Where Are They Now? Carol Roberts - Turning Athletic Skill to Business Success

Carol Roberts '81. Photo on right by Gregg Zelkin.
Carol Roberts '81. Photo on right by Gregg Zelkin.

This is the latest in a series of "Where are they now?" features on members of the Yale Athletics family. 

by Brita Belli

Carol Roberts '81 B.S. has always been competitive, and honing her competitive drive led directly to her success in both athletics and in business, where she was often the only woman in the room.

When Roberts was recruited to play field hockey, Yale College had been admitting women for less than 10 years, but the Athletics Department was committed to a strong Division 1 team and she came ready to win. Like many of her friends and teammates, Roberts also played softball at Yale, which became a varsity sport during her Yale tenure. Field hockey may not have received a lot of outside attention, Roberts says, but she didn't play for the accolades.

"As women athletes, we were used to the stands not being full," she says. "We played for our teammates and ourselves. The sense of competition was a big part of who we were."  

The athlete mentality

Roberts majored in mechanical engineering and landed a job with International Paper in Mobile, Alabama, right after graduating. She didn't have personal contacts in the area and found herself one of just a few women at the mill, but the tenaciousness she'd developed as an athlete carried her through.

"I always loved game day. I love being challenged," Roberts says. "I was always looking at the scoreboard. So much of business is competition as well, and I applied those lessons."

Roberts knew that success in business meant building a solid team, understanding your strengths, and outperforming the competition. She started her business career by asking to join the 1,200 men on the paper mill's manufacturing floor, learning the intricacies of the company where she'd been hired. She had to quickly win their respect, but says she was up for the challenge. "There were very few women operators and even fewer women engineers," Roberts says, "but if you delivered results and exhibited leadership, you could get more responsibilities."

After 10 years, Roberts was asked to become the mill manager for International Paper's upstate New York facility. "It was unheard of for a 31-year-old woman in 1991," she says. Success in that role led her to successive leadership roles, culminating with being named International Paper's chief financial officer, overseeing the finances of the $25 billion company for five years before retiring in 2017. "I found that if you learned, listened, and built a good team, you could do anything," Roberts says.

Through it all, Roberts says, her experience as an athlete guided her success. "As an athlete, you have to find a way to prevail," she says. "Sports prepared me for a tough, competitive environment that I had to survive and thrive in."

Roberts' second act

Since her retirement, Roberts has focused on two things: offering her experienced perspective – often as one of just a few women – on various boards; and ensuring the next generation of women athletes at Yale have the resources they need to thrive.  Her final year at International Paper she dedicated to Yale women athletes, turning her salary into a leadership gift for a new facility dedicated to the women's field hockey and softball teams. Located alongside the field hockey and softball fields, the Carol Roberts Field House is the first dedicated sports facility for women athletes at Yale and boasts locker rooms for each team, a training room, flexible space that serves as the visiting team's locker room, offices, and a viewing deck overlooking both fields.

"Dedicating my last year of work to the current and future women gave meaning to that year," Roberts says. "I thought, 'I can work another year for these girls. They deserve that.'"

She's also found meaning in her role on boards for Alcoa Corporation, VF Corporation, and Divergent 3D, founded by Yale classmate Kevin Czinger '82 B.A., as well as on the Board of Trustees for the University of Memphis. "I like this role a lot," Roberts says. "It allows me to apply my business judgment and wisdom to help another team meet their goals."

Roberts has remained close with her fellow classmates and is looking forward to a three-day running event to celebrate their upcoming 60th birthdays. "I can't emphasize enough the deep friendships I've formed with my teammates," she says. "We share something incredibly special."