Hope Springs Eternal: Lauren Solotar Readies May Institute for Challenges to Come


As published in the Boston Business Journal, November 20, 2015
Women of Influence / 2015 WomenUp
[Read related press release.]

Title and Company: President and CEO, May Institute
Age: 54
Education: Bachelor’s degree in psychology, State University of New York, 1982; doctorate in psychology, SUNY-Albany, 1987
Residence: Newton

For more than 30 years, Dr. Lauren Solotar has had a major influence in Massachusetts and across the country in the field of psychology. In 1996, she joined the staff at the May Institute in Randolph, and has been there ever since.

After years of taking on increasingly more clinical and administrative duties, Solotar was appointed CEO of May in 2011 and took on the dual roles of president and CEO in 2013, making her only the second leader of the sprawling nonprofit since its founding in 1955.

Today, Solotar oversees a $115 million annual budget and nearly 2,000 employees spread across 12 states. She recently spoke with BBJ correspondent Jay Fitzgerald about her career, the field of psychology and her favorite place to enjoy a glass of wine.


When you took over as head of the May Institute, you faced a number of challenges. What were your highest hurdles?

Some of the main challenges fell into four areas. One is that our CFO had retired, so I needed a new and expanded leadership team. Another issue was the impact of the recession. At the time, funding was tight and the economic climate had not leveled out. The third was our strategic plan had ended, so I actually needed to develop a new strategic plan. I saw this as both a challenge and an opportunity. And the fourth was to increase employee engagement and to work to make the organization more transparent and engaged.

Were there times at the beginning when you said to yourself, ‘What did I get myself into?’

Oh, not at all (laughs)! But, yes, absolutely. It was very challenging at times. There were a million moving parts. We’re spread out across the country and we provide such a breath and depth of services to individuals across the developmental spectrum. But I have a great team and put together a great team. The other piece is that I knew I didn’t know all the answers, but I was a good problem solver and could work with my team.

Where do you see the May Institute in five or 10 years?

I think we’ve always responded to the greatest needs, so I think that’s how we’ll continue to grow and meet needs as they arise. There’s a tremendous need in Massachusetts to provide services to adults with autism. So we’re closely working (with others) and the state to develop these programs. We’re also looking at expanding geographically. Over time, we’ve learned how to best replicate our services and our best practices in different parts of the country, so we’ll continue to do that.

Where has your field made its greatest strides?

Overall, and overarching, I’d say the advance and expansion of evidence-based practices. That’s been critical in the field and it made the field much more of a science. … Also, the new technologies that are available, because that gives us the ability to use true data-based decision-making and make changes in real time.

Is there still a negative stigma held against those grappling with mental health issues?

Yes, absolutely. And it’s not just mental health issues. It’s all disabilities in general. One of the things that disheartens me is if I’m out in the public and I see individuals with disabilities being treated poorly or disrespectfully ... One of our goals is to really integrate everyone we serve into the community.

Do you have a favorite vacation spot or an all-time favorite vacation?

When my kids were little, we went to Martha’s Vineyard every summer with a group of friends. So Martha’s Vineyard holds a special place in my heart. I feel like my children grew up there. More recently, we’ve been to Italy a few times. Great history, great food, great wine.

What advice would you give young people thinking of entering this line of health care?

Part of it is really exciting to go into health care and to go into this field. It’s also incredibly hard work. The field is always changing and I think it’s important to be flexible. One of the key things to remember is that we’re dealing with human beings. For me, at the end of the day, I know that everything I do matters.

What do you do to relax when not working? A hobby?

I like to spin (on indoor cycles). My husband and I have a standing date on Wednesday nights to actually go spinning, then I spin throughout the week, when I have time. I love to travel. I love good food and laying on the beach.

What was the last book you read and liked?

I’m currently reading “Far From the Tree,” which is by Andrew Solomon. It’s a great book. He interviewed over 300 families with children with a range of differences, not disabilities, differences. It just talks about how the families adapted and lived their lives. It includes people with autism and schizophrenia as well child prodigy. It’s about how parents think about their children when they’re different from what they expected.

What’s your all-time favorite movie?

The movie that comes to mind is ‘A Beautiful Mind,’ which is the only movie I’ve ever gone to twice to see in the theater, because I wanted to really understand John Nash’s perception of reality. So I had to see it twice to get a full picture of how he perceived the world. He was a brilliant man who had a major mental illness.


Did you have a mentor or mentors during your career?

On a personal level, I would say my parents, who are very supportive of me, and my husband (David Gansler, a neuropsychologist), who is my best cheerleader and confidante. On a professional level, I’d say I’ve been fortunate. I’ve had mentors at each stage of my career, starting probably as an undergraduate and all through graduate school and then at each level of my career. They were people who really pushed me beyond my comfort zone.

Who do you turn to today for advice or guidance on thorny issues?

I have a great team that I work with. I also have a very strong and supportive board and they’re always available. Then I have a group of female CEOs and we meet periodically and if in between, if we have issues, we also contact each other.