Mary Curtis, '94
By Jessica Iverson, ’12
A microbiologist by training, Mary Curtis, ’94, left her PhD program after a growing interest in industry over academia led her to seek out another career path. She joined Baxter in the early 1990s, first managing a laboratory before moving into a corporate quality assurance role. It was a great fit for Mary’s skills and interests, and she began Booth’s Evening MBA program to strengthen her business acumen. A reorganization at the company around that time led Mary to a role with a business development team, an area of the business that appealed to her. It seemed she had found the right path.
However, as is often the case, life offered another path. Newly married, Mary and her husband made the decision she would stay at home to raise their family, a role she relished as her children grew. Four years later, Mary’s husband passed away and it became even more important that she be available for her two children and two stepchildren. But as her children reached their junior high and high school years, Mary felt like the time was right to renew her career.
In 2016, she launched an 18-month search for her next job—16 years after leaving her last professional role. Looking for a new job is always difficult, but Mary found herself with the added stress of having been out of the workforce for so long. “Everything had changed,” she explains. “Technology, expected skills and experience, even the design of the workplace was different.”
Mary certainly wasn’t alone in facing this career obstacle. A 2004 Harris Interactive survey found that 43 percent of highly qualified female professionals with children leave work voluntarily at some point in their careers.
Facing the ups and downs
During her job search, Mary relied on support from her sister, who was in the midst of her own job search, her friends, and the Booth network. “Your friends and network want to help you when you’re facing a challenge, and it’s important to give them the opportunity to help in those times,” she says. “You have to be open to that help.”
In addition to tapping into her support system, Mary sought out as many resources as possible to aid in her search. One of those resources was the newly created ReLaunch, a Chicago Booth program intended to help alumnae who are reentering the workforce after an extended leave. Mary was part of the first ReLaunch cohort, and she credits the workshop with providing both practical tips about resume writing and job search tools, as well as collegial support from the Booth staff and other women who were on a similar path.
“I felt like the ReLaunch staff were dedicated to helping us and really wanted us to succeed,” Mary says. “Being with others who were also looking for jobs after time away from the workforce reminded me I wasn’t in this alone. I kept in touch with many of them throughout my job search.”
Mary had also learned during her job search about the Booth Alumni Nonprofit Consulting (BANC) group. Started in 2015 by alumnae Gayle Haller, ’87, and Judy Maley, ’84, and staffed by Booth volunteer alumni at every stage of their careers, the group aims to assist local nonprofit organizations with real-world problems ranging from marketing to strategy to finance.
Mary remembers her involvement with BANC as helping her become more current in some of her skills. Most importantly though, her projects with BANC helped her see the bigger picture. “Working on projects with BANC gave me a renewed sense of purpose,” she says. “For the first time in a long time, I was applying my skills to help an organization and learning from a diverse team of talented colleagues. It was really fulfilling work.”
But Mary acknowledges that her job search was also, at times, very discouraging. She focused her attention on how to learn from the inevitable downfalls. “I continued to ask myself ‘what is the lesson here?’ and how can I use this to address gaps and continue to progress,” she says.
Mary’s most important advice for women facing a challenging job search? “Remember your value—to your family, your friends, your future employer.”
Now with Fermilab, a high energy physics lab based in Batavia, Illinois, in a mission-supporting quality assurance role, Mary is energized by her work and her team. “My group at Fermilab is driven by curiosity, and we’re all open to new perspectives and approaches,” she says. “They offered me a role based on what I could bring to it, even if that experience wasn’t gained in the workforce.”
“I’m so fortunate that I have a fascinating place to work, with colleagues who are smart and dynamic. When I was looking for my next role, it was important to me to find a great team to work with. This is what gets me up in the morning.”
As Mary looks to the future, she’s certain of two things: she’ll keep learning and she’ll remain open to what’s next.
“After what I’ve experienced in life, I no longer make long-term plans,” she says. “But I’m always open to the next opportunity and the next chance to explore something new. I’m very grateful for where I am.”
You can connect with Mary Curtis, ’94 on LinkedIn. Jessica Iverson, '12 is a writer and independent PR and communications consultant based in Chicago.