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Paying It Forward: Board Chair Abby Fiorella ’83 Shares How MMC Has Shaped Her Life

For Abby Fiorella ’83, the memories of Marymount Manhattan College are long-lasting, and the friendships lifelong.

She still remembers the first time she saw the black-and-white marble entryway in Carson Hall and her nerve-wracking audition for the theatre program. To this day, her closest friends are former classmates and others from the MMC community.

And as an executive at a Fortune 50 company, Fiorella finds a way to carve out time to oversee the College. A member of the Board of Trustees since 2015, she was recently elected Chair of the Board, the College’s highest office.

So when she tells new graduates, as she did at commencement in May,  “wherever your life’s journey takes you, always remember that Marymount Manhattan College is your home forever,” it’s not just advice but also the motto she’s lived by.

“I had an amazing experience at Marymount. It was formative and helped to shape who I am today,” she said. “It really is a special place.”

Yet, as the first in her Brooklyn family to graduate from college, she only happened upon MMC by chance. While Fiorella—who was enrolled in her high school’s pre-law program and had discovered a love for community theatre—was a natural fit, she’d always thought she’d go away to college. Moreover, she had a limited sense of her options (“I’d never spoken to a guidance counselor,” she said) and hadn’t heard of Marymount Manhattan. That changed one day when she saw a brochure at her school announcing auditions for MMC’s theatre program. Casting aside the pile of college pamphlets that had found their way to her parents’ kitchen table, “I talked my mom into making the trip with me,” she said.

The College’s Upper East Side address felt like a different world from Brooklyn. “My mom walked in and said, ‘I give us 10 minutes.’ She was skeptical,” Fiorella deadpanned.

In the end, her mother would become her bridge to the College. After Fiorella auditioned a monologue from You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown, she became the first runner-up for an MMC theatre scholarship. But instead of a consolation prize, she received a life-changing gift: The president of the brokerage firm her mother worked for got word of her audition and offered her a full four-year ride. His name? Joseph C. Nugent Sr., the Chair of the MMC Board of Trustees and, eventually, the namesake of Nugent Hall. “He sponsored my education,” Fiorella said. “That’s part of why I feel strongly about giving back—somebody opened the door for me, and now I want to open it for others.”

On Her Side

That wasn’t the last time she’d get the support she needed from the MMC community. Though Fiorella didn’t come out until her mid-20s, she met her first girlfriend in her freshman year at MMC—an experience that was marred when a fellow student learned of the relationship and reported it to their resident advisor. It was 1979, just a decade after the Stonewall Riots and nine years after the country’s first Pride march.

“Here I am, a 17-year-old kid who isn’t out, and someone broadcasts it. It was a traumatic experience,” Fiorella said.

However, MMC faculty and staff were firmly on her side and reassured her that she was safe and welcome. MMC had become an independent college nearly two decades before, although it maintained strong ties to its founding religious order, the Religious of the Sacred Heart of Mary (RSHM). “The sisters were my biggest champions, with a history of being both progressive and civic-minded,” Fiorella said.

She carried their example with her into the workplace. Fiorella loved the idea of helping to ensure that other people are seen, and their voices heard. And in MMC’s theatre program, she found something more: her own voice and, as she put it, “the confidence to take on the world.” Meshing the two, Fiorella went on to law school.

Fiorella served as an assistant district attorney in New York County and an assistant corporation counsel in the New York City Law Department before moving into the corporate world.

Today, she is MasterCard’s chief technology risk officer—and her leadership has gained notice well beyond the company. In June, Crain’s New York included her on its annual list “Notable LGBTQ+ Leaders,” which recognizes LGBTQ+ executives who advance equality within the workplace and/or the New York area. Fiorella is also the executive sponsor of Mastercard’s Pride business group and an executive mentor and advisory board member at OutWomen, a global network of LGBT+ women execs. She recently completed a term on the board of the New York City Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Community Center.

“Being recognized for fostering change means the world to me,” Fiorella said. “I didn’t know anyone who was LGBTQ growing up. I didn’t have role models. And, having been outed at 17, I stayed closeted for a long time afterward. As a result of my journey, I’ve committed myself to creating a more welcoming world. I always wanted to be a leader who creates an environment that celebrates diversity and where people have the freedom to show up as their authentic selves.”

Anything else, she said, is too costly a bargain. “You can’t playact what you think other people want you to be—it only goes so far, and you’ll always come up short.”

Inspired—and Inspirational

Progress for the LGBTQ+ community, she notes, hasn’t been effortless but rather two steps forward and one step back. But she’s inspired by young people, including her own 22-year-old child with her wife, Julie Griffin. “They recently came out as trans/nonbinary. I’m so proud of them and their courage to unapologetically live their life as their true self,” she said.

As for fellow alumni, she encourages them to get involved in the life of the College if they haven’t yet. “I had been a donor, but when Kerry [Walk, MMC president] approached me in 2015 about joining the board, I saw a chance to do more. She’d come to MMC with such a great vision and energy for the College’s next phase, and I wanted to be a part of that,” Fiorella said.

To make room for it, she applied the same lessons she’d learned as a working mother. “Life rarely gives you openings—you have to make time for the things that matter,” Fiorella said. “If it’s important, I’m going to find a way, and protecting and preserving what we have at MMC is important to me.”

MMC’s Board Chair Abby Fiorella, once a 17-year-old from Brooklyn whose MMC education was made possible by MMC’s then-Board Chair, is paying it forward—with humor, gratitude, and passion.

Published: September 07, 2022