HR Tech Innovator Turns to Service, Research
Eva Sage-Gavin ’80 took an interest inventory in high school that showed she would likely be successful in law, social work, teaching — or a new field called human resources.
Funny thing about that.
In a career spanning four decades, Sage-Gavin has served in top HR and C-suite leadership roles at global corporations such as Xerox, PepsiCo, The Walt Disney Co., Sun Microsystems and Gap Inc.
Most recently, she was senior managing director, Talent and Organization/Human Potential, at Accenture, where she led the global team that helped clients evolve their workforces to innovate and drive transformation.
But before her high-flying years in HR came her ILR years, “which provided lessons that have stayed with me my entire life,” she says.
“To go into technology in the ’80s as a woman … I don’t think I realized how unique that would be, because top women from IBM and Xerox had presented to our classes. To me, it was very normal to see senior women leading businesses.”
Two professors, she said, “deeply inspired me”: Harry Katz and the late David Lipsky.
“When I became involved with the safety initiative for Bangladesh garment workers [in 2013], I flew back to campus and met with Harry Katz, who had a particular interest in this area,” she says. “The coaching and support I received from ILR professors led us to engage the Bipartisan Policy Center. And with the help of Maine Senators George Mitchell and Olympia Snowe, we collaborated on a historic worker safety agreement.”
Although her training was in HR, not public service, she says, “Cornell taught me how to find a way forward using an inclusive, deep listening, creative problem-solving approach.”
In another foray into public policy, Sage-Gavin served as vice chair of the Aspen Institute’s Skills for America’s Future initiative, now UpSkill America. From 2010 to 2016, she worked with public- and private-sector leaders, including then-U.S. Secretary of Commerce Penny Pritzker, to connect people to jobs.
Reflecting on her career, she says, “My greatest honor was having C-suite leadership embrace creative ideas that were cross-industry and sometimes cross-sector. Among the things I’m proudest of are teams I led and future leaders I mentored who now serve in C-suite roles.”
That interest in developing others led her to facilitate a grant from the Innovation Resource Center for Human Resources, which was inspired by the philanthropy that launched ILR’s Future of Work Fellowships. Its three-year grant helps support the research of Bart de Koning, a Future of Work fellow in ILR’s Labor Dynamics Institute. He is working under the supervision of Professors Michèle Belot and Philipp Kircher to improve job seekers’ success by helping them better identify opportunities that are a good fit.
“Our hope is that this grant enables young scholars and researchers to do breakthrough work, guided and mentored by senior professors,” Sage-Gavin says.
Sage-Gavin received ILR’s Groat Award for professional achievement and service to the school in 2012. She considers it “one of the greatest honors of my life because it came from my peers.” When Christy Pambianchi ’90 received the 2023 Groat Award, she recognized Sage-Gavin as one of her mentors.
Among her own mentors, Sage-Gavin counts Stanford University Professor Emerita Myra Strober ’62, who introduced her to the Clayman Institute for Gender Research, and Cornell emerita trustee Carol MacCorkle ’64, who welcomed her to Silicon Valley.
Sage-Gavin was appointed in 2015 as the ILR School’s first executive in residence and is a former chair of ILR’s Center for Advanced Human Resource Studies advisory board. During her tenure, the center launched the Modern CHRO Role program, also known as Top Seat, to prepare world-class CHROs.
At the university level, Sage-Gavin serves on the President’s Council of Cornell Women, as a life member of the Cornell University Council and as a Cornell Silicon Valley adviser.
In 2020, to mark her 40th reunion, she and her family established the Sage-Gavin Family Endowment for students in need.
That year, she was recognized by the National Association of Corporate Directors as one of the most influential leaders in corporate governance and by Silicon Republic as a top 16 Future-of-Work Influencer. In 2019, “Human Resource Executive” named her a Top 100 HR Tech Influencer.
Sage-Gavin is a fellow of the National Academy of Human Resources, the profession’s highest honor. She was the first woman to serve on multiple technology company boards. At Stanford, she has been on the advisory councils of the Clayman Institute and the Stanford Center on Longevity.
“Having the honor to serve Cornell, to serve Stanford, to serve on technology company boards and open doors for others — that’s the gift that will be with me all of my life,” she says.
“This is my time to give back with everything I have to offer.”