Rusine Mitchell Sinclair skipped her graduation from the University of Illinois. She had a plane to catch to Singapore, where she would study Mandarin Chinese. The year was 1974.
That study-abroad trip, paid for with a Rotary scholarship, was a game-changer for Sinclair, a self-described “nerd before there were nerds” kind of kid who grew up in a small Midwestern town.
Her dreams of travel, first sparked by the exotic postcards and gifts she received from a well-traveled uncle, had been set in motion.
Capitalizing on the connections she made in Singapore, Sinclair then took a job with Mobil Oil in southeast Asia, launching what would become a successful career in international business, including a history-making 25-year stint at IBM.
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“By the age of 30, I had eight years of international business experience, which was very unusual for a young woman in the 1980s,” Sinclair says.
By the time she left IBM in 2007 at age 55, she was a company vice president and the senior state executive in North Carolina, the first woman to hold that job.
Now 64, Sinclair has come full circle, giving back to those who gave so much to her.
“Rotary gave me this priceless gift,” Sinclair says. Now she is returning the favor.
Telling the Rotary story
Earlier this summer, Sinclair became Rotary International’s district governor for the greater Triangle area. As part of her duties, Sinclair helps coordinate the group’s trademark service projects – here and abroad. By any measure, it’s a big job.
While technically retired, Sinclair estimates she puts in 10- to 12-hour workdays. “I’m really focusing on telling the Rotary story,” she says. “We don’t tell it very well. We tend to be a little modest.”
Rotarians are a generous bunch, Sinclair says. Here in the Triangle, money has gone to projects large and small – from taking children to Durham Bulls games to donating $200,000 to Wake Smiles, a dental clinic based at the Salvation Army center in Raleigh.
Overseas, local Rotary clubs have sent money and oftentimes manpower for humanitarian projects, including eye clinics in Zimbabwe and clean-water initiatives in the Dominican Republic.
Also notable is the major role Rotary has played in the worldwide effort to eradicate polio. After decades of intense vaccination campaigns, eradication is thought to be within reach.
The polio campaign is a cause close to Sinclair’s heart because she contracted polio as a young child and recovered with no long-term effects.
This year, Sinclair is asking every Rotarian she meets to donate at least $30 to polio eradication. To drive her point home, she carries with her a faded rubber squeak toy from the 1950s, a gift from the doctor who treated her. “I realize how lucky I was,” she says.
That toy isn’t her only prop. Sinclair wears a pair of red Chuck Taylor sneakers to every meeting, drawing attention to another goal: to collect 500 pairs of new athletic shoes for middle school and high school foster children in North Carolina, a project coordinated with the Children’s Home Society of North Carolina. By year’s end, she will have spoken to all 46 Rotary clubs in her district, which includes the 10 counties encompassing the Triangle.
Newman Aguiar, a technology consultant from Durham and fellow Rotarian, says Rotary – and the Triangle community as a whole – is fortunate to have someone of Sinclair’s caliber in a leadership role. “She’s just a fireball,” Aguiar says. “She is just so passionate about Rotary and about doing good in the world.”
Steeped in tradition
Sinclair traces her philanthropic roots to her Midwestern upbringing, where she recalls most girls and women of that era collected for the March of Dimes, participated in Girl Scouts and brought food to neighbors in times of need. “You knew everybody in the community and you helped people,” she says.
The Girl Scout organization has been another area of focus in Sinclair’s life. Just one day after her retirement from IBM, Sinclair became the CEO of the Girl Scout council serving the Triangle. Previously, she volunteered her time as a member of the organization’s board of directors. As CEO, a position she held for five years, Sinclair saw the group through its 100th anniversary and a merger to become the North Carolina Coastal Pines council, spanning 41 counties in central and eastern North Carolina.
In addition to Rotary and the Girl Scouts, Sinclair has helped shape the Triangle while serving in leadership roles for many Triangle organizations, including the Regional Transportation Alliance and the North Carolina Technology Association. Sinclair is also a recipient of the Order of the Long Leaf Pine.
At each Rotary meeting she attends, Sinclair wears a plaid jacket, the official district governor uniform. It’s a different style every year, chosen by that year’s Rotary International president. Rotary is steeped in traditions like these, many of them begun long before women were permitted to join in 1987.
Sinclair is a relative newcomer, joining in 2008. She’s described as a “born-again” Rotarian, an acknowledgment of her 1974 Singapore trip, though she would not have been eligible for membership back then.
In a recent speech, Sinclair recalls being interviewed for the scholarship more than 40 years ago by “four men in suits.” After much discussion, she says, she won them over. She quotes one of the gentlemen as saying: “If the little lady wants to go to Singapore, I think we should send her.”
All these years later, she’s more than comfortable in her role as a change-maker. “I don’t like being a caretaker. I like being the creator of things.”
Amy Galloway is a freelance writer and editor in Apex. She can be reached at email@example.com.
Rusine Mitchell Sinclair
Born: May 1952 in Christopher, Illinois.
Family: Married since 1983 to husband Richard Sinclair; one daughter, Allegra Sinclair.
Career: Twenty-five years at IBM, retiring as a vice president and senior state executive in North Carolina; five years as CEO of Girl Scouts-North Carolina Coastal Pines.
Education: Bachelor of arts, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champagne; Management Development Program, Harvard Business School.
Fun fact: Sinclair’s first name, Rusine, is a combination of the first names of her parents, Russell and Maxine.