After serving in leadership roles at the manufacturing firms Cummins, Alcan, and Novelis, Martha Finn Brooks ’86 left the private sector to devote herself to addressing poverty and issues facing women and girls around the world.
By Dana Cook Grossman
Midway through her undergraduate career at Yale College, Martha Finn Brooks YC ’81, SOM ’86 took a gap year—then an unusual path—and went to work at the House Ways and Means Committee in Washington, D.C.
They hired me because I took a single class in oil policy economics,” she says. “Then along came most favored nation legislation for China. Nobody in the office wanted to touch it because it was a political football—so they gave it to the most junior person to research.” That was Brooks.
She became fascinated with East-West trade and “rushed back to school, studied all the economics, politics, and history associated with communism and wrote my thesis on joint ventures in China—when there were exactly two. Everybody said I was crazy, that we’d never do such business with China.”
It was one of series of crossroads where Brooks took the less obvious route—and where that choice proved prescient. A few years later, fresh out of Yale SOM, she was courted by consulting firms and investment banks, popular career paths at the time, but opted instead for heavy manufacturing. And counter to the tenor of the go-go ’80s, she “made a point of choosing a for-profit and global company with fundamental values about contributing to society.”
Those choices, contrary though they seemed, positioned Brooks perfectly: Her knowledge of Asia and her experience in manufacturing made her a hot commodity as overseas trade soared. And her devotion to socially responsible commerce put her on the leading edge of the B Corp revolution, and prepared her for a second act in the nonprofit sector.
After graduating from college, Brooks headed to China to gather a deeper understanding of the communist system “the only way I could find”—teaching English at a medical school in Hunan with the Yale-China Association. A few years later, she was ready for business school. Yale SOM, with its cross-sector and international focus, felt like the right fit.
“I’d spent three years in the developing world,” she explains, “traveling all over places lacking clean water, lacking transportation. I’d seen people lugging 1,000-pound pigs in rickshaws. I wanted to participate in international development and felt East-West trade and technology transfer was important.” Another factor in her return to New Haven was personal—her college boyfriend and soon-to-be husband was also bound for SOM.
Finishing her degree two years later, Brooks felt “somewhat conflicted” about going into international business instead of signing on with a nonprofit. She took the former path but stayed in close touch with classmates who joined nonprofits. Furthermore, she and her now-husband, Toby Brooks, made a pact to “run our finances and our joint home life such that we could be done with full-time work by the time we were 50 and then be deeply dedicated to social-service activities for the second half of our careers.”
Both took positions with Cummins Engine Co., an Indiana-based Fortune 500 firm that makes and markets power-generation products. Her first assignment was negotiating a licensee into a joint venture in China. She subsequently did business for Cummins all over the world—the Soviet Union, Eastern Europe, Pakistan, Turkey, Algeria, Zimbabwe, Mexico, Brazil—while rising through the ranks.
An especially satisfying project presaged today’s B Corp structure for businesses with a positive social impact. “Cummins was under attack by a hostile shareholder,” Brooks explains. “At the time, corporate law said that a board of directors could only consider the return to shareholders. So damage to customers or communities or employees was irrelevant for a board to take into account—by law.
“I had the pleasure of working to make our stakeholders become our stockholders with three large customers, and in the formation of an Employee Stock Ownership Plan (ESOP). Then our team successfully lobbied the Indiana legislature to change the law to allow the board to consider all stakeholders in its decision-making—things like the environment, community impact, and treatment of employees were relevant. In 1988-89, that was very radical.”
Eventually, Brooks had thousands of reports in 12 countries and was vice president of a $3 billion division. In 2002, she acceded to one of the many recruiting offers that came her way over the years, joining Alcan, a Montreal-based global aluminum company.
There, she was the operating head of one of six divisions. Her charge was to bring a more customer-focused and creative mindset to what had been simply a manufacturing commodity operation. A few years later, after buying out a competitor, Alcan spun off Brooks’ division and a sister division into a separate company, renamed Novelis, and tapped Brooks as its COO.
It was a challenging period. After the company’s CEO was let go, Brooks ran the business and led a second sale process that resulted in the sale of the company to a large conglomerate from India for $6 billion. She led the company as president and COO for two further years through the transition and several major contract negotiations, making a dozen trips to India, where her board of directors was based. She navigated many cultural disconnects to ensure the new owners and old employees of success, then invoked the pact she and her husband had made: “I resigned as my 50th birthday present to myself...and for the last eight or nine years have stayed out of the full-time rat race.”
But Brooks is far from retired. She knew she wanted to “help address poverty by empowering women with business tools—I just needed to find the right organizations to work with.” Her acid test was a willingness to “swing for the fences.” Nonprofits, she’d observed, may be mission-driven but are often timid, measuring activity rather than impact, “doing what they did last year and hoping to be 2% better.”
Now living in Atlanta, she chairs the board of the global humanitarian agency CARE, which is based there, and is development chair of a food bank that serves three-quarters of Georgia, among many other activities. (In addition, she serves on three public company corporate boards—which, she says, “keeps me fresh and current on technology.”) At CARE, the “swing for the fences” under Brooks’ leadership is addressing poverty and social injustice in 90 countries, starting with women and girls, by seeking social enterprise funding, developing agile startups, and applying business-accelerator techniques to scale successful projects from one country to another. At the food bank, Brooks is helping spearhead an effort to “close the meal gap with kids first” and offer more fresh food. “Georgia is a very poor state,” she notes.
As much as she revels in these roles, she’s glad she entered the for-profit world after Yale SOM. “I like the pattern of learning the best the private sector has to offer, saving substantial financial assets,” she says, “then moving into nonprofits, because I’ve been better able to build partnerships, make connections, address all forms of operational and leadership issues, and financially support the organizations I want to. That’s a piece of advice I share with young people choosing between the two sectors.”