There is an energy in Sheela Murthy’s voice as she talks about her new post as chairman of the board of directors of the Maryland Chamber of Commerce.
After all, it took her years to get to this point.
And she is only the second female in the chamber’s 40-year history to hold the position and the first woman of color to do so.
Additionally, the chamber is several years into leading the Maryland Competitiveness Coalition, a collaborative effort of 60 business, employee and related interest groups working to help strengthen Maryland as a regional, national and global economic leader.
“We have downplayed our strengths,” Murthy said. “It’s just our turn now to showcase and put the spotlight on the incredible strength that Maryland brings.”
But like many in-demand professionals, Murthy was hesitant when approached several years ago about starting on the path to chairman of the chamber, a process which involved serving first in other leadership roles.
“My first reaction was ‘Oh. No, no no. I don’t have time,’ ” said Murthy, a member of the Top 100 Women Circle of Excellence.
A sought-after attorney, respected philanthropist and dynamic public speaker, Murthy is the founder and president of the internationally known Murthy Law Firm, a leader in immigration law.
In addition to running her firm, Murthy sits on the boards of other organizations including the Girl Scouts of Central Maryland and, together with her husband, Vasant Nayak, runs the MurthyNAYAK Foundation, which supports socially transformative projects that change the world, one person at a time.
Yet Murthy was persuaded to join the board’s executive committee by then-president and CEO of the chamber, Kathy Snyder, who noted that it is not often women are asked to lead the statewide chamber.
“I saw a person who had achieved the American dream,” said Snyder, who is now retired, but served as the first female president and CEO of the chamber. “She’s a great role model for anybody who is an entrepreneur, who wants to start a business. She challenged herself to overcome many difficult odds in order to be successful in business.”
Murthy became chairman in May.
The chamber represents 700 members with about 400,000 employees, said Brien Poffenberger, current president and CEO of the chamber.
Therefore, the chairman needs to be smart, engaged, get the chamber’s vision and be a problem solver.
“Sheela has all of that in spades,” Poffenberger said.
Eligibility to be chairman also requires holding a position such as president or CEO of a major company in the state.
While Murthy Law Firm doesn’t employ thousands, “it is a global player,” Murthy explained.
Murthy’s firm was not always a global force. It once was just her working solo to represent clients through the immigration process.
In the 21 years since she hung out her own shingle, she has built her firm into an international brand, with offices in Maryland, Seattle and Chennai, India. Between the three offices, her firm employs more than 100 people and her website murthy.com is the world’s most popular legal website offering free and readable information on U.S. immigration law, she said.
Just as few women have served as the chamber’s chairman, few attorneys have held the role, Murthy said.
But it was not only that Murthy was a woman or an attorney that drew the attention of the board’s nominating committee, Snyder said. Rather, it was also Murthy’s success and unique story, Snyder said.
“She is a high energy person and we felt a number of years ago that she’d be a great example to lead the chamber board of directors to show the Maryland Chamber and state of Maryland is comprised of different people with different backgrounds all working together to help Maryland be a better place,” Snyder said.
Born in India, Murthy pursued a career in law, eventually coming to the U.S. in her early 20s to obtain a Masters in Law at Harvard University. She went on to work for several U.S. law firms before striking out on her own in immigration law, a change she credits to her personal experience working through the system with an attorney who did not seem to care.
In the three to four years it took get a green card, she said, she couldn’t recall her attorney talking to her except to say he needed to increase his fee.
If her attorney could treat her that way – a fellow lawyer, Harvard educated – Murthy said she questioned how he treated others going through the immigration process.
Rearrange the letters of the word file and you get life, she notes. Life, that is how Murthy sees each client: Not as files, but as lives, as families wanting to participate and share in the American dream.
Like most immigrants, Murthy said she has a love affair with the United States that gives her a fresh perspective and vision to see endless possibilities for the state of Maryland.
With that she also brings a directness, an honesty, a boldness to confidently speak her mind and an ability to encourage others.
“I get our vision, I get our mission, I get our values, I get our promise,” she said, adding she has the strength to keep the chamber focused on its goals and to encourage the staff to feel that passion.
She also is committed to bringing more women into the chamber’s leadership and onto the path to chairmanship. Currently, two other women serve on the executive committee.
For the chamber, having a woman of color as chairman is a significant statement, Snyder said.
Murthy reflects on the diversity of Maryland’s residents and its businesses.
“It’s important for the average person whether in Baltimore or in Montgomery County or in Southern Maryland or in Ocean City or in Deep Creek Lake, to see the leaders of the Maryland Chamber look like them, act like them, be aware that the state has different needs in different regions,” Snyder said.
Murthy has worked hard to not only live the American dream, but further the vision to make Maryland open for business so others can live that dream.
“This isn’t about each of us carving out our own territorial ground,” she said. “If we are going to be successful as a state, we need to do this all together.”
“It’s not about us and our egos, we just happen to be in this position at this time and have a very important role and vision,” she continued. “We believe it’s our role, our responsibility to pull everything together to really help Maryland thrive.”
|This article is featured in The Daily Record’s Path To Excellence: A Woman’s Guide To Business. The mission of the Path to Excellence magazine is to give our readers the opportunity to meet successful women of all ages, backgrounds and beliefs and learn how they define success. Read more from Path to Excellence.|