Historic Road to Public Service Includes Pivotal Pfeiffer Experience

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DOA Secretary Machelle Sanders
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Servant Leadership

Last February, Machelle Baker Sanders ’04 MHA made history, becoming the first Black person to lead the North Carolina Department of Commerce.

Her path to the position of Secretary of Commerce included Pfeiffer University, from which she earned a Master of Health Administration in 2004. That experience was pivotal: “I bought into the University’s mission, which is to prepare servant leaders for lifelong learning,” she said. “My time at Pfeiffer was a factor in my decision to pursue public service.”

Before her appointment at Commerce, Sanders served as Vice President of Manufacturing and as General Manager of Biogen’s largest and most advanced manufacturing facility, located in the Research Triangle Park of Durham, N.C. She held leadership positions overseeing manufacturing, global quality assurance, and quality control functions at Biogen and Diosynth-Akzo Nobel. She served on the board of the North Carolina Biotechnology Center.

Sanders, a native of Belhaven, N.C., also led another cabinet-level agency, the North Carolina Department of Administration, from 2017 until February, when North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper named her Commerce Secretary.

“Machelle has been an outstanding leader in this administration, and I am grateful that she is willing to take on this new role and continue to serve our great state,” Cooper said. “Her strong background as a business leader and her extensive knowledge of what it takes to build a globally competitive workforce will serve North Carolina well as we attract better-paying jobs, help small businesses and stimulate our innovation and entrepreneurial economy.”

A mother of twin daughters, Sanders is passionate about improving the status of women in North Carolina, having started the Women’s Innovation Network at Biogen. A strong supporter of diversity and inclusion, she has chaired several organizations working toward these goals. The organizations, all entities of the Department of Administration, include the Commission on Inclusion, the North Carolina Complete Count Commission, and the Andrea Harris Social, Economic, Environmental, and Health Equity Task Force.

During a recent interview, Sanders reflected on her Pfeiffer experience, and she talked about her goals for the Department of Commerce.

Secretary Sanders, thank you for granting us an interview, and congratulations on your current appointment. How did your education at Pfeiffer plant the seeds for your current career in public service?

I believe that Pfeiffer cultivated my seeds for public service by deepening my understanding of the intersection of public policy, health, and economics.  Pfeiffer provided me classroom and study-abroad experiences that affirmed my passion for improving conditions for humankind; my MHA cohort traveled to London to study and understand their universal healthcare system. This provided us with global health insights and a practical perspective of the system’s advantages and disadvantages. 

Additionally, my experience at Pfeiffer University’s satellite program in Raleigh, N.C. informed my career decision to expand my knowledge and pathways focused on public policy, health economics and health administration.

You’ve been serving in the Cooper administration since 2017. How did public service become a possibility for you and why did you decide to transition from the business sector into state government?

My mission in life is to improve the conditions for humankind.  After 30 years in the life sciences industry, I asked myself, “If I were to die tomorrow, what is it that I would have wished that I would have done?” My answer was public service. I believe that I have been called to do this noble, honorable work.

You say your top priority is “to marry innovation and strong leadership to create promising conditions for economic recovery and opportunity.” Can you describe one or two examples of what this marriage will look like under your leadership?

North Carolina’s economic development strategic plan includes many strategies that marry innovation and strong leadership to create promising conditions for economic recovery and opportunity, including the implementation of: improved mobility to grow and retain a vibrant workforce and attractive local communities, specifically in rural North Carolina; leading the nation in work-based learning; and addressing barriers to new transportation technology to boost the mobility of workers, specifically in rural N.C., improving access to transportation.

You wish to “transform the enormous economic possibilities for rural areas and groups marginalized from enjoying the promise of economic growth and prosperity.” This vision complements Pfeiffer’s focus on increasing the quantity of first-class healthcare for rural areas. Could you detail some initiatives you plan for improving the economic lot of rural citizens in North Carolina?

Commerce’s mission is to improve the economic well-being and improve the quality of life for all North Carolina residents. I have a keen focus on rural North Carolina. Rural North Carolina matters, and I care deeply about this part of our state that has afforded me so many opportunities. 

Commerce’s advocacy and initiatives to ensure statewide access to broadband, quality education, expanded access to healthcare, and infrastructure improvements are ones that will create economic opportunity and equity for all people, particularly in our rural communities.

Pfeiffer’s mission of increasing access to quality healthcare is a critical one. And lending my voice and time to ensuring communities have the basic infrastructure they need, advocating for the expansion of healthcare will benefit all people within a community – and can be the difference that saves a life.

Being from the small, rural town of Belhaven, North Carolina, I saw firsthand how losing a regional hospital can impact the lives of those who struggle most with chronic illness like heart disease and diabetes. Our underserved communities are impacted most. Seconds matter and minutes can be the difference between saving a life or not. When a town’s only hospital closes its doors – as was the case with Pungo Hospital in Belhaven – it negatively impacts lives. More than 30 miles and 30 minutes is too far and too long to travel for quality and life-saving healthcare when one’s life is on the line.

When your appointment was announced, Gov. Cooper praised your “extensive knowledge of what it takes to build a globally competitive workforce.” So, what does it take to build a globally competitive workforce?

It takes vision, strategic planning, data-informed investments, and alignment among all stakeholders to build a globally competitive workforce. Importantly, it takes strong leadership to coalesce the community to achieve shared outcomes.

I believe a globally competitive workforce will require investments and access to resources in such areas as early education through post-secondary programs; internships, apprenticeships, OJT opportunities; and cultural and technical competence development programs. We will also need to invest in healthcare, innovation and entrepreneurship support.

The state’s many colleges and universities can also play a role, correct?

The state’s colleges and universities are preparing tomorrow’s workforce by providing a top-notch and globally recognized education for students. They also are partnering with the business community to proactively respond to future demands while spurring innovation and entrepreneurship. North Carolina’s community colleges’ industry-tailored programs are one of our state’s competitive advantages. The partnership and relationships formed by the community colleges and universities with businesses is unmatched.

What might a Commerce-higher education collaboration look like?

A Commerce-higher education collaboration is fundamental and core to Commerce’s workforce development and talent-sourcing objectives. The collaboration is focused on assisting our residents with securing jobs and career development opportunities while offering services to help business and residents meet their objectives. Commerce-higher education collaboration is data-driven and outcome-based.

Let’s shift gears a bit. How does it feel to be the first Black person to hold your title?

It’s an honor. I know my perspective will help guide the state’s growth in a more equitable way.

How so?

I have 30 years of experience in the life science industry, but I also have experience growing up in rural North Carolina. I believe that my presence will consistently remind us of the importance of equity and an inclusive economy that creates opportunity for all communities – no matter where they are.

Marginalized communities have at times been left out and their voices may not have been heard, and so representing that demographic, I will put them at the forefront. I will help transform conditions for wealth creation and sustainability for those living in rural areas and underserved, marginalized groups long dismissed and excluded from the promise of business development and economic prosperity.

What needs to happen for there to be even greater diversity in the leadership ranks of state government?

For there to be greater diversity in the leadership ranks in government we must hold government officials accountable and elect those with a demonstrated track record of equitable, inclusive practices. Your vote is powerful! Votes Matter equals Outcomes Matter. Effective government should be representative of the experiences and demographics of the residents served.

If you could impart a few words of advice to a promising woman of color aiming to follow in your footsteps, what would they be?

Be comfortable in your own skin. Remember, your differences are your assets—leverage them. Focus on your strengths.


Ken Keuffel, who authored this article, has served as Pfeiffer’s Assistant Director of Communications since December 2019. He welcomes story ideas from Pfeiffer’s faculty, staff, students, alumni, and friends. The form for submitting story ideas is at www.pfeiffer.edu/newsform.​