Marlene Lepkoski ’90 describes her life as a series of firsts. Her first plane ride brought her to Texas A&M University, her first job resulted in a full-fledged career at Johnson & Johnson (J&J), and her first gift to the School of Innovation—also the school’s first gift—will open unlimited opportunities for students seeking to pioneer their lives. However, none of this would have been possible without a single word: “Howdy!”
“I always say, ‘You had me at Howdy,’” laughed Lepkoski. In the 1980s, Lepkoski traveled from her home state of New Jersey to visit a friend at Texas A&M. As someone who had never been far from home, the warm and welcoming atmosphere of campus reassured her that she was where she was supposed to be.
Despite being a first-generation student with limited funds, Lepkoski vowed to find a way to attend Texas A&M. A family friend intervened by offering to pay for half of her tuition each semester. A short five years after she graduated, Lepkoski wrote a single check to thank her donor.
“This was the first time I understood the value of major gifts, because without his support I could not have attended Texas A&M," she said. "I realized how much of a difference it can make for one student to have people like me give back.”
Stayed for Bonfire
If Lepkoski came to Texas A&M for ‘Howdy,’ she stayed for bonfire. Toward the end of her first semester, she was so homesick that she planned on withdrawing after the holidays. Instead, she was invited on a first date to her first bonfire. “When ‘The Last Corps Trip’ was read, everything changed," she recalled. "In an instant, I knew this was home. Even today, I still can’t explain it really, but it was everything that represents the Aggie Spirit.”
Her first job post-graduation was a temporary position at J&J. Her only task was to answer a hotline when other staff were busy. Lepkoski wanted to quit after her first day, but her dad encouraged her to return. “He told me, ‘If I know you, you’ll create something for yourself,’” explained Lepkoski. “And that was the best advice I ever received. Every job I’ve had at J&J since I began, I invented. I never waited for a position to come to me or a promotion to appear.”
Lepkoski developed an eye for possibilities. Like a true innovator, she learned how to create something out of nothing, to see the potential in what others overlook, to motivate others to mobilize, and to carve a path for herself through ingenuity and resourcefulness. At J&J, Lepkoski found opportunities in the obstacles and after 11 months of working as a temporary contractor, she was hired full time. Six months later, she needed her own staff, which eventually grew to 150 people.
GAve for Innovation
Today at J&J, Lepkoski helps others see their own potential in the form of career development and is relentless in her focus on the future of talent. Her efforts have created numerous leadership and learning programs as she grows a culture of innovation within her organization. And, when she wanted to hear from the next generation of leaders to understand what motivates them and how they want to be developed, she came home. She found a kinship in the School of Innovation.
The recently developed School of Innovation, or the I-School, led by Dean Andrew Morriss ’18, is an interdisciplinary hub for creativity and problem-solving. It started with President Young’s idea that there should be better connections across Texas A&M disciplines to equip students for a world in which they are likely to have multiple careers and must communicate in the same “language” as colleagues in different fields. To that end, the school’s goal is to help prepare Aggies for the working world by expanding their horizons and completing multidisciplinary projects that encourage collaboration and inventiveness.
Using J&J's matching gift program, Lepkoski gave $25,000 to establish an endowed leadership scholarship fund to support students involved with the I-School. Lepkoski found that this method was an excellent way to increase her donation to Texas A&M without further reducing her own assets. Many corporate companies offer matching gifts that may double, triple or quadruple the size of an individual’s gift. In addition, donors still receive a charitable deduction for the amount they give.
“Marlene’s gift helps in a big way, partly because it’s a huge validation of what we’re trying to do,” said Morriss. “J&J is at the forefront of innovation in everything from leadership training to how they approach regulatory issues. As the first gift to the I-School, it helps us get students involved in the projects we sponsor.”
So far, the I-School has sent students to Mexico to collaborate on a service project and has developed resources for the community such as the Patent Vector database, a tool for discovering, analyzing and comparing patent value, available through the library’s web portal to anyone with a Texas A&M email address. “We’re finding an important niche as a facilitator of collaboration across campus,” said Morriss. “We are excited to continue exploring how the I-School can serve as a ‘force multiplier’ for Texas A&M. With a little grit and the power of people like Marlene, we can achieve great things.”
To learn how you can support the School of Innovation and its students or projects, contact Patrick Williams '92 below.