Michaela Walsh—A Living Legend

Murray Hill Neighbors’ Stories

Michaela Walsh
Michaela Walsh

Always driven by her passion to support young people, Michaela helped to start a program on drug education at the New York Junior League and produced a book on the drug and alcohol information and rehabilitation facilities in New York City. At the same time she took evening classes at Hunter College, where she graduated with a degree in English Literature in 1971.
In 1972, Michaela became a Program Associate at the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, where she worked as part of the civic and culture values program, bringing new ideas to program officers. It was her first introduction to the impact of policy and social programs and a launch pad for her to begin working to improve the economic status of women. Encouraged by Bill Dietel, President of the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, Michaela attended the first United Nations World Conference on Women in Mexico City in 1975. It was to set her on a new and extraordinary path.

As you walk around Murray Hill you may bump into a sprightly silver-haired woman with hand and heart outstretched to all those with whom she comes into contact. Her name is Michaela Walsh, and she is among the living legends of our time.
Born in Kansas City in 1935 into a largish Catholic family, Michaela was greatly influenced by the work of her father and grandfather who were involved in the critical political and social issues of their day. Her grandfather was Co-Chair of the 1918 War Labor Board who was, according to Michaela, “a creative, clever, independent and outspoken lawyer.” There was a strong relationship between them. His influence gave her at an early age value of giving service to others and support for the less fortunate.

Michaela was soon to chart her own path as a pioneer, an activist, scholar, mentor, educator, and author. As she embarked on this path, she embraced an adventurous spirit with a focus on how to make the world a better place for everyone.
She was hired by Merrill Lynch in Kansas City in 1953 and was subsequently transferred to Wall Street in 1957 where she became the Assistant to the Manager of Merrill’s New York City Foreign Department. She attended night school at the New York Institute of Finance where she became a registered stockbroker and one of only a handful of women working on Wall Street at that time. In 1960 when Merrill Lynch opened an office in Beirut, staff encouraged her to join them. However, the personnel office said no because sending women overseas was considered too dangerous for Merrill Lynch. She then resigned from her Merrill Lynch USA appointment, paid her own way to Beirut, and joined Merrill Lynch International. Her life of breaking glass ceilings was just beginning.

She worked in Beirut from 1960-1964. She then worked at the London Office of Merrill Lynch International from 1964-1965. Her experiences in Beirut and London were to change her life, in particular the exposure to other cultures, people from all over the world, other languages, all of which gave her a singular and new sense of being part of a global community.
Upon her return to New York, she joined a firm that was creating one of the first hedge funds, City Associates. She then became the first woman partner of a New York Stock Exchange member firm, Boettcher & Company. She was the third woman to attain that level of recognition.

It was there together with other like-minded women that it became obvious that one of the great hindrances for low-income women around the world was the absence of access to credit without a male intermediary. It was clear that any economy could not develop if half the population did not have access to financial resources. It was in Mexico that her idea for a women’s development bank was born. Michaela started the movement to give all entrepreneurial women access to financial services by building a global network of women-owned and women-run independent and financial institutions committed to serving women. She broke new ground in that her vision was for both a “for-profit” and “not-for-profit” entity with a non-hierarchical operating structure.

From 1975 to 1980 she worked with this group of like-minded women as Chairperson of the Committee to organize a financial institution focused on providing financial services to women. The financial institution they created was Women’s World Banking (WWB). In the Netherlands this institution was initially registered as Stichting Women’s World Banking (SWWB) and subsequently as Stichting to Promote Women’s World Banking (SWWB). This operating organization enabled the support of the Dutch financial authorities. With this early support and some seed money from the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), led at that time by visionary Bradford Morse, WWB was piloted in five different geographic regions to provide proof of concept. The focus was to build local financial service centers to work with local women to create and sustain small businesses. The work involved not only providing access to loans but teaching women how to use banking services, start and sustain businesses, and secure financial independence.

At a meeting in the Netherlands in 1979, Michaela won the title of Acting President of WWB. Michaela was elected Founding President of WWB for the first of two five year terms, from 1980-1990, at the second United Nations World Conference. Financial support began to come in from several countries. The task was then to create the affiliates in countries which could provide the loans for women. Kenya was the first in signing WWB’s first joint loan guarantee agreement, followed by Colombia. By 1988, WWB had built a global network of some 50 affiliates, with a loan portfolio of 56,000 loans and a global base capital of $10 million. In her 1990 resignation letter, Michaela said, “Together we have created WWB, and we have laid the foundation for a movement to build business partnerships around the globe. WWB is a real financial institution owned by women who are giving women credit.”

Currently WWB has 71 network member financial service providers in 33 countries. The collective network reaches a portfolio of 363 million customers, of which 178 million are women customers. WWB has brought women around the world into the formal finance system.

The creation of WWB was a massive achievement. And it was achieved through creating a movement, as Michaela documents in her book Founding a Movement: Women’s World Banking, 1975-1990. She says, “The endeavor required the support of many and that collaboration is what built WWB into the institution it is today. It was a movement created by women for women.” Michaela turned the reins of WWB over to the new leaders and is a life-time member of its Governing Board. She continues to engage to support the organization as it moves forward.

With a continued focus on advancing women as leaders in their communities and economies, Michaela then turned her attention to creating another groundbreaking initiative. Michaela has always been dedicated to supporting women who come behind her, to leaving the ladder down and doing everything in her power to ensure women get on that ladder and progress and create a network of support. At Manhattanville College, where she was serving as an Adjunct Professor from 1998 to 2008, she had the opportunity to do just that when she created the Global Student Leadership (GSL) Program. She designed the program to strengthen the students’ leadership capacity and voice in preparation for when they would move into positions of national and international importance around the world. Undergraduate women from developing countries came to Manhattanville in the summer to attend a 6-week course about leadership. The first program was held in the summer of 2000. There were 28 women, ages 18-24 from 15 different Latin American countries. WWB helped to select the candidates for this program. This program was active at Manhattanville College for eight years. There is now a network of women who graduated from the Leadership Program from countries all over the world who maintain a vital support network among themselves. They have Zoom meetings three or four times a year to continue the sharing of knowledge and collaboration.

Michaela continued to remain active in many national and international organizations and has been well recognized for her work with numerous awards. In 1984, she received the Paul G. Hoffman Award for outstanding work in national and international development and the Women of Vision Now Award in 1990. She was appointed Chairperson of the Annual United Nations Department of Information Non-Governmental Conference in 2006 which that year focused on “Unfinished Business: Effective Partnerships for Human Security and Sustainable Development.” In 2012, she was honored by the Women’s Funding Network for “changing the face of philanthropy.”

In November 2022, Michaela donated her personal library to the Anne Welsh McNulty Institute for Women’s Leadership at Villanova University. The Michaela Walsh Collection of Papers includes more than 600 books and artifacts which reflect the extent of her impressive career and her own intellectual and professional development. Michaela hopes her collection will help young women learn about the global world, and that “we are all limited until we recognize the vital importance of the empowerment of women’s voices.”

In December 2023, Michaela worked with the Self-Employed Women’s Association (SEWA), a trade union based in Ahmedabad, India, founded by Ela Bhatt, and the SEWA Bank to set up a new fund, the MICH-ELA Fund, that promotes the rights of low-income independently employed female workers. The objective of this fund is to uplift the social and economic lives of teenage members of SEWA and SEWA Bank, including daughters of existing members, by making them financially and digitally literate. Michaela says, “I look forward to encouraging young women to advance to seats at the design table of our future productive world leadership and peaceful global society.”

Not one to rest on her laurels, Michaela continues to contribute to Murray Hill, the neighborhood she loves and has lived in since 1966. Her first visit to the Murray Hill neighborhood was in 1952 when she stayed with her cousins who lived across the street from the Union League Club. She is a member of the Murray Hill Neighborhood Association (MHNA) and very active on one of its key committees, the Preservation and Design (P&D) Committee. Michaela is always looking for ways to encourage collaboration and help neighbors to get to know each other better. This led her to bring together several members of the P&D Committee to launch a unique initiative: “Murray Hill Neighbors’ Stories.” This initiative involves interviewing members of the Murray Hill community to share their stories about their experiences/memories of living in Murray Hill. The stories include personal ones as well as from businesses. Nineteen stories have already been written and published and several are in progress. Michaela cares deeply about the neighborhood and quality of life issues in it and is often seen working with the Green & Clean Committee picking up trash around the neighborhood and helping to plant trees. She has also volunteered to work for the recently established Shelter for Homeless Families in Murray Hill.

Reflecting on her career and accomplishments, Michaela says, “I had an idea about WWB, and I wasn’t afraid to pursue it. I was stubborn and determined to stick with it. I never wavered.” She also reflects, “The one thing I wanted in life was not to be cynical when I get old. I’ve discovered that by looking at life as an adventure, there is no way you can be cynical.” Moving forward, she says, “I am still learning and not afraid to take a risk, to take a trip, but also to try to listen in a new way.”

As you can see, Michaela’s list of accomplishments is manifold. We hope this article gives you an idea of the dimension and multiplicity of her global work in the service of others. Michaela is a remarkable human being. Her contributions to the lives of women across the world are unparalleled, and she continues to mentor young women. Michaela is seemingly unstoppable as she takes every possible opportunity to support the building and sustaining of community and individuals working together.
Michaela inspires all of us with her positive energy and enthusiasm. She encourages us to be adventurous, take a risk, and do what we can to make the world a better place for everyone.

CELEBRATING 60 YEARS OF The Murray Hill Neighborhood Association Better Together The Preservation & Design Committee’s Murray Hill Neighbors’ Stories is a place to share your memories, anecdotes, surprising encounters, or human interest stories that charm, surprise, and build our community. 

We plan to publish your responses on a regular basis. We want to hear from you!

MURRAY HILL NEIGHBORS’ STORIES – What drew you to our neighborhood? How long have you lived here? Why do you love living here? We look forward to getting to know you better WELCOME ALL

Send Your Stories to The Preservation and Design Murray Hill Neighbors’ Stories Committee
Chair: Michaela Walsh, Pauline Brooks, Susan Demmet, Sandy Driesen, and Barbara Gieseler
We will contact you if your entry is being considered.

Please Note – MHNA does not edit or comment on the personal stories, except for spelling and punctuation.

By Heather Dolland Tamam

Executive VP Chair of Communications Murray Hill Neighborhood Association

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