Sallyanne Harper, ’76, remembers the call. She doesn’t think she will ever forget it, actually.
An agency sought Harper’s help. It needed to find $8 billion that had gone unaccounted for in its financial system. Harper’s MBA is in finance and investment, not financial management. She feared she wasn’t an appropriate fit for the role.
She took the job anyway, in one of those sink-or-swim career moments. She set up an entire office in no time, surrounding herself with talented colleagues who fit the roll-up-your-sleeves mold.
“I had a dear friend who said I built my career on disasters, and I think it’s true,” Harper said. “What I learned is there are always people at the beginning of a project who are willing to wave the flag and help, and those at the end willing to take the victory lap. You need to find the people in the middle—cajoling and pushing through, even when you’re learning the ropes yourself.”
Moments like this have epitomized Harper’s career. She is the inaugural recipient of La Salle University’s Women in Leadership Award. The award is conveyed to an alumna who melds career distinction and community engagement, with Lasallian values in her personal and professional life. The 6 p.m. award ceremony on Friday, April 16 follows the University’s first Women in Leadership Conference, held from 9 a.m. – 12 noon.
La Salle’s Alumni Career Committee, chaired by Joe Markmann, Ph.D., MBA ’06, ’96, pored over 40 nominations for the Women in Leadership Award, said Trey Ulrich, ’99, MBA ’02, La Salle’s senior director of alumni engagement and annual giving.
“Sallyanne’s nomination rose to the top,” Ulrich said. “Her personal and professional accomplishments fully exemplify the employment of Lasallian virtues and values. In recognizing her life-long achievements, we are demonstrating to current and future La Salle students the great opportunities that they can achieve with a La Salle education rooted in the core values of faith, service, and community.”
Today, Harper’s distinguished career continues as an adjunct professor at Brookings Executive Education. She’s also an independent board member for the Federal Accounting Standards Advisory Board. Previously, Harper was the chief financial officer for the Environmental Protection Agency, among other roles and career destinations.
Save the date
It’s not too late to register for La Salle’s inaugural Women in Leadership Conference—scheduled for Friday, April 16 and open to University alumnae.
Harper’s professional journey began at La Salle, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology in 1976 and, later, and honorary doctorate of humane letters.
She grew up in Philadelphia’s Roxborough neighborhood, where she was one of six children—including five daughters—born to a La Salle graduate (Thomas B. Harper, III, ’48) and a Chestnut Hill College graduate (Frances McCarron Harper). It was assumed, she said, that she would attend Chestnut Hill—just as her mother and older sister, Patricia Harper Petrozza, had.
“I wanted for once in my life to be somewhere where I wasn’t ‘one of the Harper girls,’” she said. “Being sandwiched between my sisters, who are brilliant, was difficult.”
Harper wanted to cast a wide geographic net when initiating her college search. Her parents, she recalled, placed a dinner plate over a map and drew a large circle around Philadelphia, denoting their permissible search parameters. That narrowed her search considerably.
“I am so glad I chose La Salle,” Harper said. “It made me.”
Her time at La Salle overlapped with some of the first classes of female students being admitted to the University’s undergraduate day program. Federal legislation known as Title IX passed in 1972. La Salle hired its first female athletic director and established a women’s center on campus the same year—creating further opportunities for the University’s female students, she recalled.
“I met a diverse group of people—from every race and nationality, and from across the country. I am forever grateful to La Salle,” Sallyanne Harper
Above all, she said, the La Salle Honors Program shaped her.
“Nowhere else have I ever found that amount of dedication to student development,” said Harper, whose husband Francis J. Nathans Jr., ’78, is also a La Salle alumnus. “The time spent by professors in the classroom and in the moderation of extra-curricular activities, that was special to La Salle.”
Harper’s experience at La Salle inspired her sisters Kate, ’78, and Beth, ’80, to enroll at 20th and Olney, as did their brother Tom, ’84.
“My mother never forgave me for my sisters following me there,” Harper said with a laugh, “but it was a unique opportunity to learn in such a rich environment. I met a diverse group of people—from every race and nationality, and from across the country. I am forever grateful to La Salle.”
In addition to Harper, the event’s programming includes keynote speaker Madeline Bell, president and CEO of Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.
Bell began her career as a pediatric nurse at CHOP before segueing into hospital administration. CHOP has grown significantly under her leadership and, today, has nearly 20,000 employees and a $3.2 billion budget.
Bell has always enjoyed attending in-person events and networking opportunities, she said, because they created moments for her to offer advice and guide younger professionals on career strategy. The pandemic may have shifted face-to-face events into virtual gatherings, but her role at La Salle’s Women in Leadership Conference is not lost on her.
“When I talk to my team at CHOP, I always say that it’s easy to be a leader when things are going well. When things aren’t going so well—like when you’re facing multiple crises in the middle of a pandemic—being a leader is incredibly hard,” Bell said. “Now more than ever, we need to lean on each other and support each other. I’m honored to speak at the Women in Leadership Conference because I’ve learned a lot over the last year, and I want to share what I’ve learned with other women.”
—Christopher A. Vito