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.
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.