From Wall Street to Disney, Trailblazing Alum Speaks to our Columbia Engineers

Anne Gates MS’82 shares a wealth of knowledge from her vast career

Mar 19 2024 | By Melanie A. Farmer
A smiling Anne Gates sitting at a table with her arms crossed.

Anne Gates MS’82 visits Columbia as a Silberstein Family Executive in Residence (Credit: Eileen Barroso/Columbia Engineering)

As a Silberstein Family Executive in Residence at Columbia Engineering, Anne Gates MS’82 carved time on campus Feb. 20 to share moments from her professional journey and gave leadership advice to undergraduate and graduate students.

Gates grew up in Palo Alto, well before the area gained notoriety as a hotbed of innovation for the next big idea in tech. Her mother was an educator and academic consultant at UC Berkeley and her father a NASA engineer. Gates attended Berkeley for a degree in applied mathematics–a decision based less on a career aspiration and more for the simple fact that she enjoyed math and was good at it. That numbers background served her well. 

Building off her background in mathematics, Gates pursued a master’s degree in industrial engineering and operations research at Columbia Engineering. Though this was not thought of then as a strategic play on her part, ironically Gates would build a career leveraging her strategic know-how.

A strategic surprise 

Anne Gates sitting at a table. Four Columbia Engineering students sit to her right and look at her.

During her executive residence in February, Anne Gates spoke to undergraduate and graduate students, including students in the new joint master’s program with Columbia Business School. (Credit: Eileen Barroso/Columbia Engineering)

Gates held executive roles in consumer products, strategic marketing, and emerging markets at some of the world’s largest corporations, including Pepsi, Disney, and MGA Entertainment. At MGA, where she was president from 2014 until her retirement in 2017, she helped globally launch the toy behemoth’s hugely successful line, L.O.L Surprise! Dolls. In 2020, the New York Times headlined a feature about MGA's L.O.L. dolls the “dopamine hit of a generation.” MGA hit the “toy unboxing” trend at a sweet spot and reaped the benefits in multi-billion-dollar sales. 

So how did Gates, a number cruncher turned engineer turned C-suite strategic leader get to where she is today? Being true to oneself, she will say, as well as the ability to adapt to the ups and downs of business and maintaining relationships along the way. 

To be a successful leader, she said during her visit with students, one has to maintain authenticity. And, that’s different with each person. “You have to figure out what your individual leadership style is, and then learn how to optimize that style for the environment that you're in,” she said. 

Gates highlighted the importance of maintaining relationships with former colleagues and friends, even after years have passed, as they can lead to unexpected opportunities and connections. She shared a story about how a direct-report at Disney ended up years later introducing Gates to other opportunities. 

“Here was somebody who worked for me years ago and now she’s a CFO and she was able to open many doors for me,” Gates recalled. “You just never know what's going to happen with those relationships. And especially when you're in a quality firm like Disney and you have such high quality people working with you, it only behooves you to keep up those relationships.”

No brakes on leadership journey

Three students sitting at a table looking in the same direction.

A select group of students attended a session with alum Anne Gates who shared moments from her career in finance and as a top executive at Pepsi, Disney, and MGA Entertainment. (Credit: Eileen Barroso/Columbia Engineering)

When Gates retired as president of MGA in 2017, it was more like a partial retirement. With a career spanning more than 30 years managing diverse teams internationally, Gates is still on the go. 

She sits on the Board of Visitors at Columbia Engineering and is an active board director, across diverse industries. Gates currently chairs the board of Tapestry, Inc. (home to Coach, Kate Spade, and Stuart Weitzman brands). She also chairs the audit committee at Kroger and the governance committees at Tapestry and Raymond James Financial. She works with many not-for-profit boards, including chairing the Public Media Group SoCal board (the major PBS affiliate in Southern California), as well as having seats on the boards of the David and Lucille Packard Foundation, Save the Children, Salzburg Global Seminar, and the UC Berkeley Foundation Board of Trustees. 

Her visit to Morningside Heights in February included “office hours” with students from the new MBA/Executive MS in Engineering joint program and a select group of diverse students in STEM and underrepresented groups. 

Gates is the second Silberstein Family Executive in Residence following fellow alum and Board of Visitor member Armen Avanessians MS'83 (P:’12CC, '17CC, '17SIPA) (formerly Goldman Sachs), who spoke to students in the spring of 2023. Disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic, the program adapted with a soft launch in 2020 by hosting three virtual “Silberstein Family Leaders and Innovators'' sessions for students with Ursula Burns MS‘82 (formerly Xerox), Bob Bakish BS‘85 (Paramount Global), ‘89BUS (P’22SEAS), and Ya-Qin Zhang (P: ‘20BUS, ’22SEAS) (Tsinghua University, formerly Baidu).

In 2019, Alan M. Silberstein BS’69 and his wife, Carol ’69BC, endowed the Silberstein Family Executive in Residence to recruit distinguished short-term visitors in fields across industry, business, government, and the nonprofit sector. By offering perspective on career pathways and serving as mentors in nonacademic sectors, Silberstein hopes the Executive(s) in Residence will help students expand their understanding of leadership in business and industry and ways they can build their skills as leaders early on to make an impact in the world.

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