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Building a State of Prosperity

As the daughter of educators, Machelle Baker Sanders learned the importance of  public service and science early in life. The College of Agriculture and Life Sciences alumna was appointed as the North Carolina secretary of commerce by Governor Roy Cooper in February 2021. 

Sanders, a Belhaven, North Carolina, native, says when she was young her parents ingrained in her the spirit of serving others.

“I grew up observing my family’s true public service to the community,” says Sanders. “Whether that was in the education space or participating in church events, election seasons or taking the sick and the elderly to doctor’s appointments. Observing that impact of giving your time, your service and helping those less fortunate, brought me and my family great joy.” 

Sanders’ second passion is science, more specifically science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). As a child, Sanders loved asking questions. 

“Science and math were my favorite subjects. Actually, chemistry was my favorite subject in high school,” Sanders says. Her high school chemistry teacher, Mrs. McCann, helped her discover her passion for STEM. And when it came to college, she wanted to go to a school with a strong engineering program. 

“NC State was my top choice. I was excited about being accepted there. I started out in chemical engineering but realized it was not exactly what I wanted. I wanted to do something that was more deeply connected to the biological side of things, biochemistry, and understanding how biology and the focus of the body connected to the living world,” Sanders explains.

With that in mind, she changed her major to biochemistry, which she loved, graduating in 1987 with her bachelor’s degree.

Prior to being appointed as North Carolina’s secretary of commerce, Sanders describes her career path like a jungle gym, something Sheryl Sandberg explains in her book “Lean In.” Instead of moving up the ladder, the idea is that there are multiple ways to reach the top.

“I made lots of moves up and down, even across that jungle gym. Sometimes I fell off, but I brushed myself off and always got back up. My resiliency shined through at an early age,” Sanders says. Upon graduating from NC State, she started working in a laboratory at Roche Pharma Medical in Burlington, North Carolina, where she was a technician and biochemist working on patnerity and bone marrow testing. Soon after, she pursued an opportunity in the audit and compliance sector with Wilmington-based Applied Analytical Industries. 

“That opportunity gave me a different experience and a different perspective about working in the field of pharmaceuticals,” Sanders says. She moved up, taking on more managerial and leadership positions.

“I enjoy working with people and problem solving with people. I believe the real responsibility of a leader is to bring out the best in others,” says Sanders. One of her recent roles was as vice president and general manager at Biogen.

“I had the opportunity to have an impact on millions of people who count on Biogen to continue to manufacture quality products for people with debilitating illnesses, such as multiple sclerosis and other neurologic disorders and autoimmune disorders,” Sanders says.

As North Carolina’s secretary of commerce, her goal is to improve the economic well-being and quality of life for all North Carolinians.

“My vision for North Carolina commerce is to foster a vibrant, resilient and inclusive economy that makes North Carolina a preferred place for business, innovation and economic prosperity,” says Sanders. “North Carolina has the potential and is well on its way to becoming the envy of the world when it comes to our economy and what we have to offer.”

Sanders says an inclusive economy is an economy that provides opportunities and equity for all regardless of age, color, ethnicity and area code. It celebrates the differences that every North Carolinian brings to the state.

“The strength of North Carolina is that we have a diverse set of skills. We have diverse talent, diverse communities, and we want to be a symbol of what it means when you celebrate difference, when you embrace the best and the whole person,” says Sanders. “We need to have the courage to lift everyone up, not just certain sectors or unique groups of people, but lift up every North Carolinian.”

It’s this willingness to help improve the lives of others that keeps her motivated.

“Everyone has a special and divine purpose. Helping others achieve their goals, their purpose and vision, truly motivates me and it’s very rewarding.”

For her continued advocacy and her contributions to STEM, Biogen gifted an endowment in Sanders’ name to NC State in 2017. Sanders was floored and appreciative.

“My colleagues heard me advocating for STEM education, especially for underserved and underrepresented communities,” Sanders says. 

“We need to bring STEM to the forefront for rural North Carolina and make sure that every child has the same opportunities to understand what the world of science, technology, engineering and math can offer them, not only as part of their livelihood, but by being a major contributor in solving the world’s biggest problems and challenges.”

This post was originally published in College of Agriculture and Life Sciences News.