By Mark Kelly
“The young people of today are going to determine what happens with this country and what happens globally,” Mary Kate Bush said. “If we don’t mentor them and pass on our knowledge and our experiences and whatever wisdom we have managed to accumulate, they’re going to have a harder time.”
Bush was responding to a question about her longstanding commitment to mentoring students – “helping them see the importance of staying focused on what you want to accomplish,” as she put it. It’s a subject with which she has lifelong familiarity as the beneficiary of a network of adults – parents, neighbors, educators, ministers – whose active interest in her well-being and development helped prepare her for a successful Wall Street banking career and working for three U.S. presidents.
“I was being mentored, all the time,” Bush, 73, said of her upbringing and early professional career. “I didn’t know it at the time, but that’s what it was, and I know what it meant to me.”
Bush is chairman & founder of Washington D.C.-based Bush International, LLC who serves on several public company boards: Bloom Energy; Discover Financial Services; ManTech International Corporation and T. Rowe Price Group.
A Pioneering Path
Her story began in the segregated Birmingham of the post-World War II era. She recalled an awareness of the restrictions on – and violence against – Black citizens that increased as she and her friends grew into their teenage years and the city became a focal point of the civil rights movement. On the Sunday morning that Sixteenth Street Baptist Church was bombed, the 15-year-old Bush heard the blast while standing in her family’s kitchen in Birmingham’s Titusville neighborhood, nearly 3 miles away; later that day, she learned that two girls she knew were among the four killed in the blast.
But Bush also has near-idyllic recollections of life with family, friends and neighbors that surrounded her in Titusville. Asked to what she attributed that, Bush said that despite the legal, institutional and resource disadvantages to Blacks, the community was committed to ensuring that she and other children had opportunities to flourish – and to enjoy being children.
“Despite segregation, I have wonderful memories of Birmingham,” Bush said. “That’s largely because of my parents and teachers, our neighbors, the churches in the community. It was like a cocoon around us.”
After graduating from Ullman High School in 1965, Bush left Birmingham – first for Nashville and a degree from Fisk University, and then on to earn her MBA in Finance at the University of Chicago (now Chicago Booth School of Business). She spent more than a decade on Wall Street, in positions of increasing responsibility for three major commercial banks, before accepting appointment to a position at the U.S. Treasury Department in 1982.
Over the following 10 years, under Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, Mary Bush serving as the U.S. representative to the International Monetary Fund, as vice president of international finance for Fannie Mae and as head of the Federal Home Loan Bank system. Later, under her friend President George W. Bush, she was on the board of Sallie Mae and chaired the HELP Commission on distribution of U.S. foreign aid.
An Emphasis On Giving
Since leaving her third stint in government service at the end of 2007, Bush has continued the consultancy she founded in 1991. Bush International provides American companies and foreign governments with guidance on finance, banking and global business strategy.
Bush remains deeply engaged in mentoring young people, both personally and through Capital Partners for Education, a nonprofit whose board she joined a dozen years ago and which she currently chairs. CPE works primarily with low-income students in Washington, D.C., schools to provide mentoring and help students develop skills and experience necessary to complete college and excel in the workforce.
“I love young people,” Bush said. “I want them to have the kind of support and encouragement and direction that I had. Mentoring makes an enormous difference.”
Since the mid-1980s, Bush has served on more than 15 corporate boards, including such Marriott, United Airlines and Texaco. Currently, she is on the boards of investment company T. Rowe Price, Discover Financial Services, defense contractor ManTech and green energy firm Bloom Energy.
“It has been a very enriching experience,” said Bush of her time as a board member and the variety of companies she has served in that capacity. “I love it because it gives me an opportunity to bring to bear all of the knowledge and experiences I’ve collected. I’ve always been an avid learner, so as a board member, I get to learn a lot. Hopefully, I’m also giving.”
Bush is encouraged, she said, by what she sees as a growing movement among corporate senior management teams toward addressing the needs and welcoming the ideas of employees at all levels of their organizations. It’s a simple formula, one Bush pointed out has been part of the Marriott culture since the family founded the company: You take care of your people, and they will take care of the customer.
“More and more,” said Bush, “companies are understanding that it’s really all about people. Keeping them motivated, treating them well. I think that’s very important.”
In the fall of 2020, Bush called on her years of board experience in authoring an article published by Chicago Booth and reposted by the Harvard Law School Forum on Corporate Governance. In “Shareholder Value and Social Responsibility Are Not At Odds,” Bush laid out an approach that includes initiatives such as partnerships between corporations and four-year and two-year colleges aimed at creating educational and job opportunities, with special emphasis on underrepresented populations.
“You can serve shareholders and stakeholders equally well,” Bush declared. “But you have to open your eyes as to how to do it.” From a corporate perspective, she added, “There are people everywhere who can be trained to do the jobs that you have open, and that you want to create. You’re creating opportunities, and the whole society benefits.”
The Present – And The Future
The same equation applies to current efforts to address issues of diversity, equity and inclusion, Bush said. COVID-19, she added, has brought those efforts more attention because the pandemic has “emphasized” the impact of disparities in access to basic technologies and tools like home Wi-Fi.
“How on earth can one have operated over the past year and a half without the right technology?” Bush asked rhetorically. “COVID has pointed out big-time the resources and opportunities that many folk of color – and many low-income folk of any color – do not have, and how much harder things have been for them.”
In Bush’s view, the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis was a watershed moment for many. She drew an analogy that, given her background as a native of Birmingham, carried added power.
“It was almost like when the four little girls were killed in the church was bombing,” said Bush. “People said, ‘That’s enough. We have to fix these issues that have been festering in our country.’”
Even while acknowledging the “forces fighting against diversity,” Bush said watching the actions of American corporations has made her hopeful that substantive changes are taking hold. People in positions of power and influence are learning some things that should have been learned long ago – and that Mary Kate Bush has exemplified all of her life.
“There is talent everywhere,” Bush said. “There are people of all walks of life who can make a contribution. What they need is the opportunity.”
“I Wasn’t The Only One”
Bush does not hold herself out as being exceptional. There are too many others, she said, who grew up at the same time, in the same city and under the same circumstances as she, who also overcame the obstacles set by segregation and went on to lives of outstanding accomplishment.
There is Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice – whose father, the Rev. John Rice, was Bush’s high school guidance counselor – and who has been Bush’s best friend since they reconnected in Washington in the late 1980s. Bush immediately named other friends and classmates: Freeman Hrabowski III, the longtime president of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, who is a recognized leader in American education, lived across the street from Bush in Titusville and remains a close friend (Bush was “elated” a few years ago when Hrabowski joined her on the board of T. Rowe Price); childhood best friend, Sheryl McCarthy, earned a national reputation as a newspaper and television reporter, author and college professor; and Michael Rashid (formerly Michael Coar) became noted as a pioneer in the managed care industry, for a decade was president and CEO of Philadelphia-based AmeriHealth Caritas, and in November 2020 was appointed as commerce director of Philadelphia.
“There are many others,” Bush emphasized. “If I’m viewed as exceptional, it’s because of the opportunities I’ve had and that I’ve been prepared to step into because of the people who influenced my life. Well, I wasn’t the only one.”
The Power Of Values
Though she has not lived in Alabama for well over 50 years, Bush still has family and friends in the state, especially in her hometown of Birmingham. In July, she visited the city for the first time since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. But in recent years, she has become used to hearing good news about economic growth and continued social progress in Birmingham. That progress causes Bush to consider both the contrasts with the city she grew up in and the obstacles that still must be overcome, in Birmingham and throughout the country.
“My parents taught me forgiveness,” Bush declared. “They taught me faith. They taught me to give others the benefit of the doubt. I see Birmingham doing more and more of that, and I think it’s just a wonderful thing.
“I Continue To Adore This city”
Asked to reflect once more on the core values that have been the foundation of her life and career – instilled in Birmingham, sharpened in college and graduate school, translated to expertise on Wall Street and in the nation’s capital – Bush did not hesitate.
“It all boils down to those values I heard about in childhood,” Bush said. “You work hard, you strive for excellence. You build a reputation that follows you. People see it and they ask you to do things. I don’t know how to put it more simply than that.”