Why Risk Is Just Opportunity in Disguise

Nichelle Maynard-Elliott’s lifetime of taking risks, both personally and professionally, has brought her to places where she can truly make a difference

Anyone who has ever accomplished a goal knows that few things go exactly as planned. The road to achievement is often paved with risk and the potential for unexpected delays or detours. While many may shy away, Nichelle Maynard-Elliott embraces those risks and detours, finding that they can unveil unforeseen opportunities and groundbreaking partnerships.

Nichelle Maynard-Elliott, Praxair

“You have to be willing to step out of your comfort zone in order to experience growth,” says Maynard-Elliott, executive director of mergers and acquisitions (M&A) for Praxair, a leading industrial gas company in North and South America and one of the largest worldwide. “I wouldn’t be where I am now if I had not taken risks.”

Risk is a fairly common concept in the world of M&A, where Maynard-Elliott has led strategic roll up initiatives in industrial gases and healthcare, overseen divestitures of noncore assets, negotiated high-stakes joint ventures with key strategic partners, and analyzed consolidation opportunities in order to take the business to the next level. However, she also stresses that embracing risk outside of the office—and throughout life in general—is crucial in steering yourself toward where you want to be and where you can truly make a difference. It’s a lesson she learned early in life.

During her senior year at Brown University, Maynard-Elliott received an envelope that she hoped would confirm her dream of attending Columbia University Law School. Instead, it contained the dreaded wait-list notification. Heeding a friend’s advice, Maynard-Elliott steeled her resolve and scheduled a meeting with Columbia’s dean of admissions. “I told the dean that Columbia was the only law school where I wanted to study, and I couldn’t see myself anywhere else,” Maynard-Elliott recalls.

She kept in touch with the law school dean for several months, and it was a risk that paid off. “In late August, with my second-choice school pressing for my decision, Columbia’s dean told me that although there weren’t any open seats for that year, he would make me the first admittee for the class of 1994.”

Maynard-Elliott quickly worked to fill the nebulous void of her new gap year by taking a sales position at Neiman Marcus for the holiday season while searching for paralegal jobs in Manhattan to gain corporate law experience. One day, she struck up a conversation with a customer whom she was helping to select a scarf as a present for his wife. As they chatted, she told him that she had graduated from Brown and was looking to gain corporate law experience before starting law school the next year at Columbia.

That customer was Nathan Gantcher, then-president of Oppenheimer & Company, who attended Columbia’s business school. Gantcher shared his business card and suggested she send over her résumé. By the next day, he had sent her résumé to several law firms. By the end of the week, Maynard-Elliott had interviews lined up for paralegal positions in Manhattan and started work shortly thereafter.

“I could have done the safe thing and just attended my second-choice school,” Maynard-Elliott says. “Had I not taken the risk and gap year, I would have missed one of the greatest opportunities of my life.”

That calculated risk also yielded other benefits. During her time as a paralegal, Maynard-Elliott confirmed her affinity for transactional work over litigation. The experience was invaluable and informed her transition to Columbia. “The essence of transactional work is bringing different sides together,” she says. “You come to an agreement, and the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Litigation by nature is more adversarial. I am more of an advocate than adversary. I derive satisfaction every time parties achieve a meeting of the minds, resulting in wins for all.”

That realization also led Maynard-Elliott to take another major risk—the transition from the legal field into M&A—where she continued to develop a reputation as one who excels at generating growth and opportunity through collaboration.

“The move from law to business, for me, was the evolution from tolerating a job to owning my career,” she says. “When I entered law school, I wouldn’t have guessed that I would end up here, but with a little self-realization and a lot of encouragement from supporters and mentors, my career has evolved into something I enjoy immensely. Without some risks, you might never get to the point where you love what you’re doing and are being challenged every day.”

She also stresses the importance of seizing opportunities outside of your career as means to develop leadership skills. That includes at her church, where she serves on the board. She also founded a pioneering gospel choir, and they have toured internationally.

“My legal and business skills are valuable to the boards and church committees on which I serve,” Maynard-Elliott says. “It’s important to always be open to any place where you can develop leadership skills and expertise. These stretch leadership experiences have informed and enhanced my professional skills.”

Such meaningful opportunities are proven to be the win-win Maynard-Elliott always seeks: allowing her to support her community and, ultimately, make a difference. “I think life, for me, is about stepping out on faith, fulfilling purpose, reaching potential, and being the best person you can be—whether that’s the best executive, the best wife and mother, or the best choir director,” she says. “It’s about expanding and increasing your capacity. You just have to embrace the risk and find your voice. Then, you can truly sing.”

Photo: Margaret Fox