Lisa Borders ’79: To Believe in People is to Lead

October 30, 2019 | by Kyle Simmons
Lisa Borders profile picture

Spend one minute with Lisa Borders ’79 and you’ll see the immense charm, humility, wit and decision-making that make her leadership a tour de force in the public sector and in the business world. Spend another, and you’ll soon be uplifted by your own inner bravery, ready to clear big hurdles and accomplish lofty goals.

Of course, this is by design.

Borders is a practiced builder of bold ideas — and of people — in the face of an often unforgiving world. In part, this is due to her experiences with adversity and the resilience that is forged in overcoming it. In high school, she was one of the first African Americans to integrate the Westminster Schools, a private K-12 school, and the first to integrate in Atlanta, in 1969. The daily challenges there strengthened her and continue to guide her interests today.

After high school, Borders entered Duke University as a chemistry major aiming to go into medicine. But with an ear for language, she decided to take Romance language classes to help keep up her GPA. With AP course credit, she began taking 200-level French courses with James B. Duke Professor of French Literature Wallace Fowlie. Soon, she found herself enrolling in Fowlie’s classes every year. By her junior year, Borders was a full-on French major. 

“He understood the beauty of communicating between people,” says Borders. “He was equally good at teaching and conveying that beauty.”

“I liked him so much that I ended up taking Dante’s ‘Inferno’ in Italian,” she says with a laugh.

Over the years, Borders’ academic training in the power of communication has served her well. She mastered the skills needed to lead by turning passion into action — and at some points by protecting others from disenfranchisement and exploitation. After holding C-suite positions at companies like the Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA), The Coca-Cola Company and Time’s Up, Borders is a compelling spokesperson and compassionate leader. She was elected to the Duke University Board of Trustees in 2015 and was the commencement speaker for the Class of 2019. In 2018, she was named by People magazine as one of “25 Women Changing the World.”

And for good reason: Borders is an empowerer not just for women but for any person in need. So WIN was a natural fit.

“Women are often taught to nurture our families, our children, our parents, our spouses and significant others. We’re not taught on a regular basis, historically, to navigate or negotiate life,” says Borders. “So we don’t always have the capacity or capability to do so until someone says, ‘You can do this.’

“Recognizing that you have gifts and that you have value in your voice is really important for women to understand.”

Now, as a member of the Duke Women’s Impact Network, Borders is furthering her impact and special connection with the university by giving to an area she believes in: scholarships that support equity, diversity and inclusion. Her gift to the Duke WIN Scholarship Endowment is in honor of her late mother Gloria Thomas Borders, who Borders says set the tenor and tone for her family. Borders credits her mother with devising and ensuring that each family member followed a moral compass with the cardinal directions of honesty, transparency and serving others.

This particular aspect of Borders’ gift is endearing. Borders says she wasn’t asked to donate to the initiative. Instead, she made a conscious decision to direct her financial support to help develop female leaders for the future — in honor of what her mother Gloria instilled in her as her oldest child.

With this gift, Borders hopes she is delivering a resource that enables all Duke students to have the same opportunities. She knows that financial resources are just as important as intellectual ones.   

In looking back at what was foundational to developing her leadership skills, the strength of her family and community played an important role. In fact, some of Borders’ proudest moments come from the commitment her family has made to their hometown of Atlanta where roots run deep. In 2004, she was elected vice mayor and president of the city council in Atlanta. Alongside then-Mayor Shirley Franklin, the two inherited a city with a host of problems. But they persevered, raising the municipal funds needed to repair and update critical infrastructure to the city’s sewer system, consistently balancing the City’s annual budget and instituting ethics laws for Atlanta’s government employees that were the most stringent of their day. These accomplishments and fundamental changes left Atlanta in good stead for generations to come. Borders credits Franklin as a female leader who inspires her and continues to have great influence on her career today.

Going back further in time in Atlanta, Borders’ father was a physician who specialized in internal medicine, and with whom Borders conducted house calls. Her aunt is an OB-GYN physician. Borders says that at the time they started practicing medicine, there were only approximately 100 black doctors in Georgia. These encounters with citizens in need gave her an appreciation for self-sufficiency and giving to others.

There’s also the work of her grandfather Rev. William Holmes Borders, Sr., whose pastorate at Wheat Street Baptist Church in the city’s Sweet Auburn neighborhood lasted 50 plus years. There, the reverend had a leading role in the civil rights movement, laying a path for Martin Luther King, Jr., who often snuck into the balcony of Borders’ church as a young man to watch the pastor’s preaching style and learn the cadence of his sermons.

This collective familial strength has made Borders realize something important. “What women do in the household to keep our families in place, and hold them, particularly in crisis — that is real leadership.”

If there’s one thing Borders seeks for young women at Duke to understand, it’s this: Every woman is a leader. She wants women and girls to understand who they can be, the agency they have and the opportunity ahead, while they’re still young.

“People often treat women as afterthoughts. We are not afterthoughts — we are assets,” says Borders. “And like all assets, you hope that they appreciate over time. … In the absence of having women at the table, we’ve deliberately and unwisely rendered half of our assets inaccessible.”

In her 2019 commencement speech, Borders acknowledged that those who are lucky enough to graduate from Duke stand on the strong shoulders of those who came before them. It’s a nod to the lineage of Duke alumni who through the years have brought the school to life by improving the world.

When we come together to solve whatever challenges are ahead with our deep pool of rich and diverse talent, then we’ll fully realize the special kind of impact that Borders has been after all these years since leaving the Gothic wonderland.

“If you look at what’s going on in the world, there unfortunately appears to be an assault on women and equity. Not only in the workplace, but in society,” says Borders. “To the extent that we can educate women to come to the forefront, stand on any stage, and compete and deliver — I am hoping that Duke will enable those leaders.

“With WIN, Duke is conveying ‘Women matter.’ This value is one I want to promote.”