Erika Riddle Petrozelli '03 '04G, president and CEO of the Lehigh Valley Community Foundation, an organization that connects donors to important causes, finds balance in a career focused on her passion for giving back.
As told to Cynthia Tintorri
Image by Christa Neu
I chose Lehigh because growing up in Bethlehem with a dad who got his MBA at Lehigh, it was very familiar to me. I knew the accounting program was top-notch—still is—and I liked that living on campus was its own environment—I didn’t feel like I was in my own backyard. My husband, Matt ’03, and his father are Lehigh alumni, too.
I chose accounting because of my father’s influence, and because I wanted a career path with options and opportunities. I spent 10 years in New York City, first with PricewaterhouseCoopers and then Magnitude Capital.
Lehigh’s relationship with the Big Four accounting firms, combined with my accounting degrees, helped me get my foot in the door for my first job. Lehigh also encouraged me to be curious about alternatives and solutions. That’s important in many careers, but especially in accounting and auditing.
I took a personal sabbatical to explore what I wanted to do professionally when my husband and I moved back to the Lehigh Valley in 2013. I leaned on my Lehigh network to figure out where the opportunities were so I could combine my experience with something I really wanted to do. I found that at the Lehigh Valley Community Foundation in 2014.
I believe in opportunity. Giving back is an important aspect of my career. My organization helps people My organization helps people give back. We connect philanthropists of all backgrounds and interests with causes and nonprofits in the community. I’ve had a lot of doors opened for me, and I believe everyone should have doors opened for them. That’s why I give back.
The best thing that happened to me at Lehigh was that I established lifelong relationships there, both in my sorority, Gamma Phi Beta, and through the summer learning-abroad programs. My husband and I met at Lehigh, but then went our separate ways after graduation, until we reconnected at a Le-Laf telecast party in New York City. We were married in 2009 in Packer Chapel, and have a son, Max, and a daughter, Emma.
My role model among Lehigh women is WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert ’86. I admire how she used her expertise in accounting and all her technical training and combined it with something that was a huge part of her life—basketball.
The best advice I’ve been given is about leadership: People don’t always have to like you, but they have to respect you. It’s kind of blunt, but I think, as women, we tend to be people-pleasers. We want to be liked, but it’s not about being everybody’s friend when you’re running an organization; it’s about your decision-making.
My advice to students is to keep an open mind and realize it’s good to take a risk sometimes. I wouldn’t be in the career I’m in now, something I truly love, if I hadn’t taken a risk. Look for the open doors and stop trying to kick down the closed ones.
My advice to other women is to take a look at the bigger job picture—a combination of compensation, career path, people, and integration with personal life. How are you being treated as an employee? Do you like the people you work with? How does your work fit into other parts of your life? Being a working mom is still different than being a working dad, unfortunately. Work-life integration becomes a much different conversation when there are kids involved.