Montpelier: James Madison University Magazine

Bold Moves
For Claudia Peters ('87), life is one adventure - and one success - after another
Montpelier Spring 2000

Claudia PetersHer picture was on the cover of National Geographic when she was 6 years old and since then it has all been uphill.

Such is the life of Claudia Peters ('87), adventuresome executive who gave up her job earlier this year as director of corporate communications for The Walt Disney Co. in Los Angeles to pursue a new dream ‹ devoting herself 100 percent to the pursuit of her M.B.A.

A move that most people would call crazy is only sure to lead to more successes for Peters; she just can't know what they will be yet. Her parents always found ways to make things happen, and he is just continuing the legacy.

"When I was 6 and my brother was 9, my dad retired from the Army and was in graduate school getting his Ph.D," Peters says. "My parents decided they were going to take us hiking in the Alps. My dad said to my mom, ŒI'll take the pictures, and you write an article, and we'll just make it work.' My mother had never written an article in her life, and the next thing we know, we're on the cover of National Geographic."

That single magazine article led to a career as a writer and a well-known editor for Barbara McGarry Peters, Claudia's mother, and it left an indelible impression on Claudia.

After graduating from James Madison University with a double major in communication arts and French, Claudia Peters passed on a prestigious job offer with Burson-Marsteller, a public relations firm in Washington, D.C., where she had interned. Instead, she took her $700 in summer savings and bought a plane ticket to Paris.

Without a job or a place to stay, Peters arrived at JMU's Paris apartments, where she was invited to stay with her former French teacher, Virginia Aliotti, for 10 days in exchange for assisting her in leading a group of French students.

"I had been to Paris once before, but I didn't quite know what I was getting myself into," Peters says. "But I knew if I started my career right after college, I'd never fulfill my dream of being fluent in French."

Peters soon landed a job teaching English to French business executives and then became a professional intern in UNESCO's education and cultural divisions. She spent her evenings studying French at the Alliance Francaise.

"I immersed myself in the language and culture," Peters says. "I learned that not only is the language different in a foreign country, but so is the thinking. Learning another language is a valuable way to become open to diverse perspectives."

Peters returned to the United States and was former White House press secretary Sheila Tate's second hire at a newly launched public relations firm. Tate was later joined by Jody Powell, President Jimmy Carter's press
secretary, and the firm became known as Powell Tate.

"It was exciting to be a part of a company from Day 1 and watch it grow. It eventually became the No. 1 and most-respected PR firm in Washington," Peters says. "More than 150 people work there now."

When she first joined Powell Tate, she shared an office with Mark McIntyre, who is now vice president and director of the Washington Office of Russ Reid.

"We used to run four or five miles during lunch just about every day," McIntyre says. "We would run and talk the whole way until we came to the last block, which took us to the parking garage of our building, where we'd go into the gym to change, and there were all these people there. Claudia would sprint ahead into the parking garage and she'd throw her arms up and yell, 'I won! I won!' She got the biggest kick out of that." Peters put her energy towards some heavy-duty work projects as well. Among the events she worked on while with Powell Tate was managing a celebration marking the 200th anniversary of the signing of the Bill of Rights at Montpelier, James Madison's ancestral estate. President George Bush spoke at the 1991 event which drew the national press corps, Washington dignitaries and more than 500 guests.

Peters says many successes she has had in the workplace are based upon her experiences at JMU.

"I was an R.A. [resident adviser] for two years and then a head resident in Logan.
Residence Life's emphasis on diverse programming in the dorms as a way of connecting with all the residents is an important value I've carried with me. In business, it's helped me focus on the strengths of people on my teams, and given them opportunities to contribute and to shine."

In addition to being an R.A., serving on student government, and being a "little sister" at Sigma Pi, Peters wrote for The Breeze occasionally as well as Curio magazine. She also served as chairperson of Logan's Run, the 250-mile fund-raising relay race from the steps of the Capitol in Washington, D.C., to Rockingham Memorial Hospital.

Peters also credits her parents, who taught her to believe in herself. Her father died in 1990, and several years later, she wrote a tribute to him for Father's Day, which was published in The Journal, a Northern Virginia newspaper. She wrote: "He blazed the path of taking on new challenges, and through his example, we realized we could too. With two friends, he navigated the treacherous Big Bend of the Rio Grande River in a fold boat, becoming the first men in 50 years to succeed."

It was her mother who spoke French at the dinner table, and it was her father who learned the native language wherever he was stationed in the military. Although Peters lives 3,000 miles away from her Northern Virginia roots, where her mother still resides, she is still very close to her
family. Her mother is still doing free-lance travel writing, and her brother owned an aircraft business and was the No. 1 distributor of ultralight aircraft on the East Coast. He has recently moved to Maryland and is pursuing new adventures.

After five years with Powell Tate, Peters was hired as manager of media relations for Disney's America in Prince William County -a project that never saw a groundbreaking.

"Claudia and I talked about the risk of going to work for Disney on this project because of the extreme opposition of the landowners," McIntyre says. "But we agreed that even if the project implodes, everything she learned would make her better and more employable. Our analysis was correct. As you go through life, some people always seem to land on their back and some land on their feet. Claudia lands on her feet and turns a couple of somersaults along the way."

Peters says, "Risk-taking can often lead to failures, but without risking failure, you don't risk the exciting opportunity of success."

After more than a year with Disney's America, Peters was hired as executive vice president of network affairs for Channel One Network in New York, where she directed all external relations for the company. It was towards the end of this venture that she was selected to represent the United States in the European Union Visitor's Programme. Through the program, she participated in one-on-one meetings in Strasbourg, Brussels and Paris, where she discussed successful public-private collaborations.

"The legislators and officials with whom I met were really intrigued by the possibilities of American-style public-private partnerships. They aren't as accustomed to them as we are in the U.S.A.," she says.

Several months after returning from her fellowship visit, Peters was invited to Europe once again, this time for a round of seminars sponsored by the Financial Times of London, the British Council and the London School of Economics. The "European Series" was designed to stimulate debate on Europe and its place in the world by bringing together an international group of young leaders. While there, she met Prince Charles at a reception at St. James Palace in London.

Soon after returning to New York in 1997, Peters was hired by The Walt Disney Co. ‹ this time as director of corporate communications. Based in Los Angeles, Peters loves the California lifestyle.

"It's so gorgeous here that I have a great time being outside," Peters says. "I bike along the ocean, and hike in the mountains. The balmy, sunny weather entices you outdoors."

Peters has completed four 26.2-mile marathons - two Marine Corps Marathons in Washington, D.C., one marathon in New York City, and one in Paris. McIntyre says he and his former D.C. running partner never ran in a marathon together.

"Even though I'm taller, bigger and faster than she is, I have a sense that she wouldn't have allowed me to win. She's dogged."

In her spare time, the high-energy Peters had non-singing roles for years in various operas at The Kennedy Center, andsome of those experiences led to even more interesting adventures.

"On the closing day of Strauss' Der Rosen-kavalier, the guy playing the cavalier didn't show up, and since I was backstage, I saw the stage manager talking on the headsets. He kept looking at me, " Peters says. "The next thing I knew, he whisked me downstairs, put a 6-foot-tall man's costume on me - I'm 5 feet 1 inch - pinned my shoes on with electric tape and sent me out on the stage to hold a rose out to the diva. The show must go on!"

Working for Disney was an incredible experience for Peters.

"One of the best parts of the job was meeting some of the great Disney legends and seeing the enormous creativity and talent within the company."

In between high-powered jobs, running in marathons and performing in operas, Peters has found time to travel on her own. She has been to Hong Kong, motorcycled all over Europe, traveled the United States extensively, and been to China twice.

"I went to China on a credit card," she says. "I knew I would figure out how to pay it in the end. It's experiences that make life great.

Sometimes when we collect things, we forget how much is enough. And it's not things that bring joy to your life; it's experiences."

So Peters doesn't find it at all strange to give up a career with the wonderful world of Disney to pursue a new experience in obtaining her M.B.A.

"The University of Southern California's well-respected Marshall School of Business attracted me because of its outstanding courses with an international focus, including the opportunity to learn many different foreign languages."

A favorite quote of Peters explains:

"The moment one definitely commits oneself, then providence moves too. All sorts of things occur to help one that would never otherwise have occurred. A whole stream of events issues from the decision, raising in ones' favor all manner of unforeseen incidents and meetings and material assistance which no one could have dreamed would come his way. Whatever you can do or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, power and magic in it." - Wolfgang Goethe

And Claudia Peters is nothing if not bold.

by Sande Snead Fulk ('82)

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