Washington Business Journal Feature: Leslie Ford Weber
The Washington Business Journal interviewed Leslie Ford Weber, JHU's director of the Montgomery County Campus and of government and community affairs for Montgomery County. The feature ran as an Executive Profile on Nov. 14, 2014. It was written by Vandana Sinha, an assistant managing editor at the Washington Business Journal. The photo was taken by Joanne S. Lawton.
Leslie Ford Weber spent more than two decades in the grueling field of fundraising, including stints at Georgetown and American universities and Suburban Hospital, before she took on the challenge of leading the 2,000-student Montgomery County outpost of one of the most respected universities in the country.
Biggest current challenge: It's a place that's been around since the 1870s. All of us are having to figure out how to deliver services under new regulations. On the higher education side, the Montgomery County campus was built to be a delivery site for graduate and professional part-time students. A lot of that education is now taking place in the online space. It's a great tool to help people, but it presents different needs for how you deliver that, certainly what you do with the facilities you already built.
Next big goal: It sounds so internal, but we did put a goal forward to put the finishing touches on a strategic plan we can share with a larger audience. We're in active discussions with university leadership and trustees on the direction we want to take academic programs — what are we doing to help with economic development, what are we doing to translate the research to help create jobs. We have a strong entrepreneurial presence on our campus. We have about 30 companies here, and we'll be looking to grow that.
What do most not realize about the Rockville campus? Besides not knowing it's even there? We just spent a year working with the Montgomery County Sign Review Board to make sure we can put signs up on the edge of our campus to tell people we are there. It's ironic, having been there since the 1980s, that so many people don't realize we have a campus there. A lot of people may not realize our campus is home to a large facility of the National Cancer Institute. They opened at the end of 2013, and we now have 2,500 NCI employees.
What's the latest with the Belward Campus site? The county passed a master plan in 2010 for that as part of the Great Seneca Science Corridor. Hopkins and the Belward property were tied up in litigation until early this year. That did have a chilling effect on some of the conversations the university had with potential partners on things we can do on the Belward Campus. Those conversations are starting up again. And a lot is waiting for the market conditions to clear up again.
What's your vision for that site? The same as what's been talked about — it went through so many approval processes and discussions. A good mixed-use center, a center for research, for amenities, for people who want to live close by. Residential development is prohibited there. There will be some playing fields there, we'll want to see people using those. Somewhere on the campus will be a central stop for the Corridor Cities Transitway. We think we'll have some biosciences, we'll have some offices, we'll have some labs.
Your own most surprising discovery of Johns Hopkins: Just how many really, really wonderful, smart people work there, the true experts in their field. This is a place that just thrives on the pursuit of knowledge. So the geek in me loves that. And then the downside is it's a very large, very complex organization, and it takes some deft maneuvering to figure out how to get things done.
Your favorite part of campus: I really love our Wednesday farmers markets. A farmers market comes to campus and sets up on the parking lot from May to November, and a couple food trucks come. We don't see food trucks come in Montgomery County much. The other thing I love is the time of day when our population transitions. We have about 700 senior citizens who take classes on campus on Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays and at about 3 o'clock, when those students are leaving, is about the time our part-time students are arriving, and these are younger people. It's just an interesting transition time.
Where do you see the Rockville campus five years from now? It will look physically very much like it does now. Our mix of education offerings will change. Some programs are shrinking and losing students, others are growing and gaining students. I think we'll have more companies there.
The thing that works more often than not for fundraising: The hardest thing is to pick up the phone — or do it in person, preferably — to get to that point when you finally say, "You love our institution, would you consider giving X?" You won't get it if you don't ask for it.
Your most successful fundraising campaign: I do remember years and years ago at Georgetown, there was a small project to buy new hymn books for the student chapel on campus. There was a family I was working with who had a number of family members go through Georgetown, and one of them had died. It wasn't a huge gift, it didn't cost too much, but it was the perfect gift for that family. At Suburban, I was touched by a very large bequest that came to the hospital from someone for whom we didn't realize we were in their will. My only regret is we didn't know we were in her will before she died and never had the opportunity to say thank you.
What are you like to work for? I'm pretty straightforward, I hope. I share opinions, and I certainly insist on everyone following policy, but otherwise I'm pretty hands off. I trust that people will do their jobs. As long as something gets done, I'm less interested in how it gets done.
Best lesson from your mentor: As much as possible, give staff the freedom to work on things that match their interest and skills. It's not always possible, but there are things you can try. Maybe they can be trained or you can redistribute tasks before you replace that particular person. It's also possible that the things we do don't have to get done, or they outlived their usefulness or can be done a different way.
Best business decision: On a personal career side, the best was going back to school to get that master's degree. Public policy has a significant quantitative requirement. Before that, I'd avoided math as much as possible. This gave me a comfort level with numbers that I found was really important to my career. On a business side, I've had several opportunities to stop investing money and personnel and programs that weren't generating returns. It's particularly important in fundraising to do that, but it applies to a variety of situations when you're in a time of transition and look at what's necessary and what's meeting your objectives.
Hardest lesson learned: Patience. And it's a lesson I try and reabsorb every day. I'm more inclined to action perhaps than analysis. But sometimes you have to sit back and take in all the information and answers before you act. In an organization like Hopkins, it's really important to make sure there's something you didn't overlook.
What keeps you up at night? I sleep pretty well, actually. Yeah, unpredictability. I'm not a worrier by nature but sometimes there's a concern about trying to figure out what's going to happen next.
Most memorable project: By the time this runs, Suburban Hospital will have held its groundbreaking for its campus enhancement project. And I've been working on that for almost 10 years. So that will be a memorable one.
Most memorable point in that process: The day the hearing examiner and I realized her daughter had just joined my daughter's soccer team. It was one of these things where this email came home on my home account and I recognized it and was like, "Why is the hearing examiner contacting me on my home account?" So she had to put in the record that we were going to have inadvertent contact with each other, and we promised not to talk about the case. But I really do think a memorable day was the day the Board of Appeals actually took their vote and approved the project. Then there was the unanimous vote by the Montgomery County Council to allow us to abandon one street.
Biggest missed opportunity: I'm not the world's best fundraiser, so if I'm honest, there are probably one or two that got away.
What would you change about your job? I think I could be more efficient and productive if I made better use of technology. That's a personal goal for me through the year. I'm still doing some things on paper, I should probably move to tablet, save a few trees in the process.
Your earliest memory: Actually, it's escalators in a Japanese department store. I was reminded of it this summer because I was in Japan again. My father was stationed on Guam when I was a toddler. We took a vacation to Japan. If you were a 3-year-old living in a tropical island in a one-story house, an escalator was pretty exciting.
Guilty pleasure: I actually make a point of reading the Duchess Kate blog spot every couple days. The latest is that some paparazzi took some pictures of her and William coming out of the doctor's office.
Favorite movie star: Oh, that one's easy. Katharine Hepburn, whom I got to meet once. When I was a fundraiser, I'd gone up to have a donor agreement executed and the donors lived in Connecticut. It was a beautiful day in the Long Island Sound. We were walking along the waterfront and there was a group of people in the back yard of this large, white house enjoying the sun. This little old lady stood up and said, "Hi, come on over" [mimicking her voice]. She pulled a chair up for me and we joined their circle of friends and talked for a half hour about silly things — her political friends, the weather. It was all I could do to keep my mouth from the ground.
What was the funniest thing she said? She claimed to have gone swimming in the Long Island Sound that morning. It was still fall. But a few years later, I read one of those biographies of her and she was into fitness and took cold showers and long swims. So maybe it's possible.
If you had extra $1 million, you would: There are a couple family members who could use some help. I'd probably take a fun trip, save a little and there is a goal to continue to be engaged in education and do something meaningful to help other people get an education. I really do believe that higher education has the ability to transform lives. Getting a college degree was a defining experience for me and my siblings, so it would be a great opportunity to set up some scholarships.
Businessperson you most admire: There are so many of them and I'm afraid I'll name someone and then find out they did something stupid. I think about Gloria Steinem, who I think is pretty admirable.
Personality in high school: I wasn't one of the cool kids, but was — I don't know what they'd call it now — the second-tier of cool kids. The Honor Society and debate team and clubs, still engaged in activities.
Your best subject: History. My father was a huge history buff so we had lots of books all over the house, and it continues to be an interest.
Your worst subject: Oh, math. Well, let me think about it. No, honestly home ec. We had to sew these turtles and it had lots of curves, and mine was just awful.
What did you want to be when you grew up? I wanted to be a nurse. It was very fun when I actually came to work in a hospital. As a toddler, I'd been hospitalized for a few weeks and the nurses made a big impression on me. And then I learned all the yucky things nurses had to do when they were caring for someone and started looking for other fields. It wasn't until college that I even heard of fundraising and government relations.
Favorite book: It's hard to pick a favorite because I've always been a reader. I'm the kind that reads it once and rarely picks it up again. I loved "Jane Eyre" when I was girl and loved it again when I read it again. My kids were just the right age to read "Harry Potter" aloud with, and that was really fun.
What would you do if not this? I think I'd be in education, maybe a librarian or teacher. It's that history piece again and being around books.
Favorite hobby: Reading. I'm not a craft person. That's been my great nightmare as a parent.
Favorite movie: I really like "Apollo 13." It's got good acting, it's well written and there's a really good lesson about persistence and ingenuity that I really like.
Favorite restaurant: Well, Tom Sietsema's not going to like this, because I'm going to pick one in Bethesda. I really like Grapeseed. We really enjoy wine, and this is a place that takes the time to suggest things with your food.
Favorite place outside of the office: There's a place called Camp Michigania. The University of Michigan Alumni Association has a camp for families in northwestern Michigan, and it's on Walloon Lake. It's this wonderful property of hills and sand and trees all along the shore of the lake. And that's my happy place.
What do most people not know about you? I'm the first in my family to graduate from college. My parents had gone to college, but neither had graduated. That's why higher education made such an impression in my life, because it was a very big deal for me to go to college and graduate. Subsequently, my siblings did as well. Every one of us has a master's degree. I really do feel like I set the pace for everyone. They're smart people in their own right, but I'm the big sister, so I get to take the credit for it, right? I spend all my time with highly educated people, we live in a highly educated place, people just assume that's where you came from. But we came from a different kind of place.
What's one thing you cannot do without each day? Reading actually. My eye always goes to something. I want to learn something new that I didn't know before.
Pet peeve: People who don't take responsibility for themselves. Good or bad, own it. Don't blame someone else. Also, I don't like having too many sounds playing at the same time. If the TV is going on, then turn the radio off. And I live with teenagers, so, you know…
What's on your iPod? Now, I told you I need to do more with technology. I don't have an iPod. But I'm actually eclectic. I listen to classical, jazz, an occasional Top 40 hit. I'm really enjoying "All About That Bass" right now. If I had an iPod, I would have Gershwin, Adele, Fleetwood Mac, Billy Joel. And I always used to clean to the Prince "Purple Rain" album — it's a great beat for the vacuum cleaner.