Come!

A wise friend notes wryly that he has yet to see a hearse pulling a U-Haul trailer. While most of us will eventually arrive at a similar conclusion, even if only late in life, I’ve been impressed with how many of my Stanford MBA students have already seriously contemplated a purpose well beyond IPO’s, AUM’s, and IRR’s.

One powerful example of beyond-business success comes from fashion designer and “modéliste” Cecile Pelous, who recently retired from her career in the fashion houses of Christian Dior, Yves St. Laurent, and Nina Ricci, where she dressed women such as Jackie Kennedy, Charlize Theron, and the wife of the Aga Khan.

In 1985, sensing there was something more lasting for her to do, she wrote Mother Theresa to ask how she might be of service.  “Come!” was the 75-year-old nun’s response.

With this, Cecile headed off to India to spend her vacation weeks in Calcutta. She had no idea what would come of answering this simple call to service, but her talent for working with children soon became evident as The Little Sisters of Poverty assigned her to work in orphanages.  Over the next several years, while still a much-sought-after designer, Cecile succeeded in her high-pressure career while spending every moment between fashion seasons teaching orphans to make their own clothes, to build dispensaries and schools, and to raise chickens, ducks, and fish.

Before long, Cecile had sold her home in Paris to raise money to build an orphanage in Nepal. Naming it Asha Ashram, “House of Hope,” she eventually legally adopted 79 orphans, sharing their plight with her friends and associates who pitched in with clothing, books and funds. Committed to preparing “her” children to become contributing citizens, she helped them pursue university studies, internships and jobs once they were old enough to leave Asha Ashram.

Today, although orphans in one of the world’s poorest countries, her adopted children include a doctor, several nurses, entrepreneurs, chefs, hairdressers, tour and trekking guides, educators, and even a helicopter pilot. Many are now married and have children of their own who consider her their grandma.  All stay in touch with her and with each other, gathering annually as family during their main holiday season.

The stated purpose of the Stanford Business School is to “Change Lives, Change Organizations, Change the World.”  And as our young, high-minded professionals contemplate a life as business leaders, they – and all of us – might find inspiration in knowing of one unheralded woman who went well beyond a successful career to make a remarkable difference in the lives of many.

By Joel Peterson