Scratching the Itch to Give Back
and Keep Learning
Following a 35-year career as a corporate lawyer and advocate for global gender parity, Debbie Dean (DCI 2018/2019) balances a dynamic portfolio of board work and continued learning.
Debbie’s DCI Experience
Retiring from her role as Vice President, General Counsel Americas and founder/leader of the Women’s Initiative (WIN) for 3-D software maker Dassault Systèmes might have felt like “stepping into the abyss,” Debbie said. Instead, DCI presented an opportunity to “step onto an island… an oasis of growth, companionship, and new experiences.”
Debbie credits the 2014 Forbes article, “Stanford is Looking for a Few Good Midlifers,” for directing her to Stanford’s Distinguished Careers Institute. DCI’s emphasis on the 3 pillars of purpose, community and wellness offered everything Debbie was seeking. She viewed DCI as “an enriching year to celebrate my career and water my brain.”
She had also hoped to continue lifting up women in Rwanda, a passion discovered while leading WIN for Dassault Systèmes when she established an education and scholarship fund to serve less fortunate Rwandan women. A DCI year of exploration and learning unfolded, including engaging with Stanford’s GSB, Law and Medical Schools, relationships with undergraduate and graduate students, and a rich community of now lifelong friends.
A New Portfolio Life
Debbie credits DCI connections with her decision to join the Board of Directors of Resonate, an organization offering workshops to unlock the leadership potential of women and girls in East Africa. Similarly, Debbie’s interest in Akilah Institute, the first women’s college in Rwanda, was reignited after having visited the college while leading WIN at Dassault Systèmes. She now serves on Akilah’s Advisory Board. According to Debbie, both Resonate and Akilah Institute “scratched the itch to continue advocating for women and connect to Rwanda.”
While at Dassault Systèmes, Debbie was actively involved in establishing the Dassault Systèmes Foundation and served on its Board of Directors. This engagement made her a natural to take the helm as Foundation President for the Americas in 2021. With a mission for funding innovative education and science projects leveraging 3-D technology, Debbie is launching an innovative pilot program in the United States.
The Pilot, serving students ages 13 to 17 years, incorporates a six-month curriculum of entrepreneurship and design thinking. Students design products using 3-D software and learn about finance and marketing. The final deliverables include a marketing video and a 3-D printed product that are judged by a panel of experts. In consultation with the French foundation La Main à la Pâte, Debbie is in the process of launching the program in multiple schools in the Boston and Los Angeles areas. She refers to her Presidency as a labor of love and is deeply committed to taking the Foundation to the next level.
As if her portfolio of “giving back” weren’t enough, Debbie also served as a COVID contact tracing supervisor for Partners in Health – U.S. in 2020 as part of their landmark partnership with the State of Massachusetts.
The same passion for lifelong learning that steered Debbie toward DCI led her to the Harvard Institute for Learning in Retirement (HILR). HILR is a peer-to-peer teaching and learning program serving 550 students with more than 120 courses per year. Currently in her second year, Debbie said HILR “scratches the itch to keep learning.” She also works to improve her French language skills through weekly classes.
In her spare time, Debbie avidly reads about functional medicine and the role of nutrition and holistic methods to achieve optimal health. Perhaps the role of functional medicine health coach will be part of Debbie’s future portfolio?
Reflections on Life After DCI
While Debbie had no specific expectations going in about what life might look like after DCI, she now enjoys an enriched life with an expanded group of friends, most of whom she never would have met. “I am a Boomer after all,” Debbie remarked, “and we are the generation rewriting the rules of retirement.”
She credits DCI with providing a lens to view the world as a larger place, and her role within it as more than a corporate vice president. In a profession where she was constantly striving to secure the next job or the next promotion, Debbie’s epiphany was realizing, “I am enough, as I am,” and appreciating her own value and self-worth. She now allows herself to be much more selective about the activities she pursues.
Thanks to her DCI fellowship, Debbie’s life has come full circle. Laughing as she described being “forced” to take a full scholarship at Wellesley College because her parents couldn’t afford to send Debbie to the out-of-state university of her choice, coming to Stanford was the realization of a dream, 40 years later. “It just goes to show you that early disappointments in life have a way of working themselves out,” she said.
Scholarship recipients and applicants gather with Debbie at the Nyanza Technical School in Rwanda (2016).