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Values Proposition

Values Proposition: Jane Mendillo ’84 on Partnership

In this series, leaders tell stories about drawing on their core values in critical moments. We talked to Jane Mendillo ’84, a member of the board of directors of General Motors and the former CEO of the Harvard Management Company, which manages Harvard University’s endowment, about how her partnership with her husband, Ralph Earle ’84, has formed the foundation for her life and career.

An illustration of couple showing each of their careers

Sean David Williams

The Values Proposition series is made possible by The Forrest E. Mars, Sr. Fund for Values and Ethics in Management.

I am a big believer in partnerships based on shared goals and deep mutual respect. Partnership is a business-y word. But when I reflect on where respect and partnership have been most important in my life what comes immediately to mind is the relationship I have with my husband, Ralph Earle. We really have pursued our lives, our careers, and our family, as a partnership.

We’ve been married for 33 years, and throughout that time we’ve tried, roughly every five years, to develop a next-five-years plan for our lives. Our close friends know this and rib us about it. Of course, we didn’t hit every goal we set or remake every plan exactly on time, but we have been good about sitting down every few years for a long discussion over dinner and a bottle of wine to ask, “Where are we? Are we happy? Are we ready for the next change?”

We made each plan together, then we went after it as partners. Our continuing agreement to live the best life we can by making decisions that are maximizing for us as a couple and as a family, as opposed to as individuals—that has made a huge difference.

Ralph and I met at Yale SOM. I don’t think business school was something either of us would have predicted for ourselves. I grew up in New Britain, Connecticut. I went to a public high school. Perhaps half of my class went to college. I worked hard for academic excellence, but I suspect my classmates would be shocked that anyone from their world would end up on the board of General Motors or as the president and CEO of the largest endowment in the world.

A couple on a boat
Courtesy of Jane Mendillo

As undergraduates, I was an English major at Yale and Ralph was an history major at Harvard. For both of us, learning about organizational strategy, accounting, and economics was eye opening. As a young analyst, I discovered I really enjoyed looking at numbers, pulling apart financial statements, making projections of what a company was going to look like in five years. That’s ironic, now that I think of it, there are the five-year plans again.

We graduated in 1984. We got married in 1986. Navigating those early waters with a partner who was at the same career stage, facing some of the same challenges, provided context and confidence that made things easier. We had our first child in 1992 and our second two years later. Those events definitely led to a review of our five-year plan. How are we going to take care of our children? Are we going to both continue to work?

We ended up hiring a live-in nanny for the first five years or so. Eventually we decided that we wanted to be more central to how their values were instilled every day. We decided that since Harvard Management, where I worked, was a very supportive environment for people with young children, and because Ralph is a very outgoing, confident networker, I would stay at my job (maybe five more years!) and he would continue his consulting practice without the support structure of a big organization so that he would have more flexibility to be with the kids.

There were times when my career or Ralph’s could have gone in another direction. At one point, he was offered a job leading the European operation of a consulting firm. We both thought a move to Europe sounded exciting, but I didn’t have the language skills or the background to have a meaningful career there.

“Many moments in my career would have been impossible to navigate as an individual without a sounding board, and a partner, in Ralph.”

I remember that conversation at our dining room table. It was the right conversation because it wasn’t, “If I give up this opportunity, I’m going to feel bad about it.” It was, “What’s the right decision for us as a family, now?” We made the choice not to take it and really never looked back.

Over the years I had conversations with organizations in Chicago, Washington, D.C., and California about chief investment officer openings. The job opportunities were tempting, but our children were well into school. We loved where we lived in Concord. We had lot of great friends and growing roles in our community. After some down-and-dirty reflection about what relocation would mean, even though the jobs were appealing, each time we ended up backing off because the cost/benefit, for the family, of moving made clear that staying was the right decision.

But our plans and our decisions were not just about limitations—not moving, not changing jobs. Quite the opposite. When I took a job running Wellesley College’s endowment, it meant managing less money than I was overseeing at Harvard. Ralph, having built his own consulting practice, was really encouraging, “You’re going to love being able to build your own team, setting the ground rules, and having direct involvement with the campus and your board.” He was right; the professional development for me through that experience was huge, and it turned out to be a great move.

When I came back to Harvard as CEO at the peak of the financial crisis, both of us felt that taking that job was absolutely the right decision even though the early months were incredibly difficult. Harvard’s endowment portfolio was over-levered and under-liquid. The university had a lot of plans based on decades of consistent endowment growth. It was one day after another of difficult revelations and difficult decisions.

At that point our children were away for high school—probably a fortunate coincidence, since we spent nearly every evening discussing decisions I was going to need to make the next morning or the next week or the next month. It was really, really hard. Many moments in my career—especially during those years—would have been impossible to navigate as an individual without a sounding board, and a partner, in Ralph.

“Because of our partnership, and the mutual respect embodied in it, there has always been a way to figure out, ‘Is this a decision that I respect for myself, for us as a family, or for my organization? Is it the right thing to do?’”

For the last dozen years, Ralph has been managing director for the Clean Energy Venture Group, investing in clean tech and renewable energy startups. We both feel strongly that the environment is the critical issue of our time. We’ve had countless discussions over dinners and long drives, talking through, “Is this startup unique enough to take the attendant risks? Does it have a good plan for how to get through the next few years? Who could come in for round two funding?”

I think the experience that we both have in investments, mine as a portfolio manager, and Ralph’s with individual companies, is mutually beneficial. We fill in the holes for one another.

We also both know that there are situations where investment decisions we make may not play out for many years. You have to make a choice, today, based on what you know and how you feel about the unknowns, but you may not know for 10 years whether it was the right decision or the wrong decision. You may even need to reassess every five years or so….

We’re all constantly taking that long view in our careers, our relationships, and our family. I’m so grateful for those conversations at our dining table. Because of our partnership, and the mutual respect embodied in it, there has always been a way to figure out, “Is this a decision that I respect for myself, for us as a family, or for my organization? Is it the right thing to do?”

Ralph and I are now in semi-retirement. We feel really fortunate in all respects. We have wonderful friends—many from our class at SOM. We have two terrific children who are now 27 and 25. We didn’t go live together in Europe, but we’ve traveled the world as a foursome.

We can honestly say we never really had any regrets. It’s been a great partnership.

Department: Values Proposition