By Catherine Kolonko
As a young girl, Connie Matsui was neither a Girl Scout nor in possession of the poise she has witnessed in young girls who are involved with the organization.
"I was painfully self conscious. I had a feeling I was smart but (I was) extremely lacking in self confidence and noncommunicative," said Matsui, now 56, laughing at the memory of her younger self. The retired biotech executive and long-time Girl Scouts supporter and mentor on Sunday received the Rell Sun Award at the Moores UCSD Cancer Center annual Luau & Longboard Invitational. Sunn, a well-known Hawaiian surfer, was a long-time supporter of the event before she died of breast cancer.
As she accepted the award on Sunday, Matsui - herself a cancer survivor - was flanked by several Girl Scouts.
In an interview in her Rancho Santa Fe home recently, Matsui noted that the Girl Scouts organization was one of the first to model racial and socio-economic diversity, bringing together young girls from privileged and poor households in its early beginnings.
"That was so visionary and so much focused on the needs of the girl," she said. "It's really about teaching life skills."
Though she never had the chance to be a Girl Scout, Matsui saw to it that her daughter, Carrie, 19, joined the organization as a young girl.
Matsui, who chaired the National Board of the Girl Scouts from 1999 to 2002, and her husband, Bill Beckman, also have a son Robbie, 24, who was a Boy Scout.
Matsui grew up in the San Francisco Bay area. She earned her MBA from Stanford University and, after graduating from business school, went to work in the banking industry because she wanted to help communities grow, she said.
That desire also led to her involvement with the Girl Scouts at a time when she had no children and her local chapter wanted to expand its reach into the Asian community.
"At the time I represented a different profile," Matsui recalled. "I was made to feel welcome and appreciated," she said.
That was not always the case in her youth as a Japanese American living in an era not that long after the end of WWII, she said.
"My parents taught me to never do anything that would bring attention to myself, particularly negative attention. I encountered my share of prejudice."
Later in life, Matsui said she learned the "upside of being different" and often enjoyed being the only woman and youngest person in a business setting. At barely five feet tall, she joked, she often was also the shortest.
She worked for Wells Fargo Bank for 15 years until her husband took a job in the pharmaceutical industry and suggested that she do the same. The couple moved to San Diego and Matsui's career change led to a long tenure with Biogen-Idec, which was founded in La Jolla and still has a strong presence in San Diego. The company's first drug, Rituxan, is an immunotherapy drug used to treat non-Hodgkin's Lymphoma and other cancers.
In 2008, while still working at Biogen-Idec Matsui learned that she had kidney cancer.
"It was very sudden and very advanced," she said.
By the time doctors discover kidney cancer in a patient it is often too late, Matsui said, but she was fortunate that the disease was confined to the organ and doctors were able to remove it. She eventually fully recovered and realized that living with cancer had reaffirmed her faith in science, she said.
In January 2009 shortly after her 55th birthday, Matsui retired. She saidhHer cancer experience reinforced her decision to retire early, as well a desire to spend quality time with her daughter before she left for college.
Borrowing the motto "You don't retire, you refire," Matsui said she plans to stay active and hopes to collaborate with social projects for the betterment of San Diego.