June 2021: Portrait

Grateful for Past Opportunities and Mentors, Alumna Pays it Forward

Helen McCluskeyFrom math major to CEO, Helen McCluskey credits hard work, caring mentors, and good fortune for her success in business and manufacturing.

From a young age, McCluskey knew she wanted to pursue a technical career.

“Mathematics was my interest; that was what I was really good at. And so I majored in mathematics with a minor in economics, not sure where that would lead me,” McCluskey explained, saying that as a Pittsburgh native, it was easy for her to choose to pursue her degree at Pitt.

“Pitt had a good math and science program,” remembered McCluskey. "It was the convenient and smart choice.”

The summer before graduating from Pitt, McCluskey had the opportunity to work at Allegheny Ludlum Steel, which helped her solidify her career plans.

“It was at that point that I fell in love with manufacturing,” said McCluskey. “I worked in a rolling mill, and getting to see this molten blob of steel transform into a pot or pan fascinated me. At that point, I decided, ‘When I graduate, I want to work for a company that makes something.’ It didn't matter what the something was, but I wanted them to make something.”

Following graduation, McCluskey began working at Firestone, where she further honed her manufacturing skill set and moved up through the company.

“As a college trainee in the Inventory Management Division at Firestone you had to conduct factory tours for the first year,” McCluskey said. “I loved manufacturing, so I really I enjoyed that. Inventory management and the disciplines of production planning, distribution, forecasting and replenishment were a good fit for me as they are very mathematically oriented. I taught myself to computer program and rotated through the divisions and continued to get additional responsibility.”

Moving upward through the company, McCluskey gained more experience with the business and commercial side of manufacturing, shifting focus toward production and eventually moving from managing manufacturing details to managing people. With these experiences, McCluskey learned how to coordinate the strategic and human side of running a company.

“In my final role at Firestone, I became the manager of production planning. I was the first female manager in this division and very young.”

McCluskey said that as a relatively younger employee from a more technical background, it was challenging to learn to zoom out from the small details and to oversee people who had many years of experience. Fortunately, mentors within her company helped to guide her.

“I had the good fortune that the VP of the Inventory Management Division took me under his wing and was a real advocate for me. He helped me build my confidence,” McCluskey said. “It was a big learning curve and a lot of it through trial and error.”

The time spent at Firestone learning about the supply chain and the interconnection between the back and front end of business helped build a long and very successful career, ultimately in apparel, at Sara Lee, Liz Claiborne, and eventually the role of CEO of Warnaco.

McCluskey credits her time at Pitt for helping her develop a sense of value for hard work.

“I had great instructors and a good foundation. I think the fundamental thing that I took away from Pitt and Pittsburgh is the work ethic. You put the time and you put the work in, and then good things may happen. You’ve got to do the work,” McCluskey said.

Perhaps surprisingly, the skills McCluskey learned as she studied mathematics at Pitt were also applicable to her management roles.

“I think it's all about logic,” said McCluskey. “Mathematics is very logical—I think it helps when you apply that to working with people. Now, there's also an intuitive and emotional side that is very important … but how logic plays a part is to listen to what people have to say, process it, then respond. I think education and, in particular, mathematics developed that skill for me because, as in all the sciences, you collect data and process information before you come to a conclusion.”

Grateful for her mentors and the solid foundation she gained at Pitt, McCluskey recently funded two need-based scholarships for the Dietrich School.

“I've been incredibly fortunate throughout my life; opportunity plus some hard work led to a successful career for me,” said McCluskey. “If I could make a difference for even one student, and give them the opportunity that I had, that would be as rewarding as anything I’ve accomplished in the business world, which is why I set up the funds. I can help open a door, and then it's up to them what they do with it. But if the door never opens, they may never get that chance.”

McCluskey’s advice for current and incoming students is simple: Be curious.

“Focus on what you love to do and what really interests you, but stay curious. From my experience, I find curious people tend to be the most innovative and interesting.”

Return to the June 2021 issue »