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This article is also available in print: Quaker Campus, Volume 19 — Issue 7, dated March 17, 2022, on the Whittier College campus.
In celebration of Women’s Day 2022, the Office of Equity and Inclusion hosted Dr. Linda Oubré, our president here at Whittier College, at Villalobos on Tuesday, March 8. This event gave Dr. Oubré the space to talk about her experience as a woman of color in business and leadership; this article will do the same. For those who were not able to make it, please take a moment to read the richness of her words.
What words would you use to describe your personal identity?
“I want to start with ‘mom’ because it’s so important to me. ‘Grandmother;’ [I have] two more grandchildren on the way. Daughter, sister, friend, wife [ . . . ] a woman, a woman of color. In America, if you have one drop of African, you’re considered African-American. I actually am a third African, also Native American and European, and I embrace all of those.”
Who is a woman of color that inspires you?
“It sounds kind of cheesy, but it’s really just from the heart: my grandmother and my mother. They really inspire me. [ . . . ] My grandparents [were] born in Montgomery, Alabama, and never finished elementary school. They both became very influential Civil Rights activists. My grandfather was the first African-American elected official of United Auto Workers, and my grandmother was right there beside him. I have this great photo of her from the 1940s. It was at a sit-in of restaurants in Detroit that would not integrate, and [the sign she is holding] says ‘Equal Rights for All.’ I posted it a couple times, I think, on my Twitter feed. [ . . . ] She’s always inspired me. Her only daughter was my mother, and my mother always inspired me; she’s really tiny, but very mighty. Someone who was divorced with five kids had dropped out of high school to get married [and] was divorced by 24. [ . . . ] She ended up on top — in L.A., [with] five Emmy awards, [and] an MBA from Pepperdine. [She was] really, really a force within L.A. and L.A. politics as a Black woman. She’s still around; she still inspires me.”
When you were younger, what did you want to be when you grew up? Did you think you would become the president of a college?
(Very quickly) “No. Believe it or not, I was really shy. I have a very large family. Out of five and a step-brother, I was right smack dab in the middle. My older brother and sister are only a year apart, and then my younger brother and sister are twins, and then [there is] my step-brother. So, I was always left out. My older brother and sister were always the cool ones; my younger brother and sister were real twins [ . . . ] and I was in the library. [ . . . ] When I was really young, I wanted to be an artist.
“My mother is very artistic. [ . . . ] I love to paint, to craft; I love doing things and building things. I remember, actually, I took a career management course at Harvard Business School, and I went to talk to my professor. We had all these self-interviews, and I said, ‘I’m really confused because I’ve always had this artistic [part of me], but I’m very good at math.’ I was an economics major, and I told him, ‘You know, I sold a painting to Ernie Barnes when I was 12.’ Ernie Barnes is a very famous Black artist. And [the professor] said, ‘I think you’re in the right place. You say you sold a painting — you didn’t say you created a painting. You didn’t say you drew this painting.’
“I keep thinking about that because I think my career, having gotten into start-ups [ . . . ] has always been focused on what I call ‘creative content.’ [ . . . ] I’ve worked for Times Mirror, L.A. Times; I’ve worked for Disney and even [in] education. The content is very much creative content, and creating new businesses takes a lot of creativity. It’s not about accounting; it’s about imagining what [it] would look like and try to put numbers to that. And I was very good at both of those.”
There is a strong emphasis on the importance of mentorship at our university. Did you have a mentor helping you navigate through your journey? Were there mentors inside or outside of your job, whether the relationship be formal or informal?
“Mostly informal because [ . . . women of color] are not thought of as people wanting to mentor — especially in corporate America. It’s just the honest truth. It’s hard for us to find mentors, but [ . . . ] I heard a woman talk once and she said you need your own personal board of directors. I like to think of it in terms of that. I’ve worked for people who were just great promoters of me and giving me opportunity, and there [have] been different ones. I can’t say there was one mentor persay, but I have been lucky enough to go to certain people throughout my career — women and men.”
Can you tell me a little bit more about how you knew you wanted to work for Whittier? I know you said you first really heard of the College from a book called “Checklist for Change” by Robert Zemsky ’62, where they spoke about institutions doing innovative and wonderful things in higher education.
“Well, I actually had heard about Whittier ‘cause you can’t grow up in L.A. and be not having heard of it, but, we did read that book in my doctoral program, and Bob Zemsky, who wrote that book, is a Whittier [graduate] on the Board of Trustees. [ . . . ] When I did this crazy thing, I was already a Dean — and, by the way, I take risks. I do crazy things. You’re never too old; I was 56 when I started my doctoral program, and I was already a dean. I could have been a Dean of Business forever. I loved that job, but I told myself that I would look for certain jobs if it had the type of students that were important to me. And Whittier came up. [The] Whittier student body — consisting mostly of students of color, a lot of first [generation] — really resonated with me, [the] same way San Francisco State students did. [ . . . ] When I went to go look on [Whittier’s] website, I noticed that all the leadership was white men. And I said I really don’t think they’re serious about diversity. And he said (I couldn’t tell what she said) said no, they’re ashamed of that. And they really want diversity in this role. So, it was really the students that drew me to Whittier College.
Through holding many different types of leadership positions and working your way up the ladder, did you have any major setbacks or hurdles to jump through that you can recall?
“Oh God. How much time do you guys have? (laughing) Yes. I hate doing these sorts of things because anyone’s life seems perfect in hindsight; it was not perfect. And, y’know, you’re going to have struggles. You’re going to do things that are tough. [ . . . ] A woman was writing a book about women leaders and she asked, ‘Was there anything you would do differently?’ and I said, ‘Well, yeah; I had a lot of screw ups, but I don’t think I’d change it, ‘cause even your failures make you who you are today.’ [ . . . ] It’s interesting because I said I was shy when I was younger. [ . . . ] I often see it as my role to advocate to bring issues up, and I’ve always had that strength. Again, it goes back to the role models.”
You keep mentioning that you used to be shy, but — at least right now — you have an overwhelming sense of self-confidence. Did you gain this at the beginning of your career, or do you think it was a journey?
“I think it’s always a journey, and notice I’m not extremely confident all the time, about everything. [ . . . ] We all have things that really make us question ourselves all the time. I think, if anything, one thing that I learned is to really own my intelligence and to invest in my intelligence. My grandparents used to always say, even though they had no education, [ . . . ] they said, ‘Get as much as you can ‘cause it’s one thing no one can take away from you.’ Once you’ve been to, frankly, the type of schools I went to, and being a woman of color, it was really important for me to be able to say UCLA, Harvard, and Penn. Other people get opportunities for just being who they are, but I’ve always embraced the fact that, frankly, I’m really smart; I have degrees from great schools, I know the data, but I also don’t know everything. I really embrace that.”
To this day, even after 46 different presidents, there has never been a woman running this country. What type of inequalities have you seen in leadership between men and women of color through your experience?
“This has happened in higher ed., still happens every day, but also in corporate environments. When I walk in a room, people assume I’m there to bring the coffee or make copies. When a white male walks into the room, they assume he’s in charge, and it takes a lot to kind of beat that down. I actually think, in some ways, I use that to my advantage, [ . . . ] especially in corporate. You can walk into a conference room meeting, and you don’t know the people because they’re with a different company, and you want to do a deal — this actually got me a couple times at Disney. I’m walking in, and they don’t see me, and they ignore me, and then they talk about stuff that they probably shouldn’t talk about in front of you. And then the meeting starts, and you say, ‘By the way, I’m so-and-so, and I’m in charge,’ and then they realize they just gave up their whole negotiating stance. [ . . . ] It’s [constantly] proving yourself because white men in particular don’t need to prove themselves, and I think white women don’t need to prove themselves. [Women of color] are constantly proving ourselves, proving that we belong, that we’re worthy, that we’re smart, that we’re capable. And that’s something I don’t think any other group has to do. I honestly think it’s harder for Black women in the United States.”
What do you think are some misconceptions people make about women of color? In general and/or in leadership roles?
“Misconceptions. . . . I don’t know if that’s quite the word. I think it’s ‘bias.’ It’s just implicit bias of an image that people have in their heads of a leader — of who a leader’s supposed to be, and what they’re supposed to look like. Plain old simple bias. And I say that versus misconception because a misconception assumes that you can tell someone otherwise, and they get over it. But, no, it’s everywhere in our society. [ . . . ] I’ve been in a lot of panels with other presidents — Zoom panels — and one of them is a group of Black presidents at colleges across the country. About 30 of us have gotten together, and [in] one of those meetings, we were talking about some of the incidents that have happened. They asked, ‘How many of you have had a racial incident?’ and more than half raised their hands. ‘How many had death threats?’ — about a third raised their hand. And a lot of women of color — men of color also — [face] some serious biases in this country.
You have such a varied amount of experiences in different types of leadership offices. How do you feel working in public leadership differs from leadership positions within private companies? What about educational institutions versus corporate companies?
“Higher education was under stress before COVID. The business model was broken before COVID. And COVID just kind of sped things up — particularly [within] small institutions like Whittier because we are dependent on revenue, which, for us, is tuition. But business people have not traditionally risen to leadership in higher ed. institutions. I’m convinced that if [we had] a traditional president of Whittier over the last two years, we wouldn’t have handled things as well. And it’s not because I think I’m brilliant, but because I’m a businessperson at heart. And part of being a business person is making decisions quickly; it’s sticking to your decisions; it’s being able to take in information quickly, reading the tea leaves. We did a lot of reading the tea leaves — this institution switched to remote, and made decisions such as, darn right, we’re all going to get vaccinated, very quickly, and we didn’t struggle over the decisions. I think, because I’m a businessperson, that helped.
“You realize from leadership, you can’t keep everyone happy with your decisions. There’s no way you’re going to make everyone happy, and that’s okay. Sometimes you just have to do what you think is right given the information you have. I think there’s going to be more and more businesspeople. In fact, the year I was appointed, 2018 [ . . . ] a bunch of my Business-Dean friends were all made presidents, so higher ed. was starting to recognize [what business people could do].
“Traditional higher ed. presidency is . . . I like to use this example of bug science. So, you get a doctorate, you’re a bug scientist. And then you teach that, and then you become a department chair of maybe Biology, and then you move up [to] vice president and president, but you’re an expert in bug science. Versus a businessperson, who basically is a general manager, knows how to lead — who knows how marketing is, who knows what operations is. It’s just broader. And so, that’s why I think higher ed. has looked for more and more people with more of a business background.”
How do you think your job as Chief Diversity Officer for the Graduate School of Management at the University of California, Davis, prepared you for your role today?
“Let me tell you how I got that job because I think it’s important. I was hired because Davis’s business school wanted to have more interactions in the Bay Area. I don’t know if anyone knows the geography up there, but Davis is about 78 miles from San Francisco. And they decided that they wanted to be in San Francisco, but they weren’t going to move the entire campus, and they had a Bay Area in BA program that was in San Ramon — which, people in San Francisco say “San remote” because it was in the East Bay. It was nowhere near San Francisco, but a little bit closer.
“I was hired to do corporate relations, reach out with companies to help build a pipeline for jobs for students and students for the Bay Area program. After my first two weeks, I went to the Dean and said, ‘What are we doing on diversity?’ and he said, ‘Why do you ask?’ I said, ‘Companies are asking me and I can’t say, ‘You’re looking at it.’ Because. literally, they were looking at it. No African-American or Latinx, leaders, faculty, or students in the graduate business program. And so he said, ‘Oh, well, why don’t you be our chief diversity officer?’ Linda being Linda, I said okay. What I learned from that experience [is] interesting because I remember training as a Chief Diversity Officer, but I’m a woman of color in America, so I really just drew on my own experience.
“One of the things I really focused on was: I think that, with a lot of populations, number one, representation matters — also, intimate touch points. I know Deanna [Merino-Contino, Dean of Students] and I always talk about that with our students here. We can’t assume one size fits all; we have to be able to provide intimate experiences and touch points, particularly for students of color. And that was a graduate program. We went from zero African-Americans to four in the first year, and I thought that was great. Then, San Francisco state came in and stole me, but I also learned that people don’t understand what diversity, equity, and inclusion is. They don’t talk about it. They don’t talk about race; they don’t understand other groups. We had a speaker come talk to our board of trustees at a retreat weeks ago at shock harbor, and I know Deanna was there. He runs the race and equity center at USC, and he made the best comment I ever heard: ‘It’s our job in higher ed., we’re graduating people who we’re putting out in the world, who we’ve not taught them how to deal with other people who don’t look like them.’ I think Whittier does a better job than most, but that’s a part of the fiduciary responsibility. We’re putting leaders out in the world who’ve never worked with anyone who looks different, never went into a different community, never even bothered to learn about people of another community. And that’s just really, really important.”
You were talking about from the business standpoint you don’t usually focus on every single employee, but from a business standpoint in higher education you still feel responsible for each individual student — how is it different being a CEO than a president of a college.
I would argue that a good CEO is [concerned with each individual person. . . .] I think you have to have a real skill of thinking big picture, but also being able to dive down when you need to. What I mean by that is: a team is a team, even if it’s a big place. Even [Whittier College] is big, so I can’t possibly see every employee or every student on a daily basis, but, when you do encounter individuals, you have to treat them as if they’re valued and an individual. You have to get to know them, and you have to realize what is it that’s important for them. It’s almost like a basketball game: if you think about the team, you have different players in different roles. Steph Curry will shoot the threes, Draymond Green will be the bad guy and muscle underneath — I’m sorry, I can’t get out of the Warriors; I grew up with the Lakers, but I like the Warriors. As a CEO, you have to understand your team.
Whittier is a minority majority school, with only 24.9 percent of our student population identifying as white. Do you feel like being a person of color matters more for being president of a minority-serving, primarily hispanic serving institution than if you were serving at a primarily white institution?
“Definitely. How can we have people in rooms making decisions unless they’ve had life experiences that reflect the students? I also think identity is a lot of different things, privilege is a lot of different things, and I know I have a lot of privilege because of the schools I went to. I know I have privilege because I’m a multiracial, lighter skin African-American. And I say that because it’s not just about connecting with students of color versus white; I connect with a lot of white students also. It’s about finding that connection with each group. But, definitely, we have to have people in the room who look like our students. It’s so funny, my first cabinet meeting here — it was actually a case [that] I know Deanna’s read. Harvard Business School wrote a case, and they set out to interview young woman who wrote the case this morning, but one of the things I talk about is: my first cabinet meeting here, I walk in, and it’s mostly white men — a few men of color — and they were talking who played golf with who on the board, who they were going to go hang out with, and I immediately said, ‘This isn’t right.’
“[I] immediately added Sal Johnston to the cabinet, who was faculty chair [currently Vice President of Academic Affairs & Dean of Faculty]; I added Cynthia Joseph, who is head of HR, and Ana Lilia (Barraza), who is communications. [In] the second meeting, the conversations changed because the room changed. As people left, we added more diverse voices; the conversations changed. [We talked] more about what the students today need for the students tomorrow. I think it’s a big deal [that] I’m the first generation to go to college. My mother says, ‘I have my degree,’ but I’m the first to go the traditional way out of high school. Timothy Anderson, who I hope you guys meet [ . . . ] I brought in [three years ago]. He’s Black and Latino, and he was also first generation. I think having first generation voices in the room can relate to students — students who went to public school, L.A. Unified Public School. [It] means a lot for the type of students [we have. . . .] Representation matters.”
Why do you think it’s taken so long (and even longer still) for women of color to rise to leadership positions?
“Those biases. If people don’t see you that way, the struggle is harder. [ . . . ] I think of it as a pipeline: it’s going to be harder. I’m just really stubborn and pushy.”
What advice would you give to allies — individuals who don’t represent the identity of being a woman of color? Specifically, what advice, or what [would] you like to see from white women and men?
“Learn to listen. And listen to every story. I think that’s for everyone, for non-people of color; the best way you can help is just to listen. The other way is: it takes intent to change things. It takes advocating. It takes speaking up. It continues to amaze me how hard that is for people. And it is; it’s scary. But you guys know when you see something that’s not right, and you know if your society is being biased. [ . . . ] Say, ‘Hey, we need to find 3 ‘x’ to have in this organization; we need to promote someone because we need that voice in the room.’ [Be] brave and intentful about it. I think the first one is the hardest. When you’ve always been given the privilege of being the voice people hear, it’s hard for people to stay quiet.
“I think it takes recognizing privilege — if you’re used to getting 90 percent of everything and someone says, ‘You should just have 80 percent and give that extra 10 percent away,’ it’s like you think you’re losing, and that’s when the fragility comes up. Don’t assume that other people want things you have just because you have them. The word that I hear a lot is colonization [ . . . . ] realizing what other people want may not be the same as what a white person has valued for 400 years, and that’s okay. We really have to try [to] understand and support them.”
What advice would you give to women of color aspiring to step into leadership roles?
“Just do it. Speak up. Advocate for yourself, ask for what you want, and keep pushing. Be willing to take the risk, focus on your excellence because your excellence is always going to win – and all of you are excellent. Never let anyone tell you you’re not excellent. The capability really shines above anything else; keep trying different things, be patient and resilient. . . .
“2018 was the 50-year anniversary of the Black Student Union at the Harvard Business School [ . . . ] so you’re already talking about a group who graduated from the premier business school in the world. And one of the studies they did was, they looked at Black women, Black men, white women, white men, alumni of Harvard Business School, and what they found was the Black women had a very low percentage had actually made it to the president/CEO in their industry, I think it was 11 percent. Black men I think it was 12 percent. White women was 30- something — white men, almost half. And they wanted to figure out why Black women hadn’t done as well when they have the same credential. I’ll never forget this because I was one interviewed; there were 60 Black women who had reached that level ever from Harvard Business School — what they found was that it took resilience. It took finding not necessarily mentors, but people who could help them at different points along the way. They also found there was a lot of resilience in terms of pushing, and asking. The most credentialed group of businesspeople in the world, and Black women are at the lowest levels in terms of achievement. That’s racist; that’s structural racism.”
What are you most proud of doing in your career or personal life so far?
“Career-wise, to be frank, it was getting my doctorate in 2017 because I didn’t have to. It was hard as hell, and I learned so much from it. Yes, it led to a presidency, but that isn’t why. It was just because of the experience itself, and doing it after having two kids, one grandchild.”
What are you most proud of at Whittier College in particular?
“The Mackenzie Scott Gift. And I’ve had arguments about the Mackenzie Scott Gift — typically with more diverse donors. I was told that if we talk about diversity, equity, and inclusion, all the funding will go away because no one wants to fund that. And she was very upfront; she picked leaders and institutions that align with her values. Even to this day, if you look at who’s gotten gifts from her, [it’s] only two privates that are not HBCUs or Tribal universities. Five CSUs out of 23 are all extremely diverse like us. Mount St. Mary’s got the other part. It was very affirming. We were getting money before the Mackenzie Scott gift, and to have the largest gift by multiples just thrown on the table [ . . . ] was a total surprise. I think that says a lot for this institution and the students here.”
Edna [she/her/hers], Director of Marketing: How can you keep yourself from burning bridges? How do you identify a mentor?
“You don’t want to write or go to someone and say, ‘Can you be my mentor?’ So it is about identifying different people at different stages. I doubt any of the people who I felt helped in my career would say they were a mentor to me. My first job after my MBA — I actually worked on the admissions board for a year, waiting for my hubby to graduate. Then, I went to the L.A. Times and Financial Planning Analyst. I always tried to find something job related to connect with people and as said I was economics and I was really good at math. [ . . . ] I really found a couple people I was working on big projects with who were more senior in the company to connect with and ask questions.”
Ana Gutierrez, Director of Alumni Relations: What keeps you up at night? What’s a question you never get asked?
“Oh God, other than the ghost that keeps me up at night that goes through the Wardman house? (laughing) They’re not so happy with me being there.
“We have a lot of change to make here at Whittier. When COVID hit, we didn’t say, ‘We can’t wait for it to get back to normal.’ We said, ‘This is a great opportunity to re-create our future,’ and we’re still having a lot of talks about what that looks like. That keeps me up because we have a lot of work to do, but we have a great team.
“‘What are my failures?’ That’s a question I don’t get asked a lot. I think a failure that keeps coming up —I’m basically a really nice person. I just feel like life is too short, and I always give people the benefit of the doubt. I never have the knife in the back; I would actually argue I’m not allowed to as a woman of color. And I’ve gotten burned because of that. I think that I have a disarming personality, and people — men — tend to underestimate me because of that. Sometimes, [that] makes it harder, I would rather sleep at night knowing I treated people well and gave them the benefit of the doubt. And, there are probably times where I wish I could have been more of a jerk. I don’t know how to be. I’m also the type of person where what you see is what you get.”
Ailee, Student: As a woman of color, how to find balance between your leadership and family?
“My kids are about twice as old as all of you. They’re in their 30s now. My family always comes first, still. And my generation, my mother, and my mother-in-law had to work. . . . A lot of us had to work and wanted to, but we were told we had to be like men. I don’t know if you guys remember – I graduated college in the 1980s; women used to wear those blouses with the little ties (laughing). That was my generation. [ . . . ] I have two daughters in law, and I’m just – I’m enamored with them. They just know they’re going to do great, and they’re both pregnant, and one of them told her job, ‘I’m having a baby, you’re going to give me my promotion like you said you are.’ And it’s just . . . beautiful.”
Featured Image: Courtesy of the Office of Communications