BA in Landscape Architecture from Iowa State University, post-bachelors certificate in Environmental Geographic Information Systems (GIS) from Western Illinois University
Briefly describe your career path from college until today.
I started college in social work and was inspired by a video I saw on Chad Pregracke during a required environmental studies class. Chad is a Moline native (like me) who at the age of 23 founded Living Lands and Waters, a nonprofit dedicated to cleaning up the Mississippi River. It really connected with me because I grew up along the river in Moline and felt it had helped to raise me. It inspired me to do something for the environment and to be a voice for something that doesn’t have a voice.
I eventually went to Iowa State University (ISU) for Landscape Architecture, and it was a beautiful major that really set me up perfectly for my work in conservation. It was centered on people and the land, and balancing the needs of both. It focused on creating plans for the land that best suits human needs but also protects those services—like wildlife and recreation—that the land provides.
After ISU I went back to my home town of Moline and approached two organizations about internships. I offered to do the work for free, but both organizations agreed to take me on as a paid intern. One of the organizations was a landscape architecture firm, and the other was River Action, a nonprofit dedicated to fostering the environmental, economic, and recreational aspects of the Mississippi River. After the internships, I got job offers from both. I was looking at my college loans, and the landscape firm was going to pay me much more than the non-profit so I took the landscape job… for two weeks. After two weeks I missed the nonprofit work and I missed working for the river. So I gave the landscape firm the money they had paid for my business cards, asked River Action if their job was still on the table (it was), and that’s how I began my career in natural resources.
What’s the best advice you’ve received regarding your career?
I’m not sure who told me this, but somewhere along the line someone told me, “Follow your dreams, and then making a living will follow.” That first decision I made, to work for a nonprofit over a higher paying private company, wasn’t perhaps the most financially responsible decision to make, but it was where my passion was. Because of that passion and dedication to my work, I’ve been able to move up through the ranks and become the first female CEO of an organization that’s been around since 1944.
What have you done to continue your education and professional development following college graduation?
That’s something that’s really important. Becoming a member of the Society was one of the first things I did when I became a conservation professional. I dove right in becoming a leader in my local SWCS chapter. I helped them redo the website and eventually became a board member. Which, in turn, taught me how to organize meetings and inspire board members to get things done. My experience on the local chapter empowered me to be a leader and to take initiative on different projects. One project was the Farm Progress Show, the national’s largest outdoor farm event. Through the Iowa Chapter’s involvement, and the name recognition that the Society brought, I was able to grow a demonstration cover crop plot, corral a diverse group of partners, and offer various education and outreach activities at the event. Being at the event as a representative of the Society allowed me to do that.
What is the job outlook for your current position?
I absolutely see leadership positions in nonprofits being a place for young people to break in. A lot of these leadership positions have been held by the same people for a long time and there will be turnover, so there’s a real opportunity for younger folks to jump into those positions. I think having a younger person in that position can give a new perspective and a new approach to an organization. This type of work is very time consuming, but it’s also empowering and it’s a lot of fun.
What changes in required skill sets do you anticipate?
Understanding your strengths and weaknesses. I struggled in a classroom environment, but I was always very intrigued by complex concepts. I was able to find a complex concept and break it down into smaller more digestible pieces. I think there’s really a need—and it’s something they don’t teach you in school —to just figure it out and be resourceful. Figure out who to call, what to look up, model off the bright spots and the things that are working. I think that’s a skill that’s really important in this positon and in leadership in particular. There’s not always going to be someone to go to; you’ve got to find your own way.
Secondly, understanding the impacts and importance of communications. The SWCS mission is to foster the science and art of natural resource conservation. That art component is all about communication. Communications are changing rapidly with social media. However, I think there are a lot of new and innovative ways to tell stories out there, and this younger generation has that skillset.
What advice do you have for college students or early career professionals who might want to work in this field/job?
Becoming a member of the Society is a good place to start. Then, find someone you want to emulate. If you see a position that you want, reach out to that person and find out how they got into that position and what they see as the future of that positon. Join a professional network and then have a vision for what you want to accomplish. It was my vision to be an executive director by the time I was thirty, and I did that. I’ve had the vision, I know I can do it, and others can too. Believe in yourself, believe you deserve it. And just work, work, work for it.
Who are some of your professional mentors?
My first executive director, Kathy Wine at River Action, had a huge impact on me. As well as Jane Weber, who was Chair of the Scott County Soil and Water Conservation District, where I worked as a coordinator for three years. First, they were women, and it’s just cool to see a leader that looks like you. I could also connect with them and learn how they carry themselves and accomplish their goals. Second, they were tough. They demanded greatness because that is what our natural resources deserve. And they made me rise to that greatness. Thirdly, neither of them were ever afraid to fail. They would throw out ideas, and sometimes they wouldn’t stick or sometimes they wouldn’t go as planned, but they never gave up. And I carry those lessons with me every day.
Rex Martin, the current president of the SWCS, has also been great. Even in this short time since I started as CEO he has proven to be an amazing mentor by just listening and really hearing what I have to say, being positive, being a dreamer, and then sharing his experiences with me and being so dedicated to the Society’s work.