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Linking Women Leaders Around the Globe

Story by
Nancy Joseph

Ask businesswoman Laurie McDonald Jonsson (‘71) where she’s been lately, and the answer is likely to include several continents. In the past year she’s traveled to China, Cuba, Israel, Spain, Kenya, Sweden, Denmark, Finland, Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic. Wherever she goes, she serves as an ambassador for women, meeting with women leaders in business, social services, and politics around the globe.

“It’s always been a passion of mine—the idea of linking women in the world,” says Jonsson, who co-founded the UW’s Center for Women and Democracy this year to encourage such connections. “I can go anywhere in the world and talk to women and find a common bond. We may be in different places in our lives, but when we look toward the future we share many of the same concerns.” 

Laurie McDonald Jonsson (center) with Hillary Rodham Clinton and Tipper Gore at a recent roundtable for women leaders.

Laurie McDonald Jonsson (center) with Hillary Rodham Clinton and Tipper Gore at a recent roundtable for women leaders.

Jonsson’s global perspective dates back to her childhood. Her family has been in the cruise ship business for years—her father brought the first cruise ship to Seattle for the ‘62 World’s Fair —and Jonsson later co-founded her own cruiseline and other travel-related businesses. “I have always been intrigued by different languages and cultures,” she says.

Jonsson did stay home long enough to earn a B.A. in Black studies and sociology at the UW. She then earned a master’s degree in social work at the University of Michigan and returned to Seattle as director of the University YWCA. “The YWCA had fantastic programs, but the funding was erratic, as in all social services,” Jonsson recalls. “I decided to go into business so that I could make a difference on my own terms.” 

In partnership with her father, Jonsson started Sundance Cruises. Her first task was to locate a suitable ship and business partners from other countries. At the same time, Jonsson entered the UW’s Executive MBA Program to hone her business skills. “I was traveling all over the world looking for ships during the week and commuting to classes on the weekend,” recalls Jonsson. “I did all my classwork on airplanes, coming back from Europe.” 

When she located a ship—and a cruise company interested in a joint venture—she became the first woman to oversee a major ship renovation project. She also became too busy to continue the Executive MBA program. (She later completed the Senior Executive Program at Stanford University.) 

Jonsson and her father named the ship Sundancer; it sailed for a year before pilot error led to an accident at sea. The ship sank and nearly took the company down with it. “In what was a modern day miracle, no one was hurt,” says Jonsson, who was onsite within hours and donned a wetsuit to dive down to survey the damage. 

At first, Jonsson wasn’t sure the company would survive. “But then we were able to get a larger ship and business really took off,” she recalls. “It was an incredible learning experience in business for me.” A merger with another company added four more ships to the fleet. Jonsson and her father sold the larger company, then named Admiral Cruises, in 1986. 

Not one to remain idle, Jonsson soon became head of Stellar International, an investment company managing a variety of business ventures—including Stellar Travel, specializing in cruise vacations. Jonsson also managed to make time to marry and have three children, become a director of Commerce Bank, a director of the International Women’s Forum, and founding director of Expedia, the largest online travel service. 

In 1996, Jonsson also became a board member of the International Women’s Leadership Foundation, which organized the first meeting of women presidents and prime ministers worldwide. The meeting motivated her to create more global opportunities to bring women together. 

“I was inspired by the unique solutions these women found to world problems,” recalls Jonsson, “and I saw the tremendous need to bring more women to the table in world negotiation and problem solving. I was also inspired by President Clinton’s commitment to hiring more women in positions of power. I felt it was time to step forward myself and become involved in the political arena to help more women reach powerful positions.”

I was inspired by the unique solutions these women found to world problems, and I saw the tremendous need to bring more women to the table in world negotiation.

Jonsson became involved with Democratic politics, and in 1996 was asked by Governor Gary Locke to chair his Executive Women’s Council, a group of women leaders in business, politics, education, and social sciences who “advise the governor on issues that affect us all—from a woman’s perspective.” 

Combining her passions for politics and travel, Jonsson suggested that the Council plan a Women’s Trade and Study Mission abroad, enabling Washington state leaders and women leaders from other countries to share ideas. The idea was a hit, and in 1999 Jonsson and U.S. Senator Patty Murray led a group of 35 Washington state women leaders on a mission to Poland, the Czech Republic, and Hungary. “It was an extremely successful mission,” says Jonsson. “My feeling is, if you’re going to trade with another country, you don’t just do business. You attach a conscience to it. You find out how you can help each other.” 

She continues to link American and international businesswomen with shared interests. She has introduced U.S. educators to foreign colleagues who have successfully involved girls in math and science. She has linked leaders of domestic violence groups in the U.S. with colleagues in other nations trying to address domestic violence. Still, she recognizes there’s a limit to what one person can do. 

“I’ve been an individual person trying to be a conduit,” she says. “I thought it would be better to have a larger conduit, a place for women to come together. And then I thought of the University of Washington.”

With that idea in mind, Jonsson recently became one of the founders of the UW’s Center for Women and Democracy, which aims to link women of the world, train more women leaders in our state, and encourage research related to women and politics. Jonsson is providing considerable expertise as well as $10,000 to help create the Center. “I felt it was important to come forward with my check before asking anyone else to contribute,” she explains. Among the projects Jonsson envisions for the Center is the next Women’s Trade and Study Mission abroad.

“I really think this Center could become the central point for contact among women of the world,” says Jonsson. “It’s very exciting. And I’m so happy to come back to the UW to do something like this. This is home. This is where I’d like to put my passion.”