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University of Delaware - Alfred Lerner College of Business & Economics

By Dena Hillison July 30, 2019

When Mary Ellen Payne began her career in business over 35 years ago, she had access to few women in executive roles to serve as her mentors and guide her through her career. As she successfully climbed the ladder, eventually becoming senior vice president of sales and marketing with Verizon Communications, Payne looked for opportunities to mentor and to be a champion and cheerleader for the next generation of businesswomen. 

As a University of Delaware alumna, she has brought this passion and determination to supporting the Lerner Women’s Leadership Initiative (WLI), the Lerner Executive Mentoring Program and many other initiatives at her alma mater. It is no surprise then that when Amanda Bullough, co-director and co-founder of the WLI and associate professor of management, spoke with WLI Managing Director Lynn Evans about presenting the WLI’s first award, they immediately agreed on who to give it to.

“Mary Ellen Payne is the perfect role model for the Lerner Women’s Leadership Initiative, because of her profound leadership experience throughout her career as a marketing and sales executive and in her community engagement activities,” Bullough said. “She was a part of our earliest talks about how the Lerner College could make more of an impact on issues relating to women in business. She has been present at every meeting and on every conference call with the Lerner Women’s Leadership Initiative. She truly has been our catalyst.”

The goal of the WLI at UD’s Alfred Lerner College of Business and Economics is to create student engagement programming and tackle issues that are specific to women achieving meaningful leadership roles. 

“I am deeply humbled at being the first to receive this award because the other women involved in the launch of the Women’s Leadership Initiative are as passionate and committed to ensuring that future female leaders develop their leadership capacities and have a framework of support and motivation as I am,” Payne said. “Being considered a ‘catalyst’ for this program brings me the greatest joy because there is no better synonym for ‘leader’ than ‘catalyst.’ If the energy I bring to the initiative is to precipitate the development and expansion of the Women’s Leadership Initiative then I can think of no better way to lend my time.”

Payne graduated from the Lerner College with both a B.B.A. in marketing and an MBA. She retired in 2015 as senior vice president of sales and marketing with Verizon Communications, after many successful years in strategic marketing leadership positions. Payne has served on the board of directors of the Association of National Advertisers and served on the Mosaic Council of the American Advertising Federation. She is a member of the board of regents for the Leadership Center of Excellence and serves as board liaison to Volunteer Arlington. Payne is also a member of the board of directors for Just Neighbors, a nonprofit dedicated to serving and supporting the immigrant community of northern Virginia. 

Payne served as the Lerner Undergraduate Convocation speaker in 2015 and is currently a member of the Lerner College Advisory Board. In 2014, she established the Strong and Powerful Scholarship to support undergraduate students in financial need who are enrolled in the Lerner College. Payne is involved with both the Lerner WLI, as the first member of the WLI’s Steering Committee, and the Lerner Executive Mentoring Program, where she has mentored several students and become one of the program’s greatest advocates and supporters.

“This award was created to recognize the efforts of individuals in advancing gender equity,” Evans said.It takes the constant efforts of people like Mary Ellen to not only raise awareness but be a changemaker.”

“While I saw women make meaningful advances in the course of my 35-year career with Verizon, there is still much work to be done to achieve women’s equity in the workplace,” Payne noted. “Developing leadership capacity in women also builds the reputation and brand of the Lerner College. While I am motivated to help women specifically understand the challenges that they will face, I also hope to help frame these issues not as women-only issues but as organization-wide topics that require broader context to address.”

The Lerner Women’s Leadership Initiative 

The Lerner College launched the WLI in 2016 with the goal of leading the region in the advancement of gender equity and women’s leadership in the workplace. Since its inception, the WLI has provided training to women in the community through the Lerner Women’s Leadership Forum, sponsored the Women in Business and Women in Finance registered student organizations, held multiple panel and speaker events that bring senior business leaders to campus, sponsored bus trips to New York City and hosted events on topics such as negotiating skills, unconscious bias and speed networking. The goal for the WLI going forward is to establish sustainable programming that impacts all female students through a student engagement model.