Bonita Brown (’95, JD ’97)
Vice President and Chief Strategy Officer at Northern Kentucky University in Alexandria, KY
Tell us about your current job role and employer. What are you currently working on?
NKU is a growing metropolitan university of more than 16,000 students served by more than 2,000 faculty and staff on a thriving suburban campus near Cincinnati. NKU offers 90 bachelor’s degrees, two associate degrees, 24 graduate programs, one Juris Doctor, a Doctor of Education in Educational Leadership and a Doctor of Nursing Practice degree. As the Vice President and Chief Strategy Officer, I serve as the Assistant Secretary to the Board of Regents, I advise the President and the Executive Leadership Team, and I lead the University’s Strategic Planning Process, which has a singular focus on Student Success. The uniqueness of the singular focus on the Strategic Plan is most exciting to me. While we all know that Student Success is the goal of all universities, the opportunity to infuse student success strategies into the very fabric of the university’s planning process is significant.
What key personal and/or career experiences led you to where you are today?
I could not have planned my career path if I had wanted to. I began my career in the legal field where I worked as a corporate attorney in DC. While I enjoyed that, I felt as if something was missing. On a total whim, I applied for a position as the staff attorney at Livingstone College. During the interview, the new President told me that she did not want me to be the attorney, and that she wanted me to be her assistant. I was immediately offended because I thought she wanted me to be her secretary. Little did I know that being an Assistant to the President at a college meant being the chief of staff or the right hand person of the President. I accepted the position, loved the work, and that set my path in higher education. Since that time, I have served as General Counsel, Chief of Staff and Vice President at Universities in NC, Texas and now in Kentucky. Wanting to take a break from the campus, but still wanting to be connected to the world of higher education, I secured positions at two national non-profits organizations in Washington DC that focus on student success. One position was at The Education Trust, an organization that works to close opportunity gaps that disproportionately affect students of color and students from low-income families, and the second at Achieving the Dream, the nonprofit leader in championing evidence-based institutional improvement for community colleges. In both of those positions, I led efforts to work with colleges and universities on the ground to implement best practices in student success. My passion is leading efforts and developing frameworks and creating the environments that enable significant numbers of students to obtain a post secondary degree.
What is the most challenging aspect of your job? How do you navigate that challenge?
The most challenging aspect of my job is the sheer volume of work. As the Chief Strategy officer, I am invited to numerous conversations on campus to provide advice and guidance. At the same time, I am also leading the work to create the University’s Strategic plan, which entails getting significant input and buy in from across the campus and planning the Board of Regents meetings, ensuring compliance with Open Meetings laws. On top of all of this, I also have to be ready to mange or address any “surprise” challenges that pop up on a campus on a daily basis. The volume of the work is the most challenging aspect of the job. I think I navigate the challenge by trying to stay organized, prioritizing the work and building allies across the campus. I know who I can call on and rely on to assist me in different aspects of the work, and that is an invaluable asset to have. I also rely on my people skills and my years of experience. And—-to be totally honest, some days I just have to scream, take a deep breath, and then get back to work! Every day is a new day!
What advice would you give to Wake Forest graduates about developing their personal life habits after college (finances, health, values, work/life balance)?
I would advise them to manage their expectations. Imagine the life you want to live and work your way towards that. Don’t expect to start at the top. Be willing to put in the work and gain experience along the way. You will need that experience when you get to the top! Take your health seriously. Burnout is real and it’s takes time to bounce back once you hit the wall. Spend time with your family. Your jobs will change, but you will always need your family. Spend your money wisely and save money for a rainy day.
We know that relationships are important for any kind of development. How do you build and maintain your network?
I build my network by connecting with colleagues and asking questions. People love to talk about their work and their experiences, and there is a lot to be learned from their stories. I also follow the leaders in my field. I read their articles, attend their sessions at conferences and try to make a connection when possible. Maintaining networks is a little harder, but I try to stay in touch with people I’ve met over the years. Whether its on social media or a quick email or seeing them at a conference, it’s always good to stay in touch because you never know when they could assist you in your current role or help you obtain your next role.
Tell us about your mentoring relationships. What impact have these relationships had on your career and life?
Mentoring relationships are key. I don’t think I would be where I am today if I did not have a mentor that recognized my talent and pushed me to do things outside of my comfort zone. My mentor also hired me for different positions and recommended me for others. It is important that you have someone in your corner that will do this for you and that can provide you with advice. In turn, I also serve as a mentor. I have helped several of my mentees secure positions and I often get calls from them to discuss work situations. These mentor relationships are key to a healthy and satisfying career.
What advice would you give to current Wake Forest students and/or young alumni who are interested in working in your industry?
I would advise them to study the industry, and decide which aspects interests you the most. Higher Education employs all skill sets–from accountants, to attorneys to counselors to Vice President and President level positions. There are also numerous national non-profit organizations devoted to higher education that also provide unique career paths. I would advise applying for your first position to get your foot in the door, and then being deliberate about the career path you want.
What’s next for your career? What future goals or plans are you pursuing?
That’s a great question. I ask myself that all of the time. I think the logical next step for me is to be a University President. I have the experience and have taken all of the professional development opportunities that have prepared me for that step. I think it’s just a matter of timing. I would also consider being the CEO of one of the higher educational national non-profit organizations. I also have a JD so I could also return to practicing law or consulting. Having options is the key!
Story published in November 2020. For current updates about Bonita, visit her LinkedIn page.