, was a girl in a traditional Scandinavian family in Garrison Keillor country; nobody encouraged her to follow her father’s path. She went to St. Olaf’s College and studied psychology.
After graduation in 1974, Nabel left Minnesota to study at Columbia University. “Manhattan was the place to be,” she says. Ms. magazine was energizing women. Nabel realized she wanted to study medicine and enrolled in Cornell Medical School. One-third of her classmates were women.
At Cornell, Nabel first thought she wanted to be a surgeon. But she had heard about the treatment another female student had suffered from the head of surgery so instead chose cardiology. A stint in Africa working with volunteer doctors confirmed that she had made the right career choice. “I knew that I was using medicine to improve people’s lives.”
Nabel was back in the States doing a residency at Harvard-affiliated Brigham and Women’s Hospital when she met her husband. Gary Nabel was her intern, and she was reluctant to date him. But he won a bet with her about a patient’s diagnosis. The prize: dinner.
Their first child was born in the second year of a cardiology fellowship at Brigham and Women’s. Nabel smiles as she describes carrying breast milk in the same Igloo coolers used to transport hearts for transplantation.
When both had finished their training, the doctors Nabel were offered jobs on the faculty of the University of Michigan Medical School. Betsy was director of the Division of Cardiology, doing research in vascular biology and molecular cardiology, when the National Institutes of Health asked Gary to head the Vaccine Research Center in the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases in Bethesda.
“It was the opportunity of a lifetime,” Betsy says. But the Nabels insisted that they were a team—they wouldn’t move unless both were offered challenging opportunities—and NIH came through in 1999, making her scientific director of clinical research for the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. She started a cardiothoracic surgery branch and began to investigate the genetics of vascular diseases.
When the Institute’s top job opened, Nabel went after it. Her secret of success: Be bold. “It’s common for men to talk about their accomplishments,” she says. “It’s important to show our colleagues that women can be equal contributing partners.” She was named director of NHLBI in 2005.
Nabel has a budget of almost $3 billion, a staff of 850, and responsibility for research all over the country. She also has a bully pulpit—one she is using to tell women about their risk for heart disease. “Now we know that coronary artery disease kills more US women each year than all cancers combined.”
She also seeks to be a role model, which has had interesting consequences on the home front. When her five-year-old son was asked what he wanted to be when he grew up, he said, a cell doctor. “Only girls are heart doctors,” he added.