Beyond Vassar

Equation for Success

By Lindsay Dawson ’05

What do you get when you combine stints at NASA, Enron, and MIT with a penchant for weight training? Some might say the makings of a Renaissance woman. And Iris Mack ’78 fits the bill, merging real-world risk-taking in several arenas with a rigorous theoretical background to support them. Since graduating from Vassar, she has gone from academia to investment banking and back again, and cites her belief that “life is an adventure” as the reason for her ever-evolving resume.

Mack was born and raised in a family of 10 in a housing project in New Orleans’ inner city, and worked as a high-school summer intern at NASA’s local branch, Michoud Operations. At Vassar, she furthered her prestigious record of internships with a position at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab in Pasadena, California. Her budding interest in engineering led her to create her own major, and she graduated with degrees in math and mathematical physics.

After graduation Mack headed to Harvard (via a detour at University of California Berkeley to pick up a master’s in math), where she was the second African-American woman to earn a Ph.D. in applied mathematics. Mack accepted a teaching position at MIT, but yearned to leave the ivory tower behind, at least temporarily. Mack moved on to work for Salomon Brothers in New York, Charles Schwab in San Francisco, French Investment BNP Paribas in London, Enron in Houston and London, and founded her own high-tech and management consulting firm whose clients included Lockheed Martin, Oak Ridge National Laboratory, and Schwab.

A turning point in Mack’s life came when she was invited by NASA to apply for the astronaut candidate program. (Astronaut Roland McNair, before his death in the space shuttle explosion of 1986, had encouraged her to pursue this program.) Out of 2,000 applicants, Mack was one of 100 to be interviewed. She endured a battery of physical, psychological, and academic tests at NASA’s headquarters during a week of intense evaluation—all while teaching at MIT, taking flying lessons, lifting weights, and running several miles a day. Although Mack was not chosen to be a finalist, she said, “I don’t dwell on disappointment in my life. Just to get to that point was a huge accomplishment because all the applicants seemed superhuman. I told myself there are a lot of other things I want to do.”

Indeed, Mack progressed to several “other things”—most recently her own company, Phat Math Inc., which publishes “edutainment” books to excite students about math. The inspiration for the series came, she said, from being “invited to speak to kids, especially girls in inner cities, to try to motivate them. I like to do it in a backhanded, sneaky way—I’d use the stock market, the space program, sports, and music to teach them math concepts. Kids want to see someone like them, international and multicultural, in the books they read.” In 2004 Mack’s first book, Mama Says, “Money Doesn’t Grow on Trees!” was published by Xlibris/Random House Ventures and became its top children’s book royalty earner. Phat Math, sponsored by the Federal No Child Left Behind Act, will soon be providing math tutoring for Florida schools.

Mack’s life continues to be an adventure, as she runs her company during the day and teaches business classes at night for Florida International University. She said, “It has been a dream of mine to make applied math more palatable. I try to show people that it’s both fun and useful, and if we remain ignorant about it, it will be detrimental to America’s economic health.” In her rare moments of downtime, Mack is working on the manuscript of her next book, a warning to consumers based on her time at Enron and tentatively titled Strategic Weapons of White-Collar Crime. Mack is understandably eager to educate others, calling her own education “a ticket to see the world”—a lifelong journey that began at Vassar.