WATERVILLE — Be kind to everyone around you, invest in yourself, never stop learning, and above all, be honest.

Those were some of the words of wisdom Thomas College President Laurie Lachance offered to more than 50 women who turned out Tuesday for the Mid-Maine Chamber of Commerce’s Leading Women’s Luncheon.

“Always, always, always be honest,” Lachance, 51, said. “People can take everything away from you, but only you can give up your credibility.”

In July, Lachance became the first woman and first Thomas graduate to be named president of the 118-year-old business and liberal arts college.

She urged the women to take a leadership training program. She also advised them to take their jobs seriously, but not to take themselves too seriously. Avoid self-pity, self-doubt and negative self-talk and take care of yourself, physically, emotionally and spiritually, she said.

She also recommended they surround themselves with female friends and help each other out.

“Finally, just be yourself,” she said. “You’re really special. You all have a special gift to offer.”

Chamber President Kimberly Lindlof asked Lachance to tell her life story as a way of imparting advice for finding success.

Lachance told the group she grew up in a tiny house in Dover-Foxcroft in a French Catholic family with older parents and two big sisters whom she admired.

She graduated from high school, studied economics at Bowdoin College and took the first job she was offered, at Central Maine Power, after graduation.

While her father had always told her to have a plan and stick to it, she did anything but. She described the direction her life took as an unintentional path.

At the power company she got into a financial training program, spent time in the rate department and then went into economics and marketing. Dick Spellman became her mentor and gave her tremendous opportunities, she said. She started forecasting sales and revenues and became a model manager for the state.

At 24, she was speaking to crowds, making connections and working hard, she said. She pursued a master’s degree in business administration at Thomas and by age 25 was speaking all over New England, making more connections and gaining media exposure.

At 27, she was one of the first expert witnesses, and probably the youngest, to testify before the Public Utilities Commission, she said.

She was so terrified on the stand that she was brutally honest about everything, not always taking into account that some information may be confidential, she said.

“I was so honest that I was able to develop the trust of the intervenors in the case, lawyers, commissioners,” she said.

She urged the women Tuesday to be who they are. She recalled that as an expert witness before the PUC, she was told to wear dark suits so she would look more like a man, and thus be more credible.

She didn’t like dark suits so she wore a pale pink one, she said.

“It was all wrong, but what happened was they knew I was being honest so they believed me,” she said.

She was unexpectedly offered the state economist job in 1993, a life-changing event. She became the first female and the youngest state economist and worked under Govs. John McKernan, Angus King and John Baldacci.

Her career took another turn when she got a call from the National Development Foundation asking her to interview for the Maine Development Foundation job. She got the position, which allowed her to tell positive stories about the state and form great partnerships with entities such as the Maine State Chamber of Commerce.

As her career climbed, she suffered profound loss as well — her father died in the early ’90s and her mother in 2004.

In March this year, she was asked to apply for the Thomas presidency, another call that was wholly unexpected.

She did not have much time to write a cover letter, but when she sat down at the computer, her vision for Thomas started flowing.

“It was almost like pouring my very soul out on the keyboard,” she said.

She interviewed and was up against six other finalists for the spot, never expecting to be chosen.

“At 3:30 p.m. that afternoon, they offered me the job, so in a very short period of time, I had gone from not even considering this as an option to suddenly being in a whole new world,” she said.

Nothing in her childhood would signal this outcome.

“It was a dream come true, but it was a dream I never dared to dream because it was unimaginable,” she said.

Amy Calder — 861-9247
acalder@centralmaine.com