The first time I walked into the office of Laurie Sowd, The Huntington’s vice president for operations, I thought I was in the wrong place. This was the person in charge of multimillion dollar construction activities, security, information technology, facilities—big, complicated megaprojects with lots of moving parts? What I found behind the desk was someone who looked, uh, maybe 15. Possibly 17. Freshly scrubbed, with a rosy complexion, bright eyes, and a ready smile. “Wait,” I said. “You’re Laurie? You look young enough to be my kid!” (Full disclosure: We’re two months apart in age.)
And with that, a friendship was born, and I must say, one of the deepest friendships I’ve ever known. This is a woman who picked me up off the floor after a failed relationship, and then again after a scary diagnosis, who swears—when we have traveled together on occasion—that she NEVER hears my snoring, and who always has my back. She possesses a fierce intellect and an insatiable curiosity about the world and the people who inhabit it, as well as a caring nature that seems boundless and ever abundant.
Laurie has this remarkable yin-yang vibe. She has firmly and steadily guided some 20 construction projects in her 20-plus years at The Huntington, the culmination of which was the Steven S. Koblik Education and Visitor Center, which opened last April. On time and on budget, every single project—the botanical conservatory, the Children’s Garden, the Chinese Garden, the American art galleries expansions, the renovation of the Huntington Art Gallery, and many more.
“We came to call her ‘Little Big Boss,’” says David Zeidberg, the Avery Director of the Library, who worked alongside Sowd on several Huntington projects.
She is one of those rare staff leaders who is completely ambidextrous in all that they do: she’s great with people, fantastic with numbers, highly organized, and can see the big picture, but she’s also fully capable of getting into the weeds to sort through niggling details.
Longtime communications colleague Lisa Blackburn said to me once, “You realize that Laurie has transformed this place—that this will go down in Huntington history as the Sowd era,” when a whip-smart woman with unlimited imagination and energy shaped the Huntington of the late 20th and early 21st century. Pretty damn impressive for what historically had been a very male-dominated place. So much of Laurie’s success, says Zeidberg, “is because of her ability to convene people around a common goal, get them excited about it, and get them actually working on it, and then at the end of the day, to have results to show.”
And now it comes to this: Laurie is leaving The Huntington after 24 years because of a wonderful new opportunity at the California Science Center—to become senior vice president of operations there and lead the extraordinarily exciting and ambitious project of building a new home for the space shuttle Endeavour. Double the staff, double the budget. A big step up. Well deserved! This is the type of thing you wish for a colleague and friend—a big opportunity for more growth and impact. And so we’re all delighted. But seriously bummed.
In the best of circumstances, you learn from the work you do and the people you do it with. And I think most of us are grateful when that happens. What I perhaps didn’t realize was the extent to which that can also play out on a personal level—that a colleague can also teach you about love and trust and loyalty, about what it means to be vulnerable and honest and empathetic. This is the kind of messy, murky stuff experts say not to get involved in at the workplace: don’t mix the personal with the professional. But how much poorer I would be had I not let Laurie help me up when she extended her hand!
She’s transformed this place, and something else, too. Our hearts.
Susan Turner-Lowe is vice president for communications and marketing at The Huntington.