ANNAPOLIS — Obstacles don’t deter Laura Neuman.
She earned a master’s of business administration from Loyola University of Maryland despite failing to finish high school. She got a GED but didn’t earn an undergraduate degree.
Neuman overcame that by thriving in the financial and technology industries and impressing Loyola recruiters. She was 35 when she earned her MBA.
Her drive isn’t limited to her career.
Nineteen years after she was raped in her Baltimore apartment, police re-opened her cold case at Neuman’s urging. The rapist, who had attacked other women, was arrested. Neuman went public with her story to raise awareness.
Along the way, she rescued a technology company from near bankruptcy, eventually selling it for several hundred million dollars. She later became CEO of the Howard County Economic Development Authority.
“I was just very determined from a very early age to create my own path,” said Neuman, 48.
The Baltimore native and longtime Annapolis resident is equally determined to restore the public’s faith in county government, which was shaken when former County Executive John R. Leopold was indicted last year on charges of misconduct and misappropriation.
On Friday, she was sworn in as Anne Arundel County’s first appointed executive.
Leopold, a two-term Republican, resigned earlier this month after he was found guilty of two counts of misconduct.
Neuman said it’s premature to say what moves she’ll make at the Arundel Center, but called change inevitable.
The county has 33 at-will employees, who serve at the pleasure of the county executive. On Friday, she asked at-will employees in the executive office and all department heads to tender their resignations, which she will accept or decline after she reviews their positions.
“You can’t have a scandal without support,” she said.
Neuman was one of 16 people who applied for Leopold’s position.
“It’s an exciting day for me, and I’m hoping it’s going to be a wonderful day for Anne Arundel County,” Neuman said after she was sworn in to the office by Robert Duckworth, clerk of Anne Arundel Circuit Court. “It’s a humbling, humbling experience.”
Neuman will take a $100,000 pay cut to oversee the county of 537,000 residents, with an annual budget of about $1.2 billion.
She said her first order of business is restoring the public’s confidence in the executive branch, collaborating with county staff and making her office as transparent as possible.
“My mission is really to get to know these folks who are here,” said Neuman, who will put together a transition team. “I want to look at each of the offices and see what’s worked well and what hasn’t. What would you change if you could? What would you like to see?”
Neuman wasn’t considered a front-runner in the county executive appointment process. County political observers pointed to Del. Steve Schuh, R-Gibson Island, and Chief Administrative Officer John Hammond, who was appointed acting county executive after Leopold resigned.
But after three ballots, Neuman secured the support of the council’s three Democrats and Chairman Jerry Walker, R-Gambrills.
“When I met her, I was just very impressed with her,” Walker said. “She was just a fresh face with a great story. We needed … a political outsider.”
The pool of candidates included former Maryland first lady Kendel Ehrlich, former County Executive John Gary and former Annapolis Alderman Dave Cordle, who received two votes from Democrats during the first ballot. But Walker said he was tired of Anne Arundel’s “good old boy” network.
“That’s been part of the problem,” he said.
Dan Nataf, professor of political science at Anne Arundel Community College and director of its Center for the Study of Local Issues, said he was surprised by the council’s pick.
“How many people not on the council even know who Laura Neuman is?” he said. “That she was a fresh face is one way of putting it.”
Nataf said the council’s selection reveals how divided its Republicans are. Council Vice Chairman John Grasso, R-Glen Burnie, voted for Hammond; Councilmen Dick Ladd, R-Severna Park, and Derek Fink, R-Pasadena, voted for Schuh.
Neuman said she hasn’t thought yet about whether she’ll seek to retain the position when the term expires next year.
Lawrence Twele, now acting CEO of the Howard County Economic Development Authority, said Neuman pioneered the concept of the Maryland Center for Entrepreneurship, a county-based network of resources for entrepreneurs.
“Laura has a proven track record in the private sector and the public sector, and I think this shows she’s going to have a very practical, pragmatic approach that will benefit the county,” Twele said.
Neuman’s path to the top of Anne Arundel government isn’t typical.
At age 18, when she was out on her own for the first time, her apartment was broken into and she was raped. She got little support from police, she told the County Council Thursday night, and the experience spurred her to become an advocate for other rape victims.
Her case was reopened in 2002. But it took Neuman years to persuade police to re-examine her claims.
“It was nothing but determination,” she said of what prompted her to push the case after so many years.
Nataf said this part of her story likely made an impact on councilmen.
“Leopold’s problem was partly the treatment of women,” he said. “It’s another little reminder that they’re trying to make a clean break.”
But Neuman, who will be the county’s second female executive, said her gender is secondary.
“I would want to be judged on my experience and the content of my experience,” she said.
She told the council she worked several jobs through her early 20s, as a bartender and a waitress, before getting a part-time job at investment firm T. Rowe Price as a customer service representative when she was 23.
Years later, she was in a meeting with a recruiter from Loyola University of Maryland, who suggested she apply for the MBA program there. The school accepted her without a college degree, and she graduated with her MBA in 2000.
She was vice president of business development and sales for CAIS Internet before being named CEO of Matrics, a Howard County-based technology company that was nearing bankruptcy. Neuman raised more than $17 million in venture capital for the business, and it was later sold for $230 million.
In Anne Arundel County, she briefly served as interim director of the Chesapeake Innovation Center in Annapolis, the county’s homeland security incubator, but resigned in 2007.
At the time, she was critical of Anne Arundel economic development leaders’ plans to charge some member companies higher rents to close budget gaps.
Howard County Executive Ken Ulman, who hired Neuman to lead his economic development team in 2011, said he chose her because of her success in the business world.
“There is no one who understands economic development dynamics in Maryland better than she does,” Ulman said.
But he said he’s not worried about competing with his former appointee.
“We are good partners. Howard County and Anne Arundel County do so many things together,” Ulman said.