Until she was 12, Maria Klawe had exactly one piece of new clothing that was bought especially for her and not a hand-me-down from an older sister: a stretchy, royal blue, knit T-shirt the same color as her piercing eyes, which she loved and wore like no other item in her wardrobe.
She's made magnificent leaps since her humble beginnings, but that shirt still has an impact. Looking around her office at Claremont's Harvey Mudd College, of which Klawe is president, its color is reflected in sofas, in the cover of a tissue box and even in her clothes and their several shades of blue.
The first woman to lead the college since its founding in 1955, Klawe, 62, arrived in 2006 and has been a powerful force in closing Harvey Mudd's gender gap in science and engineering. Women majoring in computer science once made up 10 percent of the student body; now they comprise 40 percent, the highest in the nation. (Harvey Mudd graduates also, according to a September survey by salary-information company PayScale, reported the highest median midcareer paycheck.)
Klawe has barely gotten started. She's now trying to significantly diversify the students majoring in science while raising Mudd's profile to that of Caltech and MIT.
“I think of us as an innovation lab. We've figured it out for women, now we're working it out for students of color,” she says. “If we don't get more women and African-Americans and LGBT folks into science and engineering, we don't get nearly as good outcomes.”
Her motivation to positively disrupt the playing field is personal.
“I hated being in a situation where people clearly didn't think I belonged, even though I was very successful,” she says. “People said it all the time to me: 'Why would you want to be a mathematician? There are no good female mathematicians.'?”
Yet Klawe became a renowned mathematician, making key research contributions, and was recently named to Fortune magazine's “World's 50 Greatest Leaders” list, along with the Dalai Lama and Bono.
But unlike the subjects she's pursued, the decision that formed her career and led her to Southern California wasn't exactly born of rationality.
Born in Canada and educated partly in Scotland, Klawe left college to pursue a romance. She hitchhiked from Scotland to Venice, crossed Afghanistan by train and reached India at the start of the Indo-Pakistani war.
One day, on the white sandy beaches of Goa, Klawe realized how much she missed mathematics. She went on to earn an advanced degree in mathematics at the University of Alberta, Canada, and enjoyed a successful career in positions at IBM, the University of British Columbia and Princeton.
At Princeton, where Klawe was dean of engineering and professor of computer science, Harvey Mudd came calling. She deliberated for weeks, going to her home on British Columbia's Pender Island to think. “I'm looking out and it's drizzling, and the clouds part and a shaft of light hits the water, and I thought, 'Oh my goodness, I'm going to miss this magical thing!'?”
Klawe never looked back.
“One of my passions is, 'Let's make the culture such that anyone whose talented and willing to work hard is going to feel embraced, welcomed and supported,'?'' she says. “That's one of the things that Mudd has really done an incredible job with.”