Marilu Marshall, J.D. '69: A Leader for Inclusion and Diversity

BY:  
CREATED:  

Marilu Marshall

Marilu Marshall, J.D. '69

Marilu Marshall, B.B.A., '66, J.D. '69, has taken significant risks in her law career, but they have paid off by opening the door to new professional opportunities. "When thinking about the future, don't be afraid to try something new, because you never know where it will lead you," she said. "If one choice doesn't work out, then change your path. The important thing is to keep learning throughout your life."

Marshall has taken that lesson to heart. After graduating from Miami Law, she went to work as a federal prosecutor, then worked in the resort and casino sector, before landing in her dream job as Senior Vice President, Chief Inclusion and Diversity Officer at the Estée Lauder Companies Inc. in New York.

"My only regret is that I didn't get here sooner," she said. At Estée Lauder, Marshall guides diversity programs for the $14 billion company with a workforce of nearly 50,000 employees selling products in approximately 150 countries around the world. "We believe an inclusive environment is the catalyst to leverage the diversity in our organization," she said. "It's also important that our employees understand that diversity is about race and nationality, but it also includes gender, generational, socioeconomic, experiential differences, and many other aspects."

Marshall also enjoys working for a company founded by a woman selling products primarily to women. "Today, over 50 percent of our senior leadership team and over 40 percent of our board are women," she said. "Unfortunately, that is still unusual in the corporate world. There is still a way to go."

Another 'Perry Mason'

Marshall's parents were immigrants from Cuba who moved to New York after World War II. After her father died, the family moved to Coral Gables, where Marshall enjoyed watching "Perry Mason" with her grandmother. At an early age, she decided to become a lawyer, rather than a teacher, nurse, or secretary—the traditional career paths for women in the 1950s. Like the TV character, she wanted to protect the innocent and bring criminals to justice.

After graduating from Coral Gables High School, Marshall earned a business degree at the University of Miami and received a full scholarship to both undergraduate and law school. At Miami Law, Dean M. Minnette Massey became a role model and a mentor—"the single most important person other than my mother" in her education.

"One of the things I learned at Miami Law was the importance of not being focused on being the 'one and only,'" she said. "There were not a lot of women going to law school back then, but I felt like I belonged, and I was treated by my colleagues in that way."

As Marshall approached graduation, Massey helped her obtain a position in Washington with the U.S. Department of Justice, where she became the first woman trial attorney assigned to the Organized Crime and Racketeering Strike Force.

At first, her superiors at the task force told Marshall that it was too perilous for a woman to try cases involving dangerous criminals, and she was given a desk job. But when the federal task force in Detroit was faced with a busy docket and too few attorneys, the chief tapped Marshall to try some cases. "I flew to Detroit and never came back to my old job," she said. "I loved having the ability to fight for what was right. I learned how to think on my feet and pivot quickly in court. Being thrown into a courtroom right out of law school is a tremendous learning experience."

Following her role as a federal prosecutor, Marshall was appointed Deputy Director of the Commission on the Review of the National Policy Toward Gambling, a joint congressional and presidential commission. It gave her insights into government policy and added a new dimension to her law career.

After several years in government, Marshall decided to move to the private sector and interviewed with several major law firms. Then, she got a unique offer from Playboy to be lead counsel for a casino the company was opening in Atlantic City. It turned out to be an "amazing learning experience," working with high-energy executives like Christie Hefner, daughter of Playboy founder Hugh Hefner, and Victor Lownes, president of the club hotel division. "I worked on issues related to the Playboy clubs and licensing as well as the hotel properties," Marshall said.

From Playboy, Marshall moved on to a position at the Golden Nugget casino, an Atlantic City property owned by billionaire Steve Wynn. In 1987, she was recruited to become Senior Vice President and General Counsel for Cunard Line, Ltd. "My responsibilities at Playboy and the Golden Nugget included managing the personnel and security departments," Marshall said. "Cunard offered me a position where I could take on a variety of roles, along with being general counsel. I love to travel, so it was a great fit for me."

Advocating for Inclusion

After 11 years at Cunard, Marshall met the head of the Estée Lauder Companies' human resources division and soon came aboard to lead the North American team. "The company had gone public and was buying up other brands, so we were dealing with the legal and cultural issues that come with mergers and acquisitions," she said. "Once again, I found myself reinventing my career and learning new skills."

One thing that hasn't changed is Marshall's commitment to the University of Miami. She and her husband, Don Thomas, follow the football team, and she recently attended the 50th-anniversary reunion of her law school class. They also enjoy spending family time with children and grandchildren, and traveling the world, learning about other cultures, history, and art.

That international experience has reinforced Marshall's deep commitment to inclusion and diversity in the workplace and in the community. "I grew up in a family that believed differences are to be respected and valued," she said. "My parents taught me to respect other people and learn from them."

In today's interconnected world, that lesson is more important than ever, she added. "We benefit from knowing people who are different from ourselves. But we also have unconscious biases and tend to gravitate toward people like ourselves."

Because those biases can have a negative impact on others, Marshall advises taking time to think before making a quick decision on people-related matters.

"Self-awareness is the first step toward overcoming stereotypes and biases," she said. "If you are in a position of leadership, you can foster a culture that supports inclusion and diversity in your organization, in your community, and throughout the world."