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Where No Woman Has Gone Before

Jacqueline Morby ’78MBA has never faced a frontier she couldn’t conquer. Now she’s turned her venture-capital gaze on a scientific quest. Will an Alzheimer’s cure be far behind?

You sit up and notice when a legendary venture capitalist, whose job is to hunt down, ruthlessly analyze, and bet big on which new business might succeed out of thousands, smiles brightly and says this of her latest venture: “Our greatest goal is to be put out of business.”

But that’s Jacqueline Morby for you. Since she graduated from Simmons with an MBA in 1978, and became a pioneer in the venture capital world—both for being a woman in a man’s field, and for nailing the potential of the first software companies before virtually anyone else did—Morby has been sold on being bold. She was a trailblazer in the practice of cold-calling companies. She aggressively did her homework and found, as they say, the unicorns. She has been praised by The Wall Street Journal and Business Week,and appeared on the covers of several of computer magazines. She has sat on many boards and won many awards.

So what’s with this business of wanting to go out of business? It’s because in 2004, the Morbys (Jacqueline and her husband Jeff), along with Phyllis Rappaport ’75MBA and Henry McCance, founded Cure Alzheimer’s Fund. CAF applies venture capital principles to a scientific quest. The Morbys like to call what they do “venture philanthropy.”

It may be philanthropic, but it’s also personal: Jacqui’s mother began showing signs of Alzheimer’s in 1975, at a time when pitifully little research was being done.

As of 2018, the Fund has swung for the fences like a good VC would: They have channeled more than $67 million to the country’s best scientists to do the most ambitious research on this tragic, ubiquitous disease—plunging in when funding had stalled on the national level. They have made considerable headway. Just ask Rudolph Tanzi, the director of Mass General’s Genetics and Aging Research Unit: “It’s incredible to have partners that allow us to implement our dreams so we can push faster and harder to solve the mystery of Alzheimer’s.”

Faster is key here. “We have a sense of urgency,” Morby says on a video on the CAF website: “When you are a venture capitalist, you really are urgent.” So there’s the answer, then: For CAF, the urgency is about finding a cure—and therefore Jacqueline Morby wants it to go out of business. For good.

Jacqueline (neé Collins) Morby was born in 1937 in Sacramento and grew up in Marysville, CA, a town founded in the time of the Gold Rush. Indeed, the city’s nickname is “Gateway to the Gold Fields.” Forty years later, Morby mined her own “gold fields” professionally when she joined the Boston venture capital firm TA Associates. And the gateway was her Simmons MBA; she interned at TA while in school and was hired right after graduation.

But let’s rewind a bit. The Morbys met in college at Stanford, where she majored in psychology, and he in engineering. Both got jobs at Hughes Aircraft after graduation, and she did accounting-type stints in several other companies and was a schoolteacher for a time. After their two children were born, Jacqui Morby became a full-time homemaker and, starting in 1969, the family lived in several places in Argentina and Brazil, as Jeff got a number of high-level banking positions throughout Latin America.

In 1974, they came back to the States, where the women’s movement was kicking into high gear. In a Simmons interview, Morby recalls what happened next: “All the women in Cambridge, where we lived, were doing something interesting. And I thought I’d like to do something. And I actually went out and looked for a few jobs and discovered that my psychology degree from Stanford wasn’t going to help me very much with no experience really to speak of.”

Morby heard about Simmons’ MBA program from a neighbor, and decided to apply. She took a brush-up math course at Boston University, and thought she’d pursue arts management. But at Simmons, she discovered a passion and talent for finance. “One of the things that was extremely important were the quantitative courses,” Morby recalls of her time here. She adds: “What probably made the biggest difference for me, and which was uniquely Simmons, were the behavioral courses—how you deal with being a woman in a man’s environment.”

The Simmons MBA program placed students in internships and required them to write a paper about the interrelationships of all the important people in their placement. “This is where another piece of Simmons instruction helped me along,” Morby says. “By having to go around and talk to everyone, I became part of the group.” Within four years, Morby made partner.

In Morby’s career, she had the luck of timing—and the smarts to leverage it. Software was just coming on the scene when she graduated from Simmons, and she was one of the first to see that software, not hardware, held the most investment promise. She was named one of “The Five Most Powerful Women” on the computer scene by InfoWorldin 1984.

Morby stayed at TA for many years. On the company website today, they call her, no less, a “pioneering deal-sourcer.”

In 1986, she left TA’s Boston headquarters to open new regional offices in places where Jeff’s escalating positions in the banking industry took the family: San Francisco, Manhattan, and Pittsburgh.

What was it like to be female in this male-dominated profession? Morby believes the scarcity of women worked to her benefit. “It was more of a curiosity than anything else,” she said of cold calling companies at first. Charm helped, no doubt. “You don’t have to act and look tough to be tough,” she says. True, that. Throughout her career, she was known for winning over the most difficult business leaders.

As a Brazilian proverb says, “Soft water can break the hardest stone.”

The stakes are high, but that’s never scared Jacqueline Morby. As she ventures to say of this work and, indeed, her life’s work: “It’s been quite a ride.”

 

When the Morbys co-founded Cure Alzheimer’s Fund, they treated it like a venture. They got the best people, made a strategic plan, asked their friends and families to put up money, and started “trying to get as much publicity as we could,” says Morby, who learned that being in the press had helped her in her VC days.

Attention was paid. In 2008, Time and CNN designated the Alzheimer’s Genome Project, which was funded by CAF, as one of the year’s “Top 10 Medical Breakthroughs.” In the decade since, the Alzheimer’s Genome Project has screened DNA from over 400 Alzheimer’s families and searched for genes that may raise the risk for, or offer armor against, the disease. In the first years of the project, it mapped four genes that appear to play a role in the disease. Since then, it has mapped 100.

CAF hosts a symposium each fall in Boston, where its funded researchers share their findings. “We’re trying to solve this terrible problem that’s costing the government and the country $200 billion a year to care for people with Alzheimer’s,” says Morby. Toward that end, Cure Alzheimer’s Fund now fully backs 65 elite scientists, all over the country and in Europe, each of them laboring on different pieces of the puzzle of Alzheimer’s.

The stakes are high, but that’s never scared Jacqueline Morby. As she ventures to say of this work and, indeed, her life’s work: “It’s been quite a ride.”

Jacqueline Morby shares more about her life, career and goals in this video:

Following in Morby’s Footsteps

In March 2016, Simmons launched its online MBA and Health Care MBA programs. The first cohort will graduate in June. To date, 120 students—from 25 states—have plunged into rigorous weekly classes conducted in an innovative online format, held live and face-to-face. The flexibility of the platform allows students to build leadership skills while also managing personal and professional commitments. So how’s it going? Students give the inside scoop.

Carmen Diaz, MBA ’19
“I chose Simmons due to the school’s emphasis on empowering and preparing women to be leaders. I also wanted to be in a learning environment where teamwork was valued, and where I would feel comfortable exchanging my ideas and opinions.”

Stephanie Crumley, MBA ’19
“I never thought that I would feel so connected to so many individuals through an online program, but the fact of the matter is I communicate far more with the teachers and students online than I ever did in my in-person undergraduate program.”

Chris Holland, HCMBA ’18
“Simmons provided the best of both worlds when it came to a rigorous health-care MBA curriculum design paired with an exceptional student experience (especially online!). The community and support system that supports it is second-to-none.”

Amanda Ford Reilly MSM ’15, MBA ’18
On her study abroad trips to Japan, China, Sweden and Chile: “I look at situations through a different lens now, shed pre-conceived judg-ments and approach opportunities and change with an open mind. My time at Simmons as a graduate student has been a gift because I know it will influence the rest of my life.”