You might start telling someone about Marge Connelly by noting that Richmond’s highest-ranking Capital One corporate officer worked her way from a position as a customer service rep answering mail at a Delaware banking company all the way up to the vice president level in about seven years. And about five years after that, she was ranked No. 3 in a publicly traded Fortune 500 company that’s now our region’s biggest private employer. And she’s just 43.
Or you might note that Connelly really fell into the credit-card industry after her first career — lead singer and keyboardist for an all-girl band called The Girlfriends (with a sound she calls “somewhere between Heart and the Go-Go’s, but harder than the Go-Go’s”) — didn’t take off like she had hoped.
Or maybe you’d discuss her passion for travel. If you add it up, Connelly, her partner and their two children have globe-trotted their way across more than 30 countries, including exotic locales like India (where Connelly went on a state trade mission with Gov. Mark Warner); the ghettos of Soweto, South Africa; Russia; China; and even the continent of Antarctica. Connelly’s been a certified scuba diver for about 10 years. Her family vacation this year? After she gets back from a business trip to Milan, Italy, Connelly, her partner and their daughter are trekking into the heart of the Rwandan jungle on a photo safari in search of wild gorillas. (Really.)
Or you might note that in a fairly conservative-leaning area with a Republican-dominated state legislature mulling a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage, Connelly is the highest profile “out” lesbian in this area. She and her partner, Julie Christopher, chairman of the State Board for the Virginia Department of Social Services, have been together for 10 years. They held their commitment ceremony (officiated by a minister) at the clubhouse in the Wellesley community eight years ago, witnessed by a crowd of friends that included the past and present CEOs of Capital One.
Or you might mention the slew of volunteer positions Connelly holds in the community. She chairs both the Virginia Workforce Council and the Greater Richmond Partnership. Gov. Mark Warner appointed her to the Council on Virginia’s Future, as well as the Longwood University Board of Visitors. She’s a board member of Richmond Renaissance, the Greater Richmond YMCA, CJW Medical Center and the Virginia Chamber of Commerce. All that in addition to being immediate past president of the Central Virginia Foodbank and serving on the board of the Greater Richmond Chamber of Commerce.
Oh, and you wouldn’t want to forget to mention that she was named “Outstanding Woman of the Year” by the local YWCA in 2003 because of all her volunteer work, or that Computerworld magazine has lauded her as one of the nation’s “Top IT Leaders.”
No matter how you try to describe her, Connelly, a confident, driven woman with stylish, short gray hair, penetrating icy blue eyes and a palpable aura of power, is certainly unique.
One of the most pivotal moments in Connelly’s career — and perhaps her life, though she might not see it that way — was an informal chat she had with former Capital One CEO Nigel W. Morris (who co-founded the company with current CEO Richard D. Fairbank) not long after Morris hired her in 1994 to work at the fledgling company, which at that time was still a division of Richmond-based Signet Bank (later merged with First Union) and dealt exclusively in U.S. credit cards.
Morris told Connelly that in order to be an effective leader, people have to trust you — and they can’t trust you if they don’t know you.
“And that’s all he said,” recalls Connelly. “There were no more explicit instructions, but I think it was pretty clear what he was encouraging me to do, and he was right. … Even though I wasn’t hiding [my sexuality], I wasn’t being forthcoming.”
Though she was never “deeply closeted” at work prior to joining Capital One, “I was probably a little more low-key but not overtly hiding anything,” Connelly says. “I’d say I would just avoid [the topic], as opposed to making up boyfriends or anything along those lines.”
Now Connelly is seen as an icon among Capital One’s sizable population of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) employees, says Rob Keeling, the corporation’s director of diversity, who is also openly gay. “She’s been a great role model for being open with who she is, telling other employees about her family, her partner and her kids. She believes in being a leader by being your whole self.”
Capital One has been a pioneer in providing rights for gay employees, not only among Virginia corporations but financial-services companies nationwide, Keeling says, and Connelly has been instrumental in that. In 1998, she helped launch the company’s policy that provides insurance and benefits to the partners of unmarried employees, whether gay or straight. And in 2002, she aided in adding gender identity — including transvestites and preoperative or postoperative transsexuals — to Capital One’s nondiscrimination policy, which already banned discrimination against homosexuals.
And that pays dividends in retaining the best and brightest employees, Keeling says. “It signals you’re a progressive workplace. … When you appeal as a gay-friendly employer, you actually appeal to every other kind of diversity — gender diversity, age diversity, color diversity.”
As one of the region’s most prominent business leaders, Connelly has lobbied the General Assembly — albeit unsuccessfully thus far — to enact state laws banning discrimination against gays in the workplace. She also spoke at the Assembly against the bill — passed into law last session — prohibiting civil unions between same-sex couples and stating that Virginia won’t recognize such unions, even if legally entered into in another state. She’s also been a financial supporter of local groups such as pro-gay lobbyists Equality Virginia and ROSMY, the Richmond Organization for Sexual Minority Youth.
“Anything that allows not just gay people, but anybody, to take care of the people they love I am a fan of, and I am not a fan of things that make that more difficult,” Connelly says. “The most important thing to me is to live up to the commitment I have made to my partner and our kids.”
On a Thursday afternoon in June, Connelly gives a short talk to Capital One’s LGBT Network, one of several employee diversity associations at Capital One, including ones for Hispanics and African-Americans and those over 40. There are about 100 people attending this meeting, a small percentage of the actual membership, which includes family and “straight allies.”
She begins by telling the group how proud she is — of them and of how Capital One respects its LGBT associates. But she notes that the world outside the company has a ways to go. So what does she want from that world? “I don’t want tolerance. To me, tolerance is too low a bar,” she tells the workers. “So then I go, ‘What about acceptance?’ Well, acceptance sounds pretty good. Too low a bar.” What she really wants — and she acknowledges that it doesn’t make for much of a rallying cry — is ambivalence, she says. A world where it doesn’t matter if someone’s gay and in which they’re solely judged by their value as a human being, as an employee, as a parent.
Connelly and Christopher, 50, a thin, tan woman with close-cropped spiky hair and prominent cheekbones, live in Goochland’s exclusive Rivergate subdivision. Their expansive yet comfortably decorated home lies on a couple lakefront acres, with a swimming pool and a tennis court. It’s just an eight-minute commute to Capital One’s university-like West Creek Campus. When the weather’s warm, Connelly kayaks and canoes on the lake for exercise; when it’s cold, she works out in the gym inside her home. Connelly’s up at 5 a.m. and in bed by 11 p.m. every day, but her home study is wired for videoconferencing, in case she needs to conduct an international meeting in the middle of the night. (It’s a lot like her office at work, which has a large plasma screen for videoconferencing hanging on the wall.)
Even though Virginia law doesn’t allow unmarried couples to adopt, Connelly is a second parent in all but legal status to Christopher’s two children from her previous marriage. Ryan, 25, is in the insurance industry out west and is planning on going back to school to become a nondenominational minister. Carolyn, 17 and entering university this fall to pursue an international-relations degree, graduated with a 4.6 GPA from Maggie Walker Governor’s School, Connelly proudly notes. In addition to volunteering for Diversity Thrift and serving as president of Maggie Walker’s Gay-Straight Alliance, Carolyn has traveled for study in Russia and China, and has been learning Chinese.
The night before, Connelly took Carolyn to a concert at Innsbrook by the Indigo Girls, one of Carolyn’s favorite bands since she was 8. Plying her connections, Connelly finagled her way into backstage passes. Meeting the band, the normally articulate Carolyn “lost the power of speech,” Connelly jokes.
Early in her adult life, Christopher started out as a touring gospel singer, but she quit when Ryan reached school age. Connelly and the then-divorced Christopher met at a church gathering. Their first date was at a McDonald’s. “It was up from there,” Connelly notes, laughing.
As a couple, they made the conscious decision that Christopher would be a stay-at-home mom and raise the kids. “A career path is not what I’m passionate about,” says Christopher. “What I’m passionate about is being a mother and working with children, and fortunately Marge’s career afforded us to be able to make that choice.”
“I think [the kids] benefited from it,” Connelly says. “There’s no question in my mind.”
In addition to being a mom, Christopher has also been an ardent volunteer advocate for children in her spare time. From 1998 to 2000, she became a certified Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA) for children in the Henrico court system. After that she became a board member and later president of Prevent Child Abuse Virginia. She’s currently chairman of the State Board for the Department of Social Services, appointed by Gov. Warner.
Aside from business and volunteerism, the Connelly-Christopher family is made up of passionate travelers. Next year, the couple will go on a horseback relief mission in India. Christopher’s the more adventurous of the two — she surprised her 79-year-old father with a two-week trek to Antarctica recently — but Connelly’s a close second. They love to tell the story of how they hiked up Seattle’s Mt. Rainier together but didn’t know that you were supposed to wear sunglasses to combat snow blindness. Connelly was wearing sunglasses anyway, but Christopher wasn’t.
“So we get there, and we hike to base camp and get our pictures taken and then we come back down,” Christopher recalls. “I said, ‘Marge, you know, something’s going on,’ and within an hour I was blind — for the next week.”
“The plan was to do a lot of hiking out in the Seattle area,” Connelly says, “… but that was it, we were done! You were blind!” That unexpected end to their vacation plans has now become one of those funny family stories that one can laugh about now, but at the time wasn’t so funny. They both chuckle, remembering.
Last November, Connelly changed jobs within Capital One — she’s now executive vice president of corporate partnerships, a position designed specifically for her.
In that role, she’s in charge of forging relations between Capital One and government, nonprofits, and other companies and industries, acting as an external spokesperson for Capital One.
“As we continue to grow as a company, our need to focus externally is increasing because of [Capital One’s] size, because of the external environment itself. The public cares very much about what corporations do, in terms of business activities and activities inside communities,” Connelly says. “As we’ve evolved and as the landscape’s evolved, we have to put more attention on those external interfaces.”
The role was a natural, as she already had considerable contacts among Richmond’s nonprofits, as well as in state and local government. In addition to being appointed by Gov. Mark Warner to various volunteer government positions, Connelly has held a joint press conference about identity theft with former attorney general and present Republican gubernatorial candidate Jerry Kilgore, and she and Christopher held a private fundraiser for Democratic gubernatorial candidate Lt. Gov. Tim Kaine at their home this summer.
“Marjorie’s commitment to Richmond is unsurpassed. Her playing an increasing spokeswoman role and to be an influence on the community of Richmond is wonderful for her and Capital One,” says Nigel Morris, the former CEO of Capital One and a man Connelly describes as her personal mentor.
Born in the rural town of Horseheads, N.Y., to a chemist father and a high-school biology-teacher mother, Connelly has a political-science degree from the University of Delaware and started out working in the credit-card industry for various financial firms in Delaware. When Morris hired her for Capital One, he brought her in to be what he calls the “principal change agent,” designing the backbone of the company’s technological infrastructure, which now handles billions of high-speed transactions.
Connelly was formerly in charge of Capital One’s U.S. Credit Card Operations division (at one time its principal business, though now it has diversified into products such as certificates of deposit and auto and small-business loans), and she has managed as many as 10,000 employees and been responsible for as much as $1 billion in annual expenses. She has also managed international relations and back-office operations and was the company’s co-chief information officer (CIO) for two years. Richmond, where she’s now the top-ranking corporate officer, is Capital One’s biggest employment center, with more than 7,000 employees — even larger than the corporate headquarters in McLean, Va.
She’s also lauded for helping shape Capital One’s corporate culture, which includes its diversity and generous employee benefits.
Connelly “could put herself adroitly in the shoes of both the customer and the associate,” Morris says, and was passionate about bringing about the realization that “in the credit-card business your assets go home at night, and you have to be able to create an environment that will attract the best and the brightest. Marge was a large proponent of that and also establishment of the right milieu and the forum in which people can flourish and to thine own self be true. She very much wanted that … to have the right kind of vacation plans, the right kind of health plans, to embrace our associates as equity stakeholders rather than just people who come to work every day.”
Connelly knows that as Capital One’s top-ranking representative in Richmond, she represents not only the company, but also Richmond’s gay community, given that her openness about her sexuality is still a curiosity in Richmond’s business scene. Nevertheless, she says she’s always felt welcome and accepted in Richmond and she doesn’t want that alone to be what the community knows about her.
“I have always been ‘out’ as an executive [at Capital One], and that’s part of who I am and I think that’s great, but I do not try to make that the definition of me,” she says firmly. “For the most part, if you were to talk to folks at Capital One, that’s not the first thing that comes to mind. It’s much more about [my] longevity with the company and driving lots of firsts as we continue to grow and being part of a crew that really tried our best to take care of our folks.”