Daring Women Q&A: Tonya Drake, Chancellor of Western Governors University Washington

The head of the online, nonprofit university seeks to lead with integrity, courage and vision.

The latest Daring Women interview is with Dr. Tonya Drake, chancellor of Western Governors University Washington.

Drake, who earned a Ph.D. in education leadership and policy studies from Arizona State University, was appointed chancellor of WGU Washington this past April. Read about the career successes and challenges she’s faced, the advice she offers women starting out in their careers, her mentors and views on leadership.

1. Tell us about the high point of your career. What do you love about your work? Describe your proudest moment.

A high point in my career was traveling with a group of students to South Africa to attend the Global Leadership Summit. I was honored and humbled to provide one of the keynote addresses on the theme of deconstructing race. Students from all over the world gathered to discuss social justice, race, oppression, leadership and the idea of creating a brighter future. Traveling to the other side of the world to engage in meaningful conversations with individuals with global views and values was lifechanging. Traveling abroad is an experience I encourage everyone to pursue, and it remains one of the high points of my career.

From a stateside perspective, what I love most about my work is that higher education is one equalizer in a society with growing inequality. Individuals with advanced degrees have access to better jobs, health care and a higher socio-economic status. My proudest moments are hearing from students and learning about their success. My first professional job was working with first-generation, low-income youth in the Yakima Valley. I helped them navigate the higher-education process, including financial aid and admissions applications. Years later, a student sought me out after she graduated from college to thank me for helping her believe in herself.

2. What challenges have you faced as a woman in your industry? How have you addressed them?

My challenges are not unique to me but are so typical that they have become normalized, including unequal pay, being the recipient of microaggressions, maintaining a work-life balance, not being heard and not being promoted. One of the biggest challenges facing women in higher education is sexual harassment. Student accounts of sexual harassment continue to rise and social movements like #MeToo have empowered women to come forward and shine a light on generations of oppression against women.

One of the ways I have helped address this was becoming a Title IX officer while at Edmonds Community College. Title IX officers ensure the institution is complying with the laws and regulations, and they provide support to students who have experienced sexual harassment, including assault. This provided me with not only a strong understanding of the legalities regarding sexual harassment, but also of the tools available to help students navigate the complex and often hurtful process of reporting and seeking justice. While it is important to note sexual harassment also impacts men, most cases are violence against women.

3. Tell us about a person who has inspired or mentored you. What key lesson did you learn from them?

I have been very fortunate to have several inspiring mentors in my life who have provided guidance, support and inspiration. One amazing mentor is Dr. Jean Hernandez, president emeritus at Edmonds Community College. She was the first female Latina president in our state’s community college system. Dr. Hernandez continues to inspire and mentor me and several women across Washington. She leads with integrity, courage and vision.

One of the key lessons I have learned from her is the importance of collective impact. Dr. Hernandez connects people and organizations to solve complex problems. She has taught me the importance of developing meaningful relationships, listening and connecting with people. She understands that by working together we are stronger and can collectively serve our communities better. She motivates me to understand complex social problems and create solutions by actively engaging in social-justice reform in an effort to eliminate individual and social oppression.

4. What advice would you give to a woman getting started in her career?

My advice to women getting started in their career is to find good mentors, seek out growth and learning opportunities, and get your education. Good mentors provide you with insight, guidance and a good nudge if you are going in the wrong direction. I also encourage women to continuously seek opportunities to stretch and grow themselves.

There is a great book called Disrupt Yourself by Whitney Johnson, which describes the importance of challenging yourself to reach new levels of learning and leadership. One great way to disrupt yourself is to seek out education. A degree provides you with the knowledge and skills to enter your career field, and advanced degrees provide you with specialized knowledge and a competitive edge when seeking to progress in your career.

5. What can women do to improve gender equity in the workplace? What can men do?

Creating true gender equity requires participation by both men and women. Women can hire more women, promote more women and pay women equally to improve gender equity in the workplace. Men can do the same.

6. Tell us about a favorite book, show or podcast and why and how it inspires you.

One of my favorite books has become Sex, Time, and Power by Leonard Shlain. I wish I had found this book earlier in my life for it has transformed my understanding of female evolution. Its compelling and thought-provoking framing provides insight into being a unique, powerful and intelligent female. Understanding how power has been constructed around gender has helped me to deconstruct what I want to leave behind and reconstruct the gender dynamics I want to see for future generations.

7. Where do you find support and inspiration? How important is networking, and how do you expand your contacts?

My greatest inspiration is looking into the eyes of my children to see the world through their lens of endless possibilities. I also find support through surrounding myself with women of wisdom and strength, including attending “Women of Power” gatherings. This group of amazing women gather quarterly to stay connected to other female leaders, to find inspiration and to provide support to one another. I seek opportunities to serve on boards and connect with others, such as the United Way of Snohomish County ― where I’m thrilled to serve as vice-chair this year. These opportunities power my intellectual drive by allowing me to give back.

As for contacts, my style can be described as “old school meets new school.” I have an old glass fish jar where I keep business cards of those I have met over the years. I think restaurants are a bit clever to ask for business cards in exchange for the potential of a free meal. Although I have never won a free meal as a result of leaving my business card, seeing the fish bowl in my office sparks joy every time I add to the tank. Alternatively, I have invested more time and energy in expanding my LinkedIn network. It is my online fish bowl, filled with current and former colleagues, students and people I have never met. There is no promise of a free meal, but I enjoy engaging digitally with individuals across the country.

8. What are the most important characteristics of a good leader? What leadership traits are overrated?

I believe one of the most important characteristics of a good leader is having strong integrity when facing your greatest challenges, which takes courage and strength. Being an empathetic listener that seeks understanding is also a sign of a good leader. Lastly, being inclusive in your approach and decision-making process is vital, which requires self-awareness, understanding, and valuing differences and advocating for others. I believe we should open our thinking to a wide range of approaches of understanding leadership.

9. What would you do differently in your career if you had a do-over.

I have had many wonderful experiences throughout my career in higher education. Reflecting on my breadth of opportunities ― to work in equity and inclusion, student services, policy, advancement and now as a state leader in higher education ― there is very little I would change. Learning is so fundamental to who I am and how I approach leadership that if given the chance to have a do-over, it would be to teach at least once a year. I have a great amount of respect and admiration for educators from K-12 through higher education and beyond. It would be a great honor to be among this group of educators who teach.

10. What would be the title of your autobiography?

The title of my autobiography would be From the Sound to the Ocean. Washington is where I grew up, a place I call home and choose to raise my family, and where I serve my community. The Puget Sound is a dynamic place where fresh water from our mountains and streams mixes with the saltwater of the Pacific Ocean.

I identify as mixed ancestry with a strong connection to First Nations Coastal Salish as well as mixed-European decent. The title From the Sound to the Ocean represents my journey of identifying as a female of color from mixed ethnicities and moving toward understanding my place in a global world as an advocate and ally for others.

We’d love to hear from more women across all industries who are challenging the status quo. Does it sound like you? If it does, click here and fill out our questionnaire. Feel inspired? Join us for our second Daring Women event on May 21, 2019. Interested in speaking opportunities at the event? Fill out the application here.

Daring Women Q&A responses have been edited and condensed.

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