Growing up in a suburb of Boston in the 1960s, Ilene Gordon had to ask for special permission from her junior high school principal to get out of home economics and take shop, where she was the only girl in the class. She went to MIT intending to be a high school math teacher, but decided instead to get her business degree at the Sloan School of Management. She became the first female executive officer at Tenneco, a replacement parts company headquartered in Lake Forest, Ill., and at the age of 45, was appointed the first female board member at Zenith Electronics.
“I thrived on being a pioneer,” she says. “Throughout my career, I’ve always had a can-do attitude.”
Today, as chairman, president and CEO of Ingredion — the Westchester, Ill.-based ingredient manufacturer whose sales last year were $6.5 billion — Gordon is the ultimate pioneer, one of 21 women heading a Fortune 500 company. She admits that progress for women in the corporate world has been slow, but she is hopeful about the future.
“I was at a dinner recently with many of the other [female CEOs of the Fortune 500],” she says. “We got our MBAs 30 years ago; we’ve run businesses and now we’re running major corporations. Many of us have children; now we’re having grandchildren. It’s a symbol of where we are. We have the experience, and there are women behind us who will come through.”
In many ways, Gordon — in her personal career and her public role as head of a major company — embodies both sides of the current debate about how to rectify the dearth of women leaders in Corporate America and government.