Wendy York extends family as she takes business education reins
To say Wendy York has had a whirlwind summer may be understating the planning, expectations and anticipation that have occupied most of her waking moments in recent weeks.
The new dean of Clemson University’s College of Business has said her good-byes at Stanford University and is in the midst of a cross-country move, along with her 18-year-old triplet daughters who will also head east this fall to launch their college careers in Indiana, New York and Pennsylvania.
As she begins her transition from the Bay area to the Blue Ridge Mountain foothills, Dean York squeezed in time to share some thoughts on family, leadership, caring and personal interests with her new family at Clemson.
The mother of four daughters places a high priority on family, which has had a major influence on her beliefs in work/life balance, career achievements – and her “pivot” to Clemson’s doorstep. She credits her mother and grandfather for their inspiration and unconditional support that have helped her grow and thrive as an entrepreneur, for-profit business executive and academic leader.
Beyond adjustments to her wardrobe colors, from cardinal to orange, and a daily commute from 10 lanes to two, Dean York says she is eager to explore the South, build relationships and experience a new brand of championship college football. But top of mind, of course, is her next career challenge in casting a bright light on “one of the best-kept secrets in the country.”
As she becomes the 15th dean of business education at Clemson, the Stanford and Harvard graduate will lead 4,500 students, 180 faculty and about 50 staff into a new era. And, her extended family will grow exponentially where the Blue Ridge yawns its greatness.
What did you know about Clemson before you became aware of the position?
I knew about the Clemson football powerhouse, of course!
Having had season tickets for Stanford football for 25 years, I understand the game and have a small idea of what it takes to win a championship. Stanford fans are enthusiastic, but the Clemson family takes fan loyalty and team support to a whole new level. I’m really looking forward to this football season with so much great energy and fun!
What initially appealed to you about the Clemson position?
I started doing research online about the University and was so impressed by the breadth and depth of programs and activities going on. Clemson is a treasure but is one of the best-kept secrets in the country. Why isn’t this great University on everyone’s radar?
What are 3 things you want to accomplish in your first 100 days?
1. Listen – meet the students, faculty and staff that make up this amazing University
2. Learn – understand what makes Clemson tick and learn how I can best serve the community
3. Begin developing lifelong relationships
When free time permits, what will we find you doing?
Gardening, cooking, entertaining (colleagues and students) and exploring the South.
I also recently got it in my mind that I want to learn to water paint! I have no reason to believe I’ll have any talent at water painting but I am going to try, nonetheless! I enjoy doing so many other types of crafts, from photography to quilting, beading, ceramics and more, and it seems like it’s time to learn a new art form. (I’d welcome any referrals to water painting classes or artists in the area. I know I’ll need all the help I can get!)
What person in your life had the most influence on who you are today?
My mother. How do I begin to describe the strong foundation my mom has given me? She’s modelled unconditional love, kindness, the courage to take risks, the resilience to bounce back after loss and the habit of looking for the beauty in every person, animal and plant on the planet.
And on top of all those gifts, she’s one of my best friends!
Any thoughts on what your biggest adjustment will be moving to this part of the country?
The cost of living being much more reasonable! Having come from the outrageous prices of the Bay area, I am looking forward to a more affordable way of life.
“Home” has always been very important to me and I love the community feel of the areas around Clemson, so I very much look forward to making a permanent home here (and being able to afford it).
What is something that surprises people when first hearing it about you?
That I have triplet 18-year-old daughters, in addition to my older daughter. The usual response is, “You’re kidding!” to which I reply, “No, one does not make up that sort of thing!” People then often ask, “Do the triplets look and act identically?” to which I say, “No, it’s like they’re real individual people.”
I’m very proud of all four of my daughters. They are all extremely smart, physically active, beautiful, have a wide range of different talents and interests and most of all, they are always there for each other. They are four of my biggest blessings.
My oldest daughter, Natalie, graduated from UC Santa Barbara in 2015 and lives in San Francisco, working in enterprise sales for a very successful software company.
My other three girls just graduated from high school and are on their way to colleges this fall. Marina has been accepted to NYU Tisch School for the Performing Arts for Drama, Seanna will attend Carnegie Mellon to study physics and Andora will attend Purdue for pre-med.
What professional achievement are you most proud of?
Creating a new organization at the Stanford Graduate School of Business (GSB). I was asked by the then-dean of the GSB to bring into alignment with the school’s goals, four centers and seven programs involving 60+ people. The resulting unit, CIRCLE, was very important for more than just the strategic alignment and efficiency that was achieved. The new unit modeled the value and contribution of a highly collaborative, highly capable and highly fun working culture.
I believe very strongly in the value of culture and know that culture impacts everyone’s daily work life. Culture also drives what can be accomplished by the organization. My mantra is that “Culture is a living, breathing thing that needs to be cared and tended on a daily basis.”
In the new organization, I insisted on collaboration, transparency (which is critical for trust) and fun. I asked people to get out of their departmental mind-sets to support unit-wide efforts and to have fun whenever possible. I rolled up my sleeves, attending as many of their events as possible, showing up early to help set up, staying late to say thank you. The flow of information and communication started including more people. Spontaneous social events were created and we treated people like they were part of “our CIRCLE family” even when they reported to other groups.
Over a short time, we created a fun, productive, safe work environment where supporting each other is a given, innovation (even if the idea is not always successful) is applauded, trust is assumed and excellence is the norm. It has been my privilege to work with a wonderful group of colleagues in CIRCLE over the last five years. This, by far, has been the most painful part of leaving Stanford.
What will previous colleagues say is the most important strength you possess as a leader?
At one of my going away parties at Stanford, Alex, my director of Research Support Services, said this:
“People talk about ‘work/life’ balance. That can mean, work all the time and let your life balance that. But for Wendy, what that means is ‘bring your whole life to work.’ Wendy is so involved with everyone. She knows and cares so much about all of us. And I feel that is something that doesn’t stop with Wendy. By modeling that, everyone in the group brings that focus of care for each other. So, thank you, Wendy, for this.”
A leader is only as great as her people. It was my privilege to have worked with some of the finest.
What is your favorite book and what are you reading right now?
One of my favorite books is God’s Hotel, by Dr. Victoria Sweet.
It’s the true story of practicing “slow medicine,” i.e., the holistic or unified view of treating a patient not just for their medical issues but for their mental and spiritual needs as well. It’s a fascinating reference to the historically important work of the nun, Hildegard of Bingen, who explored the ability of the body to heal itself with assistance from nature and time, with the goal to restore the wholeness of the person and, importantly, their community. I think sometimes life gets so rushed we forget this important lesson of treating the whole person.
I usually have two books going at once. One will be a non-fiction book, so I’m learning something new (currently reading about the history of champagne making in early France) and a fictional story for pure fun or escape (I’m partial to thrillers with a twist ending.) Accepting recommendations!
Your life and career have taken you to many different places. If someone wrote a biography about you, what would be its title?
Pivot, then Dance!
I describe my professional progression as a bit like being an explorer. I have gone from opportunity to opportunity, both because I am fearlessly interested in constantly growing and also because I’m either too stupid or too arrogant to consider that I might fail!
My personal life has experienced huge blessings and a few real tragedies. In both cases, it’s never been an option for me to stop moving forward with hope.
You take what you’re given, the great and the sad, and you keep on moving forward with hope. I’ve mastered the act of “pivoting,” which is my term for being resilient and hopeful. At such moments of pivot, you put your “big girl” shoes on and keep moving forward.
Getting this “dream-come-true” opportunity to come to Clemson is, for me, the opportunity to positively pivot with the belief I’m being taken care of and the hope to make a long term, positive contribution.
What is some of the best advice you’ve ever received?
“Don’t let the butterflies get you.”
My grandfather told me that, when I announced I was leaving a perfectly good job to start my (first) own company. By that he meant, when the butterflies of nervousness, self-doubt and panic hit your gut, don’t give up. Of course, at the time he didn’t add all that explanation. He just smiled.
Later, I knew what he meant about being brave to move forward and also that he proudly assumed I’d figure it out. If I ever feel a vague nervous feeling in my stomach, I remember his words and smile.
If a year from now we are celebrating what a great year it’s been for you as dean, what did we achieve together?
Besides cheering on the Tigers as they win the next football championship, I hope that I have been able to begin to help Clemson get the national recognition it deserves, while serving the students, faculty and staff back home at Clemson. We will be able to say looking back that this was the beginning of a very special time at Clemson and I am thrilled and honored to be part of it. Go, Tigers!
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