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Breaking through

Melanie Willoughby has been blazing trails in New Jersey for decades

Melanie Willoughby has heard countless times during her career that she did not belong in an environment due to her gender.

“I was told I was too aggressive, I was too abrupt and demanding,” Willoughby said. “It was couched in terms of my gender because a man was told he is assertive and getting the job done. He would be someone who you would want on your team. But as a woman that was threatening.”

Willoughby’s days as a pioneer date to 1972, when she enrolled at Rutgers College as one of the first 400 women accepted at the school and later became the first female president elected to lead Rutgers’ student government. Today Willoughby is the executive director of the New Jersey Business Action Center whose mission is to assist businesses in growing and navigating through governmental regulation.

“We have come a long way in which women are part of teams in government and business,” she said. “But there are still some of the old stereotypes that exist. I think that is one of the reasons we have taken a look at the way women are trained and how men are trained to ensure it is not a hostile work environment for men or women.”

In 1972, Willoughby encountered professors who cast doubt on women who enrolled at Rutgers College. She recalls some professors viewed admitting women as an experiment that hurt academic standards. In the 47 years since she enrolled at Rutgers College she sees progress regarding gender equality in business. But she also laments the persistence of outdated attitudes.

Civic tumult

The early 1970s were a time of unrest with Americans divided by the Vietnam War, the burgeoning civil rights movement and women’s movements, and generational differences.

Melanie Willoughby, executive director, New Jersey Business Action Center.

Melanie Willoughby, executive director, New Jersey Business Action Center. – AARON HOUSTON

“It was a trail-blazing time for women,” Willoughby said. “The whole country was having a lot of tumult in changing a lot of viewpoints changing a lot of the constituencies. Women were a part of that in trying to essentially change the way they were viewed as being equal to men. Part of that was getting a college degree.”

Willoughby applied to Rutgers because her high school guidance counselor recommended that she go there because Rutgers was accepting women for the first time and seeking student leaders who ranked high academically.

She was president of Howell High Student Council and in the top of her class. In addition she could earn scholarships, which was a critical part of her decision.

“The women who they were looking for had been student leaders in high school,” Willoughby said of the Rutgers admissions officers. “They were looking for students who had high SAT scores so the first class would demonstrate it was not an error in admitting women.”

Majoring in history, Willoughby graduated from Rutgers College in 1976. Rutgers College Dean Richard McCormick Sr. was a professor of history and a great mentor. Willoughby gave a commencement address with the theme “do not let anything stop you.”

She spoke at commencement because she represented the successful culmination of the first four years of women at Rutgers College as president of the Rutgers College Student Government.

Willoughby began her career working for Gov. Brendan Byrne, who served from 1974 to 1982. In state government, she encountered men who were not comfortable working with women because some “did not know how to behave.”

“I always felt an obligation and responsibility that I needed to be sure that I did the very best I could so men would want women to be part of the team,” Willoughby said.

Willoughby credits Pat Sheehan, a former mayor of New Brunswick with whom she worked after Gov. Byrne appointed Sheehan as commissioner of the Department of Community Affairs, with helping her stay on course. “I had a strong woman who helped me blaze trails,” Willoughby said. “In many cases it was Pat and I moving around the state.”

Melanie Willoughby, executive director, New Jersey Business Action Center.

“I have been very fortunate in having many wonderful mentors who helped me and believed in me to move forward,” Willoughby said. “You don’t do it alone. I have always felt I need to pay it forward so that I help people who are looking for assistance because it’s always better to do it as a team.”

Grace Strom Power is a lawyer and the chief of staff at the New Jersey Board of Public Utilities. Power interned in Trenton at the New Jersey Regional Merchants Association from 2000 to 2002, where Willoughby was president.

Power was an undergraduate associate fellow in 2000 with the Eagleton Institute of Politics as a senior at Rutgers at the time. She earned an undergraduate degree in 2001 and has counted Willoughby as a friend for about 20 years.

She continued as an intern as a graduate student in 2002 at the Rutgers’ Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy while earning a master’s degree.

“Melanie is unique and special in that she sets very high expectations for everyone who works for her, including her interns,” Power said. “She gave us really incredible opportunities and projects that we were able to take ownership of and lead a project.”

Willoughby sent interns including Power to represent the New Jersey Retail Merchants Association in meetings with officials. In this way the interns felt equal to employees in terms of their level of responsibilities.

“I think that is unique for an internship,” Power said. “She has an army of former interns in and around Trenton. What has made her special as a boss is she gives you feedback in a way that makes you want to do better and give you her best.”

Power said Willoughby “sets high standards but also enables you to deliver on those standards,” adding, “I think she is someone who has always had a tremendous reputation in Trenton and is one of the hardest-working people I have ever seen.”

Willoughby is someone Power can call on for advice. “She knows all about my family and I know all about hers,” Power said. “Our friendship has grown over time. I look at her as a colleague. She is the reason where I am today. She could teach a master class on how to mentor students.”

Today Willoughby is a volunteer at the Eagleton Institute, mentoring Rutgers students and forging new friendships.

“Rutgers gave me my start and my career and I owe a lot to Rutgers for a phenomenal education as well as phenomenal mentors who believed in me,” Willoughby said. “I believe in giving back and paying it forward. That is the reason I love mentoring Rutgers students. In many cases it is who you know, what you know, and how good you are that keeps you where you get placed.”

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David Hutter
David Hutter grew up in Darien, Conn., and covers higher education, transportation and manufacturing for NJBIZ. He can be reached at: dhutter@njbiz.com.

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