This year’s recipients of Wellesley’s highest honor are Lulu Chow Wang ’66, investment trailblazer and philanthropic leader; Laura Wheeler Murphy ’76, public servant and civil liberties and civil rights advocate; and Mara Prentiss ’80, physicist and environmental revolutionary.
FULL THROTTLE IN FINANCE AND SERVICE
Lulu Chow Wang ’66
By Amita Parashar Kelly ’06
A palm reader once correctly inferred that “why” is the favorite word of Lulu Chow Wang ’66. The Wall Street leader and philanthropist has always had an insatiable curiosity, she says—a quality that drives her to want to better understand and improve the world.
Wang has had an illustrious career in finance, culminating in becoming founder and CEO of Tupelo Capital Management, a pioneering investment firm in New York that she named after the bucolic point on Lake Waban.
Students and alumnae also know her name because it graces the entrance of Wellesley’s Lulu Chow Wang Campus Center. The heart of campus, it opened in 2005 and is now affectionately referred to as “Lulu.” As an alumna who maintained a deep connection to students, Wang envisioned the center as a sorely needed place on campus for the community to gather and recharge.
“There was no place to go,” she says. “I didn’t want students to always go off campus to have a social life.” She and her husband, Tony, brought her vision to life with a record-breaking $25 million gift to Wellesley in 2000—at the time, the largest gift ever given to a women’s college. The innovative center features soaring spaces, cozy firelit corners, the student-run pub Punch’s Alley, and stunning views of Alumnae Valley. It quickly became the main hub of campus, a place where students come to study, socialize, and relax.
While the campus center is Wang’s physical campus landmark, she has also spent decades in service to Wellesley, deeply thoughtful about the needs of students and the larger community. She’s a trustee emerita of the Wellesley College Board of Trustees and a long-serving member of Wellesley’s Business Leadership Council, and in recent years she has helped grow and advance the College’s career education center.
One of four girls in a family of strong-minded women, Wang says her family “never thought we should have useless or decorative lives, but lives that mattered to our family and the world.” Wang came to the U.S. in 1948 with most of her family when she was 4. Her father was a Chinese Nationalist leader, and the family could not return after the Communist revolution in 1949. She quickly learned English and grew up among school friends and a strong Chinese American community.
Going to Wellesley was a financial challenge for her family, she says, but her mother advocated for her to attend. She looks back at her time as a student with both gratitude and a little regret: “I couldn’t focus as much when I was there,” she says, “it was so much fun … I spread myself thin, grazing rather than feeding deeply. But I’m glad I spread my wings and tried everything.” She left behind some high school interests, like athletics, and seized the chance to explore her love for science and the arts—passions that are embedded in her personal and professional pursuits today.
The sense at Wellesley that students should know their purpose made a deep impression on her. “We took ourselves very seriously in that regard,” she says. “That was such great preparation for going into a highly competitive field that was primarily male. … You had to have an inner drive to get where you wanted to be.”
Wang met Tony as a teenager, and they married in their early 20s. She initially stayed home while he pursued his work on Wall Street as a securities lawyer. But they always loved to share each other’s interests, she says, and even enjoyed “friendly competition” at times. When their son started school, her curiosity led her to Wall Street. She joined that world without any experience or mentors, but she was eager to learn how things worked and why some businesses succeed and others fail. She leveraged her Wellesley writing skills into a position as a financial editor, and after realizing she loved investing even more than editing, she worked her way over to the investment side, earning an M.B.A. from Columbia Business School along the way.
“It was an intellectual challenge that was just intoxicating,” she says. “The idea of finding opportunities that other investors hadn’t quite discovered. Developing a successful thesis and then investing in it before others gave me a competitive high that was even more rewarding than a financial windfall.” She was able to succeed on Wall Street, she says, by tapping into the passion for excellence she had honed at Wellesley.
She’s spent the decades since then building the kind of base of support for women in finance that had not been available to her early on. “I couldn’t be more emphatic about the importance of women helping women,” she says. “I’ve always felt that my particular contribution has been able to provide that helping hand for other women.”
President Emerita Diana Chapman Walsh ’66, a classmate who worked closely with Wang to develop the campus center, calls her a “truly remarkable woman.”
“She has done as much or more for Wellesley than any living alumna,” Walsh says. “Lulu is quite simply a marvel—brilliant, indefatigable, full of enthusiasm and creativity, innately generous, impeccably kind. And she is always on the lookout for ways to help other women succeed.”
To succeed but also maintain balance, Wang says, women have to be mindful about how and where they spend their time. These days, she serves on many boards and is as occupied as ever—but she also finds time for the hobbies she shares with her husband. They are avid collectors of American art and also collect, restore, and rally vintage race cars. When she spoke to Wellesley, she was preparing to go to a women’s car rally in the Swiss Alps.
She advises Wellesley alumnae who are struggling to balance competing demands to “think carefully if what is being proposed to you aligns with your core interests or values,” she says. “Women who are talented are always going to have so many things brought to them. We need to really be selective.”
Wang has clearly taken her own advice—by dedicating her life to doing what she can to advance women, Wellesley, and the world.
FIGHTING FOR A MORE PERFECT UNION
Laura Wheeler Murphy ’76
By Karen Jordan ’91
When Laura Wheeler Murphy ’76, president of consulting firm Laura Murphy & Associates, was halfway through a yearlong Advanced Leadership Initiative fellowship at Harvard in 2016, she received a phone call from Airbnb. The company had a discrimination problem, and it needed her counsel.
“They had a social media campaign directed against them called #AirbnbWhileBlack, and there was a Harvard Business School study, and both pointed to the fact that some African Americans could be denied listings that their white counterparts were able to get, and so they needed help in addressing that crucial civil rights problem,” Murphy says.
She subsequently led a pioneering civil rights audit, which resulted in a report outlining the policy and product changes Airbnb planned to make to help fight discrimination. It yielded the results Airbnb was looking for, and soon after, Facebook came calling as well. Murphy’s work led to many changes at Facebook aiming to enhance protections for marginalized communities, including the creation of a civil rights team, the first of its kind at a technology company or a corporation of its size.
“We were able to make changes that affected millions of people’s lives and, in the case of Facebook, billions of people’s lives,” Murphy says. “There were very tangible outcomes to the work; that was very satisfying.”
The Baltimore native hails from a family of civil rights leaders—her father, a judge, is a veteran of the ACLU—and she has long been on the cutting edge of advocacy and civil rights. She worked as the ACLU’s Washington, D.C., legislative office director for 17 years, the first woman and first African American in the role and the longest-serving person in the position.
“A smart, dogged, charming, and charismatic leader, Laura doesn’t take no for an answer and has rarely had to settle for it,” says Anthony Romero, executive director of the ACLU. “I have benefited from her acumen and partnership, and I treasure her friendship. The United States of America is a more perfect union because Laura spent decades perfecting it.”
A former president of Ethos who also helped lead efforts on campus to get tenure for two professors in the Department of Black Studies, Murphy credits Wellesley with teaching her important leadership lessons.
“The Wellesley experience demonstrated to me that women should be presidents of things,” Murphy says. “They should be presidents of colleges. They should be deans. They should be experts. Just to see women in every conceivable leadership role in a prestigious institution, and to see how women wielded power, left a huge impression on me. How naturally it came to us if we had the opportunity. I think that was the biggest part of my Wellesley experience.”
Going to Wellesley was originally her parents’ idea. Her mother was enamored with the idea of a women’s college and was greatly influenced by the achievements of her aunt Evangeline Rachael Hall, one of the earliest African Americans to graduate from Radcliffe. Murphy’s father insisted she apply to a small number of colleges, including Wellesley, Radcliffe, and Brown University.
“I said, ‘I can’t get into those schools,’ and he said, ‘You will get into all of those schools,’ and he was right,” Murphy recalls.
She ended up being more impressed with Wellesley than Radcliffe, and she fell in love with the campus. “I liked the feel of Wellesley a lot better,” she says.
Though she switched her major from political science to history, she was still interested in politics, so the summer before her senior year, she interned with Rep. Parren Mitchell, the first African American congressman to represent Maryland.
He offered her a job on Capitol Hill after graduation, and Murphy worked for Mitchell, whom she admired, for nearly two years before finding out he was not paying the women on his staff as much as the men.
“So I asked for a meeting with him, and he said, ‘Laura, you know men have to support their families, and one day you’ll get married and a man will support you,’” Murphy says. “I loved that man. I loved him. He was gracious, brilliant, but really set in his ways. I adored him, and he loved me, but I had to go because I just couldn’t tolerate that injustice, because I knew I was working just as hard and as productively as my male colleagues.”
She later discovered there was an opening in the office of Rep. Shirley Chisholm, the first African American woman in Congress. Working as her legislative assistant was empowering, Murphy says.
“It was pretty much a women-run show, which was quite unusual on Capitol Hill,” she says. “We called ourselves the Chisettes. She was just a remarkable person to work for.”
One of the traits Murphy admired most was the way Chisholm skillfully used her feminine power as much as her masculine power. Murphy says Chisholm wowed those around her.
“Her wigs were always perfectly coiffed, and she was flirtatious, but not in an overtly sexual way, but she was just friendly,” Murphy says. “She had a giggle. The men loved her, and she knew how to count votes. She had the inside scoop because men felt comfortable around her. They confided in her, so she didn’t try to out-male the men. She just was herself, and I learned that you didn’t have to lose your femininity as a condition of being powerful.”
While she loved the experience, Murphy wanted to be more than a mouthpiece for elected officials, so when she was recruited by the ACLU two years later, it seemed a perfect fit. There, she helped work on a successful extension of the Voting Rights Act, then relocated to Los Angeles, where she became director of development for the ACLU Foundation of Southern California.
She was later recruited by Willie Brown, the first African American speaker of the California State Assembly. Working as the chief of staff in his L.A. office was an “amazing” experience, says Murphy, who refers to Brown as a “a political genius.”
Murphy eventually moved back to Washington and served as the city’s director of tourism before returning to the ACLU, where she managed high-profile legislative and communications campaigns on criminal justice, the First Amendment, equality, and national security issues. She has received the Hubert H. Humphrey Civil and Human Rights Award, among other commendations.
Win or lose, Murphy never stops fighting. “I always wanted to be known for what I delivered on behalf of people who can’t fight for themselves,” she says.
SOLVING THE UNSOLVABLE THROUGH PHYSICS
Mara Prentiss ’80
By Amita Parashar Kelly ’06
Part of what attracted Mara Prentiss ’80 to physics was that it was “the Marine Corps of the sciences,” she says. “It was the toughest, ugliest, and hardest, and I was determined to prove I could do it.”
Prentiss did prove she could do it—and a lot more. In 1995, she became the second woman to receive tenure from the physics department at Harvard, just four years after she started teaching there. Now the university’s Mallinckrodt Professor of Physics, Prentiss has founded a new field in physics: atom lithography. She has received several teaching prizes, has been named a fellow of the American Physical Society, and supervised the work of a student who won the society’s prestigious Apker Award.
She also runs the Prentiss Research Lab, where much of her current research focuses on DNA and the principles of self-assembly, specifically proteins that play a role in DNA recombination and repair. Some of her former students now work in her lab; as she explains it, she really tries to help people get what they want from science.
Beyond her work advancing the fundamentals of physics and science, Prentiss is deeply committed to its practical applications. She has tackled some of the world’s greatest challenges using her perspective as a scientist, becoming a leading source of information on the most effective ways to conserve energy as the world deals with a climate crisis. She has long advised the U.S. government on energy and, along with former students, made one of the first calculations proving that SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, is airborne.
At Wellesley, she built her foundation in physics with Ted Ducas, now professor emeritus of physics, who became her thesis advisor, and she honed her problem-solving skills and ability to work across disciplines as a triple major in physics, math, and philosophy. Those departments were very different, she says, but each made a deep impression. Mathematics professor Alan Shuchat, for example, didn’t like his students to take notes—a lesson, Prentiss says, in the importance of paying attention and mastering the material well enough to incorporate it into the rest of their lives. She marveled at the natural world around Wellesley, going for long walks on campus, while also enjoying peaceful corners of the library. Those pieces of campus, she says, gave her something “outside of school and outside of stress and pressure.”
Ducas encouraged Prentiss to pursue a graduate degree in physics at MIT. Working from a list of professors he gave her, she typed out letters, one by one, and shoved them under doors until one of those doors opened—belonging to Professor Shaoul Ezekiel. He would later become her graduate thesis advisor, but her first job in his lab was to label a couple of hundred mirrors, each with different properties. She spent her spring break meticulously making an outline of all the mirrors and their properties, only to have the professor come in, rub a label off with acetone, and ask her to redo all her work using the correct pen. A first test in resilience and commitment.
That resiliency and commitment have stayed with her throughout her career as she has addressed seemingly unsolvable problems, including climate change and COVID-19. Though she researches the world’s more perplexing issues, she describes herself as a fundamentally “extremely optimistic” person. “I believe it’s helpful to think about all the things we can do,” she says, “it’s paralyzing to do otherwise. You have to start somewhere.”
She’s applied that principle to energy conservation, the focus of her book Energy Revolution: The Physics and the Promise of Efficient Technology. In it, she makes the case that the world is capable of an energy revolution to stave off climate change, if only we have the courage and the motivation to enact change.
Her goal is to provide information so that people can “think about how to make energy decisions in a reasonable way,” she says. Wind turbines, for example, are incredibly effective when they are put in windy places and the energy is distributed; installing a little one on your roof “is not anything but decorative,” she says. She has put forth a bold suggestion—that wind and solar power alone could generate 100% of the United States’ average total energy demand now. And energy changes, she argues, don’t necessarily have to sacrifice people’s quality of life—Iowa, for example, embraces wind power now because it is helpful to farmers.
She has also advised the government on energy use, as the military has long been interested in how to use energy well. “To get a gallon of gas to Afghanistan costs about $120,” she says. Her work involved analyzing scenarios in which it was best to use solar or diesel instead of gas.
Recent sky-high oil prices, she says, have forced more people to think about energy and where it comes from. The key to encouraging change on a broader scale and within a scientific framework, Prentiss says, “is finding things that fit into the culture people already have, rather than ordering them to change the culture.”
In October 2020, she again put her knowledge to practical use, working with a former student to publish a paper that examined five COVID-19 superspreader events and concluding that the virus spreads when airborne. Her lab is currently working on antibacterial applications of her DNA and RNA work—testing whether it’s working and whether it works better than anything that is commercially available.
Prentiss, her wife says, is someone who “really likes to see things happen in the world.”
Prentiss agrees with that assessment. “I want to see that growth happens in the world,” she says, “to see that something I have thought about comes to exist in the world or to have an impact on the way the world is.”
Amita Parashar Kelly ’06 is a supervising producer at NBC News who also loves the word “why.”
Karen Jordan ’91 is a multimedia journalist whose background includes working as a television reporter and producer. She is also developing a skin care line, EmmGerri, inspired by a body cream her mother created on her kitchen stove.