By John Schoonejongen, Assistant Director of News and Media Outreach, Gabelli School of Business, Fordham University
One of the first things you might notice about Donna Rapaccioli is that she doesn’t try to be noticed.
The dean of Fordham University’s newly unified graduate and undergraduate business schools – under the common name, the Gabelli School of Business – slides into rooms quietly, preferring to mingle without fanfare.
During a recent breakfast celebration of the unification, Rapaccioli, 52, sat at a table, nibbling on a marble-cake muffin (and marveling that there was such a thing). But she was seldom alone. A steady stream of visitors approached the dean. She greeted each with a familiar air, exchanging small talk and looking everyone carefully in the eyes. Her smile flashed often and broadly. It turns out, in Rapaccioli’s world, you don’t need to seek attention in order to command it. Her presence was undeniable, a leader in full.
When it came time to speak, Rapaccioli made it a point of thanking everyone in the room for their work on the unification. It was a success, she said, because of the intelligence and dedication of those gathered with her. She meant it.
“It’s definitely about us, not I,” Rapaccioli said in a later interview. “I really try to emphasize teamwork, both with my team but also with the students. I think that it’s really important to ensure that the students have a significant experience working in a team.”
It is an entirely Jesuit way of thinking: Serving a purpose greater than yourself, understanding those you serve and leading by example. Those traits were ingrained in her through a Jesuit education at Fordham University in the 1980s and brought to the fore during her tenure as the leader of its business schools.
“One of the things that I always say is that you can find God, which means good, in all things and in all situations. And if you’re not finding it, you’re not looking hard enough,” Rapaccioli said. “I really do try to look at individuals and try to see what are their gifts and talents. In my role as leader, how can I allow them to use their gifts and talents in this setting to advance the university, to advance the business school? I think that comes from the whole Jesuit way of proceeding.”
That Jesuit thinking is filtering down into what students are taught and how the faculty conducts some of its research and community outreach. The goal, Rapaccioli said, is “to reposition business as a force for good rather than the common perception that it’s this dark, evil force."
As examples, the dean pointed to the Center for Positive Marketing, which explores using marketing to improve people’s lives, and the Center for Digital Transformation, which seeks to find ways to “use digital technology to advance society.” The Fordham Foundry, a business incubator, leans heavily on start-ups that seek to solve a societal problem. “If we can focus on the unique position that business has to create a force for good, it changes the conversation,” Rapaccioli said. “And that’s what we’re trying to do. We’re trying to make people realize that purpose drives profits, and you can’t just have as your purpose making profits, because that’s not going to be sustainable.”
Rapaccioli has a phrase she uses often about the vision of the Gabelli School of Business: “To educate compassionate global business leaders who are socially and ethically responsible.”
“When I’m invited to address the prospective students, that’s what I say our mission is, and everything flows from that – for me, the word ‘compassionate’ is a real differentiator,” Rapaccioli said.
In other schools, students might hear a lot about “global” and “leadership.”
“You’ll probably even see ‘ethics,’ but for us, this notion of compassion – of being with others, of helping others – is a big deal," Rapaccioli said.
Her vision for the Gabelli School of Business is making a difference. The school became an Ashoka Changemaker Campus, one of only a handful of universities in the country that has earned the designation as a center for social innovation. Pursuing the designation was a faculty and student initiative, an indication that people are buying into the idea of the school as an engine for social change. Students are becoming leaders and thinking of their role in seeking a greater good, just as she wanted.
“The leadership piece is key, because we really want to transform the world. And in order to do that, you need students who will become leaders of these companies. And in order to do that, you need a really great program that attracts the right type of student, and then you need to help them develop their thought process,” Rapaccioli said.
How did a child from the Pelham Bay area of the Bronx, a product of Catholic education from grammar school up until she went to New York University for her graduate degree, grow up to lead and reinvigorate a business school on her home turf?
It was nothing she sought out.
“I was asked to serve,” Rapaccioli said of her appointment as interim dean in 2005. “And I served out of a sense of duty.”
At the time, Rapaccioli was teaching accounting at Fordham and enjoying faculty life. She accepted the interim challenge though, and marked June 30, 2006 on her calendar, the end of the term she was asked to serve, and went in with a “do no harm” attitude. She would happily go back to teaching and research then, she thought.
To immerse herself in the interim role, she set out to talk to as many people as possible to understand the school and the concerns of its faculty and students.
Meanwhile, the position grew on her.
“Once I became the dean, I saw that I was able to make positive change and that my ideas were creating excitement in people. And that was what made me decide to pursue the position and actually apply for it permanently,” she said.
The word “interim” was removed from her title in 2007. She added the title of acting dean of Fordham’s graduate business school in 2014; she was appointed dean of the combined schools in March.
Not lost on Rapaccioli is that she is among the highest-ranking women in Fordham’s administration. As a woman, she must remain laser-focused on outcomes to succeed in a male-dominated environment, she said. But it also may be of help when it comes to the business school’s vision.
“I think being a woman has allowed me to embrace this notion of compassion and humanism and care for the individual person in a way that might seem less natural for a man, perhaps,” she said.
But make no mistake about it: What’s happening at the Gabelli School of Business is being driven by Rapaccioli, who is tasked with carving Fordham’s niche in the highly competitive world of business education and encouraging others to go along for the ride.
“I do think you need to show vision, but I think that there’s a way to get people to want to be part of it. And that’s kind of a fine line,” she said. “If you don’t recognize that you’re just one person, you’re never going to get anything done. I don’t see any other way to lead or be.”