The importance of finding true chemistry in your career

by Laura Schreiner

Not many people can pinpoint the moment they charted their life’s course. But Rita (Gresback) Shor, ’69, recalls the very day it happened.

During her senior year of high school, Shor shadowed a chemist at St. Paul-based 3M, a global innovation company where her father worked as a machinist.

"That was the day that I fell in love with the laboratory," Shor said. "Based on that experience and research on Stritch’s program, I decided on a chemistry major."

In the 1960s, chemistry was not among the most common majors for female students. In fact, in her graduating class, only Shor and one classmate received a chemistry degree.

"Not many women were pursuing careers in science at the time," Shor said. "But I was one of the lucky ones."

Upon graduating from then-named Cardinal Stritch College, Shor entered the graduate program at Iowa State University and intended to earn a doctorate in chemistry. When her husband was hired by 3M, the couple relocated to Minnesota, and she suspended her graduate coursework.

Drawing upon her dual-minor in math and secondary education, Shor began teaching chemistry at the high school she had attended.

"I enjoyed teaching, but I really wanted to work in industrial chemistry," Shor said. "I hadn’t realized that I could go into this field with my bachelor’s degree."

Well-acquainted with the opportunities at 3M, Shor applied for a research assistant position within the company.

"Because of affirmative action, they had to hire a woman. I was interviewed by several people, one of whom was a man who said he was only allowed to interview women for the position, and I was ‘the least worst.’ We worked together for seven years, and he never hired another man after that!"

Shor began her 34-year career at 3M as a research assistant and technician to a senior chemist. Performing basic research, she gained fundamental experience in how to conduct experiments in a laboratory environment. The work was satisfying, but after six years she began to feel restless.

"I wanted to perform research related to a product that I could see instead of the technology that would go into a variety of products."

Through 3M’s focus on talent development and retention, Shor transferred to a new division to work on occupational health and safety product development. In 1987, she was appointed senior research specialist for the medical-surgical division and went on to lead several product development programs for the division, as well.

Although Shor’s career certainly was advancing, she is quick to note that her path wasn’t without its obstacles.

"Most of the turning points in my career have had to do with adversity. In the early days, women were harassed terribly—sometimes even physically. That led to my becoming part of a group—the Women’s Advisory Committee. I was co-chair for three years, and there were 30 of us. The 3M leadership supported this group, but we were the ones who proposed an anti-harassment policy that the company adopted. The group has a different name now, but it is still active. Now they deal with issues like mentoring, better access to childcare, trying to lobby for leadership opportunities."

Shor proudly recalls how she and her female colleagues supported each other. Through lunch sessions spent brainstorming solutions for a problem and evenings toasting their promotions, the women in Shor’s 3M network knew each other as colleagues and as friends.

In 1997, Shor received a promotion for which she would leave the lab and work in 3M’s new eBusiness department. As an outgrowth of that, she spent two years managing an eBusiness team in Europe and an additional five years leading the Design for Six Sigma marketing efforts in St. Paul.

Since retiring from 3M in 2007, Shor serves as an innovation and brand-related program director for The Conference Board, a nonprofit think tank, and is a principal consultant at Shor, LLC in the Twin Cities.

Shor’s current role as a consultant ties together her experiences as a teacher, chemist, product developer and marketing professional as she provides peer learning opportunities for executives.


Advice to today's women

"Be open to gaining experience. We don’t know what we don’t know when we’re younger. It isn’t any different at any age."

"The ability to collaborate across companies and be more networked is really exciting. Organizations need more of that, and I think that may be a strength that this generation has, enabled by technology."