Dr. Reatha Clark King
Born in south Georgia more than 70 years ago, Dr. Reatha Clark King has overcome many obstacles in compiling stunning achievements in the fields of science, education, philanthropy and corporate governance. In this interview with NACD Directorship’s Jeffrey M. Cunningham, King describes how she got started toward long tenures on five public company boards. Prior to her retirement last year, she served on the ExxonMobil board for 13 years. She also served for many years on the boards of Wells Fargo, HB Fuller, Minnesota Life and Lenox Group. She earned master’s and doctoral degrees in chemistry from the University of Chicago before securing an MBA at Columbia in 1977, and has since been awarded 14 honorary degrees. She ran the General Mills Foundation for 14 years. She is a life trustee at the University of Chicago, and a member of the Allina Health System and NACD boards of directors.
How did your background contribute to your career and achievements?
I grew up in rural south Georgia and was taught in a one-room schoolhouse in Moultrie. Like everyone in my family, I picked cotton and worked on tobacco farms for a living until age 17—and I am proud to say I was good at it, too. That upbringing taught me that to keep your sanity, you must be a student of change. The second thing was that helping to improve circumstances for people and organizations is what really motivates me.
Did you ever imagine you would become a college president and then a renowned corporate board director? Not even in my dreams.
What was the turning point?
It was 1954, the same year as the Brown v. Topeka Supreme Court decision, which desegregated schools. Although my father was illiterate and my mother had only finished third grade, they both believed strongly in education. So when I finished high school, I entered Clark College in Atlanta, a Methodist institution that was started to help children descended from black slaves. I graduated in 1958 with degrees in chemistry and math.
How did you pay for college?
My scholarship plus a summer job as a live-in maid in upstate New York each summer allowed me to earn the money to pay the tuition. Unlike the movie The Help, I worked for a wonderful and truly enlightened woman, Mrs. Dann, who led me to see myself with dignity and introduced me to the public library, Rockefeller Center, Yankee Stadium, the opera house and Riverside Church.