"Do What You Love"
The 17-year-old from Boston had no hope of getting into the ILR School or of being able to pay for it – her single mother was a first-grade public schoolteacher.
"The day that letter arrived was the best day of my life," said Eva Sage-Gavin '80, recalling news of her scholarship.
"You really can come from anywhere and have a shot. It was extraordinary," she said in an interview.
Sage-Gavin is now executive vice president of Gap Inc., a 132,000-employee international retailer based in San Francisco. She receives ILR's Groat Award Thursday in New York City.
As a teenager fresh to Cornell, Sage-Gavin was thrilled, terrified and busy. She completed 20 to 30 work-study hours weekly at Catherwood Library and later at the Willard Straight Hall desk.
A packed routine cultivated a roll-up-your-sleeves-and-get-things-done style that has propelled her into the highest reaches of human resource leadership.
In ILR classrooms, Sage-Gavin was excited by ideas. "Some of the work we did was so far ahead of the time in diversity, inclusion, work-family balance."
From professors such as Lee Dyer, Michael Gold, Jennie Farley and Larry Williams, Sage-Gavin absorbed different points of view "so that you can be respectful of everyone" and practical knowledge. "These are the things that stay with you."
She joined Kappa Kappa Gamma, making lifelong friends with sorority sisters such as Kathy Boak '81, Carrie Pecht A&S '80 and Mona Reaves HumEc '80.
Michael Reid, ILR career adviser, helped Sage-Gavin transition from campus to work and sorority sister Deborah K. Smith '70 recruited her for her first post-graduation job at Xerox.
There and at PepsiCo, Disney and other corporations, "I was bringing fresh ideas to some truly great companies," she said. "I felt extremely well prepared."
Thirty-two years after graduating, Sage-Gavin says, "I owe my success to Cornell. Period."
Success comes with strings attached, she said. Consider 17 relocations and the loss of family time.
"I have lived in the real world."
Dennis Gavin, her husband of 22 years, has moved 11 times for their career growth. Their 16-year-old daughter, Christina, has moved five times.
"It was really hard. But, we made it through," Sage-Gavin said. "We make big decisions as a family, and we're really good at supporting each other."
At every career juncture, a Cornell mentor emerged to help her go to the next level, she said.
As a result, Sage-Gavin said, "I can never give back enough."
"Cornell isn't just a past experience. It's a part of my daily life … your relationship with an institution can be forever."
Sage-Gavin's relationship continues to grow.
A member of Cornell Silicon Valley Advisors, which counsels Cornell President David Skorton, she serves on a number of university and ILR boards. She is a former chair of ILR's Center for Advanced Human Resource Studies.
Beyond Cornell, Sage-Gavin also serves on national boards. She leads a consortium of college, state and federal leaders and 300 chief human resource officers concerned with workforce readiness.
"We need to get more people back to work," said Sage-Gavin, known for staying connected and writing personal notes to friends and colleagues.
Sage-Gavin's interest in philanthropy extends through her work overseeing the Gap Inc. Foundation. Last year, 59,600 employees volunteered 433,000 hours through the company's community service programs.
In September, the company's Personal Advancement Career Enhancement program – known as P.A.C.E – was recognized by the Clinton Global Initiative for its work with women in developing countries.
Dozens of ILR undergraduates will be among the 400 gathered at The Pierre near Central Park Thursday to honor her and Tracy Dolgin, winner of the 2011 Alpern Award.
Asked what advice she would share with students, Sage-Gavin offered this:
"Discover what you're passionate about. Do what you love and good things will happen."
"Don't be shy about leveraging your network."
"Give back. Take others with you."