Growing up in Pennsylvania, Maura Abeln Smith learned about sacrifice early on.
Her father had immigrated from Germany during the Great Depression; her mother entered college when Smith was a child, returning for her master's degree at 65. Smith acknowledges their influence. "I was born to older parents, who worked hard to provide for us," she said. "They were much stricter than my friends' parents."
Smith attended Vassar on a full scholarship, with the intention of majoring in English. Heeding her parents' advice, she studied economics instead, graduating with top honors. The year was 1977, and for the first time women could apply for Rhodes Scholarships at Oxford University. Smith did so successfully, and was in the first class of Rhodes women, earning a M.Phil. in economics. From there, she came to Miami Law on a John M. Olin Fellowship.
The legendary Soia Mentschikoff was dean at the time. "She recruited outstanding young professors and developed the infamous Elements course," Smith noted. Another person who played a significant role in Smith's early life was Professor Kenneth Casebeer, whom Smith married in 1981. Despite what she calls "irreconcilable political differences," they are the parents of two grown children and remain good friends.
Smith worked at two Miami firms, including as a partner at Baker & McKenzie, before being recruited by General Electric in 1991. A single mom with two young children, she moved to Pittsfield, Mass., to become vice president and general counsel at G.E. Plastics. Eight years later, she went to Owens Corning in Toledo, working for five years as senior vice president, general counsel and corporate secretary. While there, she served on the board of directors and was chief restructuring officer, and led the company through bankruptcy.
In 2003, she accepted the top legal job at International Paper in Memphis. In May 2011, she went to Purchase, N.Y., to become general counsel at PepsiCo, the food and beverage giant. She "chose to leave the company to pursue other opportunities" in June this year, according to a statement from PepsiCo.
Thirty years in corporate law has not tired her out. "It's never easy," she said. "There are always challenges. Making a difference in the world is important to me, and what motivates me, in part, is to be able to provide for the people I love."