Early in her 31-year career at Oklahoma City University, Susan Barber was perfectly happy working as a biology professor and serving on nearly every campus committee. Though colleagues had urged her to consider administrative positions, Barber, who has a doctorate in botany, held fast to her teaching, because she loved it and knew she was good at it.
Then her husband died suddenly of a massive heart attack, cutting her income by two-thirds.
“I’ve never really been driven by money, but I had to rethink that, and didn’t like it,” Barber told guests Tuesday at OCU’s fifth annual Women in Leadership Conference at the Meinders School of Business.
Her finances fell in place, but still colleagues eventually convinced Barber, after 20 years in teaching, to accept a position as assistant vice president of academic affairs 11 years ago. She assumed the provost job in August 2011.
“I was very nervous, and not sure, about making the switch,” Barber, who’s been happily remarried for years, said.
“But opportunities have come that I never imagined,” she said.
Remembering your dreams
Barber joined Christy VanCleave, co-founder of the Tulsa-based nonprofit Muddy Paws/Pets Helping People; Teresa Rose, senior director of community relations and events for Chesapeake Energy Corp.; and JP Morgan Vice President Linda Kissler on a panel on reinventing oneself.
Recovering from drug addiction was the turning point for VanCleave, who made up her mind one day, after spending most of three years in jail, that she’d one day help women, like herself, “find jobs other than flipping burgers so they could make a living” and break destructive cycles, she said.
“Every time I’d go back in, I’d see the same women going in or out,” VanCleave said, who recovered, found work as a pet groomer and advanced with Petco.
But while she was taking chemotherapy to treat breast cancer, VanCleave was laid off and had to foreclose on her home in California, she said.
“At 45 and broke, I had an opportunity to take a similar paying job as I had with Petco, but then I remembered my dream,” she said.
She moved to Tulsa and started Muddy Paws, which trains women inmates to groom rescue dogs, so that the women upon discharge can find employment in the pet industry.
Over the past four years, VanCleave said 70 women have found jobs, with only one recent arrest.
Fleeing a childhood that included divorce and federal embezzlement charges against her father, Rose, who’s a west Texas native, said she purposefully chose to attend a college where nobody would know her.
She transferred from the University of North Texas to OCU, where she earned a teaching degree.
She taught English for a year here but, when she moved back to Texas, couldn’t find a job, so she worked in the corporate world, before returning to OCU to earn her law degree.
“But just when I thought I’d made it, and gotten to where I wanted to be —working at the state Department of Education where I could marry education and law, and meet my overall goal to make a difference, I got divorced and became the sole financial provider of two little girls,” Rose said.
Though she hadn’t worked a day as a corporate attorney, a firm hired her to practice education law and she loved it, Rose said.
“I knew I couldn’t fail,” she said.
Many a day, she picked up her girls from school and brought them, and McDonald’s Happy Meals, back to the office, where she worked until midnight and the kids fell asleep on homemade pallets on the floor, watching videos.
“I harbored a lot of guilt,” Rose said, “but today, my daughters — at 20 and 15 — tell me they learned a lot of positive things from watching me, like hard work and tenacity.”
Kissler said she learned early to reinvent herself, because her family moved frequently with her father’s career. “That helped me,” said Kissler, who has had a long career, including working on Wall Street, in investment banking.
When she started, the industry, Kissler said, was comprised of 98 percent men. Today, it’s down only slightly to 93 percent, she said.
Kissler said it doesn’t bother her to manage millions of dollars in a hedge fund, “but I still want to throw up if I have to tell someone on my team they’re not right for the job,” or talk over issues with higher-level executives.
Listening to the inner child
Keynote speaker David Friedman, who’s arranged “Beauty & the Beast,” “Pocahontas” and other Disney classics, conducted musicals on Broadway and authored the book, “The Thought Exchange,” urged attendees to feel, versus run from, physical sensations, including closing throats, racing hearts and ‘butterflies’.
“If you stay with the discomfort, you can heal your inner child, and then revert from the protective thought to a positive one,” Friedman said.
“It’s like a child whose dolly falls down the stairs in its toy stroller,” Friedman said. “Versus trying to assure the child that ‘It’s OK, it’s OK,’ you say ‘That must’ve been really scary.’ If children aren’t heard, they’ll only scream louder.
“So, when your inner child has those scary feelings, you can’t just say, ‘Cancel, cancel,’” he said.
“Incorporate them into who you are, and then move on toward your vision.”
I’ve never really been driven by money, but I had to rethink that, and didn’t like it.”
Oklahoma City University vice president of academic affairs