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Megan Greenfield Urges Graduates to Keep Growing, Give Back, and Aim High

Greenfield spoke at the December 9 PhD Hooding and Master’s Recognition Ceremony

Graduates applaud
Graduates look on during the Dec. 9 ceremony. Photos by Joel Wintermantle

Megan Greenfield (PhD ’09) accomplished a lot during her time at Northwestern Engineering.

As a PhD student in chemical engineering, Greenfield researched designing implantable bioactive scaffolds that can direct cells how to behave. Outside of the lab, she joined the Graduate Student Association and worked to improve health insurance coverage and secure discounted public transit. She also cofounded the McCormick Graduate Leadership Council to bring together engineering graduate students from across Northwestern Engineering.

Her busy streak continued after graduation.

Since her 2010 arrival at global consulting firm McKinsey & Company – where she’s now a partner – Greenfield has used her biotechnology expertise to help healthcare clients, including large health systems and life sciences companies, create strategies, tools, and organizational structures to drive growth and efficiency. She’s also led the company’s diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) initiatives. 

In 2021, Greenfield was named a World Economic Forum (WEF) Young Global Leader, a recognition bestowed upon 100 of the world’s most promising artists, business leaders, public servants, technologists, and social entrepreneurs. In 2023, Greenfield helped launch the WEF’s Global Parity Alliance, an action-oriented cross-industry group committed to advancing DEI within organizations and across the corporate ecosystem.

To make that kind of impact, Greenfield has stuck to three principles: embrace a growth mindset, give back, and set bold aspirations. She discussed what each meant to her in an address to graduates and their families at the 2023 PhD Hooding and Master’s Degree Recognition Ceremony, held December 9, at Pick-Staiger Concert Hall.

“Today signifies not just an academic achievement but the beginning of an exciting journey. Your tireless dedication, resilience, and pursuit of excellence have brought you to this pivotal moment,” Greenfield said to the graduates. “As you take this next step, embrace a growth mindset, find ways to give back, and always set bold aspirations.”

Megan Greenfield

Greenfield was introduced by Dean Christopher Schuh (PhD ’01), presiding over his first graduation event.

“Graduates, the challenges facing humanity are significant, and they are only becoming more complicated and interconnected. The solutions to the challenges we face are rooted in scientific research and require whole-brain thinking,” Schuh said. “Thinking that pairs logic, analysis, and scientific excellence with creativity and an understanding of markets, psychology, and most importantly, people. As engineers, you represent the fulcrum between what’s envisioned in the lab or conference room and what’s adopted in the marketplace and society. Whether you are starting new careers or moving up in current ones, whether you plan to join academia or industry, embrace your role as the bridge between these two worlds.

View a Facebook gallery of images from the event >>

“And now comes the exciting part. We get to watch you go out there and shine — using your talents to impact research, businesses, organizations, communities, ecosystems, the world, and beyond.”

Greenfield indeed has made an impact using her three principles. 

Embrace a growth mindset

When Greenfield landed at McKinsey, her first assignment was in Bermuda. Despite the beautiful surroundings, not everything was idyllic.

Even though she worked long hours, she struggled to complete tasks as she wrestled with complex financial data. Thinking of quitting, Greenfield was pushed even further in that direction by her manager, who wasn’t sure she was a good fit for McKinsey.

Though she was crushed to hear that kind of feedback after enjoying prior success, Greenfield was resolute. She took stock of her weaknesses and strengths, recognizing that her people skills could be an asset. During her time in Bermuda, Greenfield met with clients and gained critical context that changed her team’s recommendations.

Eight years later – and after plenty of learning – Greenfield was elected a partner.

“Even today, my growth mindset is still in full swing. I'm on a perpetual quest to expand my knowledge and master new skills,” Greenfield said. “So, dear graduates, as you embark on your next adventure, pack your growth mindset. Get comfortable being uncomfortable because that's where the magic happens.”

Give back

The outset of the COVID-19 pandemic was a stressful time for many. It was the same for Greenfield, but she also looks back on that period with pride, when she reached out to the head of her office in Boston and offered to help in any way she could.

“As a healthcare professional, it makes sense for me to do healthcare,” Greenfield recalled thinking.

Surprisingly, Greenfield was handed a different task. The project was to think about how the economy could recover and re-open safely, averting an economic crisis to go with the brewing health crisis.

While not an economist, Greenfield leaned on the engineering problem-solving skills she honed at Northwestern Engineering and McKinsey. Her knowledge of tackling ambiguous problems came to the forefront, and within 12 hours she was immersed in her task of building a framework to guide communities on safely reopening to mitigate economic crises. Greenfield and her teammates assessed every industry – considering factors such as their economic significance, feasibility of remote operations, and specific health risks – and in a month had created a framework to guide cities, states, and even countries in reopening their economies.

Graduates wave to audience members during the Dec. 9 event.
Graduates wave to audience members during the Dec. 9 event.
An audience member shouts encouragement during the ceremony.
An audience member shouts encouragement during the ceremony.
Dean Christopher Schuh delivers his remarks.
Dean Christopher Schuh delivers his remarks.
The graduates, and one youngster, listen to one of the speeches.
The graduates, and one youngster, listen to one of the speeches.
A graduate celebrates as she is about to walk across the stage.
A graduate celebrates as she is about to walk across the stage.
Graduates, including one holding a baby, celebrate after the ceremony.
Graduates, including one holding a baby, celebrate after the ceremony.

Soon after, Greenfield was challenged to create a recovery and return-to-work plan for the state of Massachusetts — within two weeks. Working with the cofounder of Bain Capital and a co-owner of the Boston Celtics, Greenfield put together a team of experts and crafted a plan to reduce disease spread and mobilize therapeutics. The plan gained traction in Massachusetts and was even shared nationwide and transcended political affiliations.

“My ask to you is give back to your community,” Greenfield said.” These experiences will offer you a profound sense of fulfillment and accomplishment.”

Set bold aspirations

When she was in high school, Greenfield’s grandmother died of a heart attack. Already saddened by the loss, Greenfield was further dismayed when she found a slip of paper on her grandmother’s bedside that detailed the struggles she had with fatigue, insomnia, nausea, and depression, struggles she had shared with her doctor. 

Greenfield’s frustration surged. Those symptoms mirror how heart disease manifests in women, who are up to three times more likely to succumb to a serious heart attack than men. 

Get out there and set audacious goals. If you are bold in your pursuits, you'll undoubtedly leave a mark on the world. Megan Greenfield

The tragedy ignited Greenfield’s passion for health equity. As Greenfield pointed out, there is not a comprehensive understanding of how diseases affect women differently from men. Drug trials often neglect women, and their health concerns are routinely dismissed and blamed on anxiety.

Irritated by the lack of progress, Greenfield spearheaded a collaboration with the WEF to quantify the impact of underinvestment in women's health and outline the necessary steps to address it. That report will be unveiled next month at the WEF Annual Meeting in Davos, Switzerland, and state a business case to rectify the healthcare gap between men and women.

Greenfield encouraged graduates to embrace similarly big challenges and leave their own lasting impact.

“Get out there and set audacious goals,” Greenfield said. “If you are bold in your pursuits, you'll undoubtedly leave a mark on the world.”