For decades, Mary Jo Kaplan, president of Kaplan Consulting LLC in Providence, has served as a kind of wise and sure-footed guide through the peaks and valleys of the Ocean State business world, guiding businesspeople – particularly women – along the path to their best possible decisions.
From her start in public service with Women’s Action for New Directions in 1984-1986, Kaplan has gone on to advise Rhode Island people working in the areas of social entrepreneurship, scientific research, talent retention, hospital management and more.
Kaplan, 50, was known as “the voice of reason” during a period some years ago when she was advising the management of Pease and Curren Refiners of Warwick, said Meredith Curren, who was then chief financial officer of the company and is now CEO of a private investment firm.
“Mary Jo is able to distill complex management challenges down to their simple essence and to get to the bottom and solve the problem,” Curren said. For instance, Curren said she wanted to establish an option of “mother’s hours” (a shortened workday ending at about school dismissal time) at Pease and Curren.
“Mary Jo helped us determine how to bring that into the structure of the company,” Curren said. “She is good at crafting the language to convey the message of organizational change to people.” Curren added, “You cannot just make changes; you have to set people up for success within that change, so that they can have clarity and understanding of their roles.”
On a person-to-person level, Curren said Kaplan advised her when Curren was trying to establish herself as an executive in a family-owned but still male-dominated business of precious-metals refining. “I had come from Smith College and Columbia Business School and I had an MBA,” Curren said of her start at Pease and Curren. “I would get on the phone [with a businessman] and he would say, ‘Can I speak to your husband?’ ” Curren added, dryly, “Mary Jo was a great person to run that by.”
Leslie Gell, director of Ready to Learn Providence, which operates under the auspices of The Providence Plan, said of Kaplan, “Mary Jo has a really unique ability to help people stay focused on their strengths while not being afraid to acknowledge their weaknesses. She helps people reframe their aspirations, but with a sense of humor and compassion for people’s limitations. She is able to help people acknowledge their limitations but does not allow them to wallow in them.”
Gell said Kaplan helped her in particular to weed through some difficult decision processes at Ready to Learn Providence. “I was coping with very complicated personnel issues and I had to make some difficult decisions that were calling me to question my own values,” Gell recalled. “Mary Jo helped me to articulate in my own mind what my underlying values were, and to use that as a guide to making the best decision for the organization.”
Do women in business need an extra level of advice and alliances from women colleagues? Gell said a female voice in the business world is important. “Women have a greater tolerance [than men] for the complexity and fullness of human relationships to be part of the workplace environment. Guidance from a woman has a special value for me.”
Jennifer Specker, a professor of oceanography at the University of Rhode Island who nominated Kaplan for the mentor award, became acquainted with Kaplan when the latter was hired to facilitate strategic planning to use National Science Foundation money for research in Rhode Island. “We wanted someone who would be neutral but constructive” in helping to craft the agreement, Specker said. “When you are working with Mary Jo you just instantly know that she is trustworthy and she is paying close attention to what you say.”
In the academic world maybe more than most places, Specker said, mentoring by older professionals or students and young professionals is essential for career-building. Men have done this among themselves forever but, to a large degree, women students and young careerists are left out of this dynamic. That is changing, Specker said, with help from people like Kaplan.
The need for guidance is not necessarily a function of age. “I am 59, but for the first time I am working in administration,” Specker said. “I need [Kaplan’s] guidance. She really helps me focus on what I need to do next to make change happen.”
Bari Harlam, senior vice president of pharmacy-benefits management for CVS Caremark Corp. and a friend of Kaplan’s, said, “Mentoring of women by women is very valuable. The structures of how things have always been done are part of the ingredient of how to change them to make them better. And women are new to that process.”
Kaplan said she hugely enjoys mentoring people, but she also believes it is important for accomplished people to pay it back. “Many people and many women have mentored me, and I am gratified for it,” Kaplan said. “I have always had the sense if someone touches you, it is your responsibility to help someone else.”
Shortly after she was graduated from Brown University in 1982, Kaplan worked for Women’s Action for New Directions, a Massachusetts-based organization with the mission of informing and empowering women interested in influencing government policy toward nuclear power and nuclear weaponry. Kaplan helped build a national network of chapters and served as a strategist and public speaker.
Kaplan worked at MetLife Auto & Home, Rhode Island through the 1990s. She was chosen for Leadership R.I. in 1994 and then served on the program committee and mentored many women. She helped broker the company’s first job-share and flex-time arrangements.
In addition to her work through Kaplan Consulting, Mary Jo Kaplan does mentoring work, including through Social Venture Partners of Rhode Island, and serves as a mentor to several young leaders as a board member of The Miriam Hospital. She serves on the Moses Brown School Development Committee and does service at the Rhode Island Community Food Bank. Kaplan is a mentor with Launch Pad, a Brown University program to support seniors to prepare to enter the work force.
Kaplan, who speaks Spanish, has been guiding a woman who arrived from Guatemala in the mid-1990s as a high school student. The woman dropped out of school and, with support from Kaplan and others, eventually completed a program as a certified nurse assistant. •