When it comes to influential women in the workplace, there are many names that come to mind. But, in Erie, Pennsylvania, there is one particular organization whose founder paved the way for not only special education but also the creation of a premier employer in the Keystone State.
For those who have been touched by its programs, it’s hard to imagine a time before the Barber National Institute. A time when community based services for individuals with disabilities were virtually non-existent in Erie.
Erie educator and assistant school superintendent Dr. Gertrude A. Barber was certainly instrumental in changing all that. In 1952, with the help of a group of dedicated teachers and parents, she established the first classroom for children with developmental disabilities.
Over the course of more than 60 years, the school Dr. Barber founded would help “make dreams come true” for thousands of children and adults with disabilities and their families across the state of Pennsylvania. Today, the Barber Institute, which is also one of Erie County’s largest employers, is recognized for its prescriptive programs for those with autism, intellectual disabilities and behavioral challenges, employing approximately 3,000 people statewide.
Counted among the Barber Institute’s team of difference makers is Executive Vice President Maureen Barber-Carey, Ed.D. Over her 30-year career, she has been responsible for spearheading the development of programs for children with autism and has served on numerous committees and task forces directed at improving services for children across the state.
Dr. Barber-Carey also has a son on the autism spectrum and writes a blog, “All About AutismBNI” in which she shares her insights and inspirations from both a professional and personal view.
At a time when women are taking on more substantial roles in the business world, Dr. Barber-Carey is an example of strong female leadership and vision. Her role as an initiator, representative and connector have proven to contribute to the Institute’s organizational success.
She has embraced Dr. Barber’s vision, but also has seized opportunities and forged her own path. Here, she discusses how both vision and opportunity can impact business, leadership and life.
As Dr. Barber-Carey tells it, she was just 13 years old when her professional journey actually began.
Her family believed in volunteering and community service, and in their home, that meant either giving back by serving as a candy striper at the local hospital or helping out at the Barber school. “Looking back,” she says, “I chose the Barber Center because I enjoyed working with children and, at 13, I thought it would be the best place for me.”
Turns out, she was right. During her college years, Dr. Barber-Carey continued to volunteer at the Center, which she says was a great opportunity that gave her a great deal of hands-on experience to springboard to her future career. “In my junior year, I began to think about my next step. Well, I looked back to all my years of volunteering and working at the Barber Center and realized that special education was, in fact, my calling.”
“Aunt Gertrude,” as she calls Dr. Barber, also helped her navigate along the way. “She suggested, ‘Go to graduate school and select the best graduate school for special education. Get a lot of hands-on experience, and then, decide what areas you want to pursue,’ ” recalls Dr. Barber-Carey. “For me, it was deciding that I wanted to work with children with a number of different kinds of abilities and that I wanted to work with various age groups.”
Dr. Barber-Carey earned a master’s degree from the University of Missouri and a doctorate in education from Columbia University, and immersed herself as a classroom aide, teacher, supervisor and director throughout a long career with the Barber National Institute and the Erie School District.
“After I taught in the district for special education for about five years, I decided it was time to move on into management administration, so (Aunt Gertrude) recommended some steps. One was to become a first-line administrator, then a special education supervisor, so I pursued certification for that. Then, I came back and fulfilled various administrator roles here at the Barber Institute.”
The Importance of Mentoring
Numerous studies show the impact that mentorship can have on female leaders during their careers. According to a recent KPMG Women’s Leadership Study, 67 percent of women reported that they learned the most important lessons about leadership from other women. Eighty-two percent of professional working women believe access to and networking with female leaders will help them advance in their career.
For Dr. Barber-Carey, it was Dr. Barber who showed her what it meant to be a leader, becoming an invaluable mentor.
“If you think back, how she began was being a psychologist in the Erie School District, and, over those years, she had moved into administrative roles, including assistant superintendent and then president here at the Barber Center. I saw the steps that she went through in that process, always establishing, first and foremost, her goal of providing to children and adults with disabilities the very best, allowing them and their parents to have their dreams come true.”
“As part of my vision, I always ask, ‘What can we do to be able to provide the very best for children and adults?’ “Dr. Barber-Carey continues. “Aunt Gertrude was one who truly believed that creativity and innovation are key. She was always most open to hearing about new potential programs or new opportunities.”
In the 1990s, Dr. Barber-Carey remembers talking to Dr. Barber about seeing more children diagnosed with autism — at a time when there was very little resources for them. “I said to her, ‘We don’t have the skill sets to be successful with that.’ And, she basically replied, ‘Well, come back to me and tell me what you need to do in order to get those skill sets.’ ”
She did — and with a whole plan for the staff to pursue continuing education and travel and observations in the best programs of the country. “Today, I model myself after that, that I’m always so excited when staff come to me and say, ‘We think we can do some things better, and this is how we go about doing it.’ ”
Traits of a Strong Leader
Thirty years ago, Sally Helgesen wrote a groundbreaking book, The Female Advantage: Women’s Ways of Leadership, which studied some of America’s most successful female leaders. In her research, Helgesen found that women leaders often place a high value on relationships, direct communication, putting themselves at the center of the people they lead, are comfortable with diversity and are skilled at integrating their personal and professional lives.
Dr. Barber-Carey exemplifies many of these traits. She says she was raised to see that her opportunities were limitless, and she applies that to her work, as well. She’s also a strong believer in working with a team. “I think that it’s my responsibility as a member of the team to demonstrate to them what I wish to see. And, for me, I truly have a real passion and enthusiasm for what I do,” she says.
In business, the best advice Dr. Barber-Carey says she ever received was the ability to recognize that change is constant. “It is not my role to prevent it, but to work with that change and to be adaptable, and to think strategically as we plan to change,” she says. “I would also say that, in business, to venture into areas that conform with your mission, and, in doing so, only pursue ventures that you know that you can provide at the highest quality possible.”
She also believes in maintaining a positive outlook and surrounding herself with positive people. “The very best positive people,” she stresses. “Seek those people to be a part of your team both in your personal life and in your professional life, as well.”
Despite her busy schedule, Dr. Barber-Carey says that one of the keys to successful leadership is also investing in oneself. She is a firm believer in exercise and making time to spend with the important people in her life. She also plays the piano and is an avid reader. She is currently reading Maria Shriver’s book, I’ve Been Thinking, a collection of inspirational thoughts, prayers and reflections on the meaning of life.
“I find them very, very helpful. Reading them really recharges me,” she says. “It’s just as important to take that time for yourself as it is to be sitting behind a computer answering emails.”
The Barber National Institute is one of Erie’s largest employers with thousands of employees across the state. According to Dr. Barber-Carey, motivation plays a very important role in both employee satisfaction and retention, and the opportunity to lead.
“Recognizing achievement is one of the most powerful elements for inspiring leaders,” she says. “I think when people know that their work is truly valued, they stretch themselves, and they’ll contribute their best efforts.”
For her, recognition can be as simple as a smile to a staff person or writing a thank-you note. “It’s one thing to send a quick email, but it’s another thing to take the time to sit down and write a note to a staff person and send it to their homes, saying I was impressed with their work,” she says.
Another way the Institute supports its staff is with informal mentorship and providing other ways to advance or expand their career paths — be it working with a child at the Institute or moving into a residential program or adult services program in Erie or at the Institute’s other locations, such as Pittsburgh or Philadelphia. Dr. Barber-Carey also believes in fostering a learning-friendly environment by offering financial support for continuing education and encouraging staff to present at conferences helps encourage others to become leaders.
“We’re always encouraging our staff. We refer to ourselves as the Barber Institute family,” she says. “I care about their successes both personally and professionally, and it’s one of those ways that you can recognize people and you inspire them to move in new directions.” At the Barber National Institute, Dr. Barber-Carey is certainly proud of the legacy — and impact — begun by Dr. Gertrude A. Barber that continues today.
“When I look back to Dr. Barber starting in 1952 with 10 children in an empty classroom with a volunteer teacher, and I think where we are now, our mission remains the same. We have been able to reach out and to help so many more children, adults and their families. We smile when we say Dr. Barber’s watching over us. She’s so happy that she sees where we are today, and she’s proud of us.”
The Manufacturer & Business Association, in conjunction with the MBA Business Magazine, Barber National Institute and sponsors Highmark and Northwest Bank, will present the Women in the Workplace: How Vision and Opportunity Can Impact Business, Leadership and Life from 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. Thursday, April 11, at the MBA Conference Center, 2171 West 38th Street in Erie.
To learn more or to register, visit www.mbausa.org.