Published in the Graduate Report, Spring/Summer 2011
Marilda L. Gándara ’78 spends lots of time these days tending to the spectacular flower gardens at her home in Hartford. Until her retirement three years ago, she spent most of her time – and boundless energy – tending to the important philanthropic work of the Aetna Foundation, for which she served as president from 1996 to 2008. “One of the reasons I went to work for Aetna was because they had a wonderful reputation for being supportive of volunteerism and philanthropy under John Filer, who was chairman in those days,” says Gándara, whose 30-year career with Aetna included 13 years as an attorney specializing in commercial real estate and a stint managing the company’s $5 billion commercial real estate problem portfolio. “As a Latina, I always wanted to do something for the community…even as I was taking on this fancy corporate job.”
Gándara has never second-guessed her decision to join the corporate world fresh out of law school, largely because she was able to use her considerable talents to help the underserved since “day one” of her Aetna career. “As a real estate attorney, I got involved in a project where we rehabilitated 2,500 low-income housing units using neighborhood organizations and advocacy groups as the developers,” she says. “While on the business side, I helped create a program (through which) Aetna employed law firms owned by women and people of color to serve as outside counsel. Eventually, the program was replicated by 145 Fortune 500 companies. I like to think something like that had a real impact.”
As president of the Aetna Foundation, Gándara focused her efforts on having a “real impact” each and every day. “As Aetna’s charitable arm, our first job was to make grants with a focus on the health arena, where Aetna has considerable expertise,” says Gándara, who oversaw the awarding of $180 million in grants while head of the Foundation. “One of the programs that had considerable impact was a (public service advertising) program we started several years ago with the American Heart Association to address the misconception that the number one cause of death among women was cancer, when it was actually heart disease…Today, if you ask what the number one killer of women is, almost everyone says cardiovascular issues.”
While Gándara is proud of the Foundation’s role in the American Heart Association campaign, as well as in initiatives addressing obesity and racial and ethnic health disparities, she is particularly proud of the work she did to build the level of employee volunteerism at Aetna. During her tenure at the Foundation, more than 40 Aetna Volunteer Councils were established across the country, with grant and technical assistance from the Foundation. “I always thought building volunteerism was my most important job,” she says. “With grants, your work is ‘done’ when the dollars are spent. But when you get people involved with a community organization, they are going to continue to connect with that, as well as other, organizations. Long after I am gone, Aetna volunteer programs will be producing for communities.”
Among the communities to which Gándara remains most committed is the community of veterans who have served in the U.S. Armed Forces. “I come from a very patriotic family because we are political refugees from Cuba,” says Gándara, who, as a ten-year-old in 1960, came to America with her mother, just a year after her father fled to Mexico after being jailed by the Castro regime. “The gift of freedom is an amazing thing.”
Gándara continues. “When my son, Paul (Alfonso), was in his early 20s, he went to see Saving Private Ryan. He came back from the theater…and insisted that we do something to inform his generation about the incredible price paid by American soldiers…We came up with the idea of a parade and worked with Aetna and other companies and groups to get it started.” Today, Gándara reports that the Connecticut Veterans Day Parade is the largest parade of its kind in New England – thanks in part to an endowment fund established by the Aetna Foundation in honor of her retirement.
Ever the patriot, Gándara, who was once featured on the cover of Latino Style magazine, continues to serve on the executive committee for the Veterans Day Parade. She also serves on the boards of the Connecticut Forum, Hartford Hospital and Covenant Prep, a private boys’ middle school that graduated its first class in June. In recent years, she has been honored by many organizations, including the American and Connecticut Hispanic Bar Associations, and held leadership positions with many nonprofits, including Hispanics in Philanthropy (which has raised more than $50 million for Latino nonprofit capacity building), The Bushnell, Urban League of Greater Hartford, Metro Hartford Alliance, and the Connecticut Council for Philanthropy.
As if Gándara weren’t busy enough, she is in the process of completing a nine-month master gardening program at UConn, a requirement of which is to complete 30 hours of community service. “I’ll be doing mine mostly at Elizabeth Park,” says Gándara, who lives within walking distance of the park with her mother (now 82) and husband, Scott O’Keefe. “I’ll be weeding, trimming roses – and doing whatever else needs to be done.”