Pledge 1%'s #WomenWhoLead series celebrates female leaders who are paving the way for the next generation. While our featured leaders come from a variety of backgrounds and industries, they are united in their efforts to promote equality for all women in the workplace. We’ve asked them to share a bit about their journey to success, as well as lessons they’ve learned along the way.
SVP of Social Impact, Study.com
Denver, Colorado, USA
What is your current role? Briefly describe in 1-2 sentences.
Dana Bryson leads Study.com's social impact and double bottom-line strategy, working to build new mission-aligned partnerships, and manages the company's policy and strategic positioning.
This year's International Women's Day theme is "Embrace Equity." What does this mean to you? How can we build workplaces that are more equitable and inclusive?
This year’s International Women’s Day theme of “embrace equity” is very personal to me. At the age of 15, I represented Denver as part of an official Sister Cities Delegation, as we visited our Sister-City of Nairobi, Kenya for the U.N. Conference on the Decade for Women. While in Nairobi, I attended and participated in the International Women’s Forum with my mother and brother, and volunteered my time working in the “Peace Tent” to offer feminist analyses on gender equity by Adrienne Rich and Charlotte Bunch, that my mother had published as part of a feminist press she created while also working as an attorney. I am a biracial woman of color whose parents had the first legal interracial marriage in Virginia four days after the Supreme Court struck down that state’s anti-miscegenation law in the landmark case of Loving vs. Virginia.
Embracing equity in all forms has been an integral part of my life. This mindset has followed me throughout my career, most recently in my current position as the Senior Vice President of Social Impact at Study.com, where I design and lead our work to Make Education Accessible. Having spent more than a decade in executive positions in Oakland, Washington, D.C., and Denver and having substantial education in public policy, I design and build data-driven initiatives that have a tangible and measurable impact on equity in education and student learning outcomes.
Data is still the queen and through Study.com’s programs, our team is gathering and analyzing robust data and gaining great insights about the outcomes of our collaborative interventions. I’m looking forward to evaluating it all from a quantitative point of view so we can double down and continue to improve our initiatives to help make education accessible.
While I love working to build systems and frameworks to support a more just and equitable society, my work feels the most rewarding when our program participants--real people--share the impact of our initiatives on their lives, families, and career. I call that equity in action.
For example, our Working Scholars program offers working adults the opportunity to earn a debt-free bachelor's degree, and since its inception, over 150 students—more than half of whom identify as first-generation college students--have completed their degrees, and more than 20% report a salary increase directly related to their participation in the Working Scholars Program. One of our 2022 graduates, Tiaka Hyatt-Geter, told us that she was able to receive a fast-tracked promotion at her job that was only possible once she finished her degree. In her own words, "It's very expensive and costly to remain in poverty. Had I not gone back to school [through Working Scholars], it would have been impossible for me to remain in the Bay Area." These real-life stories motivate me and our team as we aim to achieve equity and unlock educational opportunities through our work.
For good or for bad, the commitment to an equitable and inclusive workplace starts at the top when a company’s leadership team values diverse perspectives in the pursuit of business goals. Organizational culture must reflect and reinforce a strong foundation of and commitment to open-mindedness and transparency across the organization in decision-making processes. This leadership ethos needs to mirror a broader culture of trust and understanding, where all employees feel heard and valued. In addition, having a leadership team comprised of people with different backgrounds and life experiences, and who trust each other and work together to create clear goals, helps to foster an environment where inclusivity and equity are prioritized.
Company leaders should seek out diverse perspectives from employees at all levels and assure them so that they can feel comfortable sharing their experiences and ideas. I firmly believe that authority should be pushed down in an organization, allowing all employees to provide input and play a more active role in shaping the company's culture, direction, and results.
Do you have any mentors or role models who have helped you on your personal journey?
Robert Bobb has been a significant mentor and role model in both my professional and personal journey. As the longest-lasting Black city manager in the country, Robert has extensive experience in municipal government, serving the cities of Oakland and Washington D.C. I had the honor of serving with him in Oakland, California and also was his Chief of Staff when he was city manager of Washington D.C. The impact of his mentorship on my career continues today as I work to lead from my values, question decision making, and keep the voiceless in mind when I choose what to speak out about. Although we don’t work together on a professional basis currently, I still carry his words of wisdom and leadership advice with me every day. His advice to “hire good people and get out of their way” is one piece of wisdom that has stayed with me as I’ve grown and built teams over the years.
As a City Manager, Robert held his colleagues to the highest standards, expecting and insisting on excellence, but not perfection. He understood mistakes would be made along the way, but he empowered us to strive for quality and thoughtfulness of the work we delivered. He has also consistently demonstrated courage as a leader as he spoke truth to power on countless occasions, knowing that there may be backlash. Robert taught me that it’s okay to make unpopular decisions when you are staying true to your beliefs as a leader.
What’s the best piece of advice you ever received?
Dr. Camille Cates Barnett, another career mentor who served as the city manager of Austin, Houston, Dallas, Philly and Washington, D.C. once advised me to “Shut up and quit it.” The “shut up” half of the phrase reminds us to choose what to share and with whom and not to shop around for validation of your decision once it is made. And to successfully “quit it,” we must silence the voices in our heads that tell us that we're not good enough or don't deserve to be where we are.
Sharing information with others is a way to democratize power, but it is different than oversharing, which fails to respect boundaries and can even result in your information being used against you. The key is to stop doubting yourself and trust in the abilities you have.
The past few years have brought many new and unprecedented challenges. What keeps you motivated or inspires you to stay optimistic?
My family, breathing, and Earth itself are my sources of optimism despite the challenges that persist in our world. I know firsthand the absolute joy of motherhood, and being a mother is just divine. My parents’ activism has made them role models for me in both my career and personal endeavors as I work to bring people together in a more just world. As a 25-year practitioner of yoga, I experience firsthand how the simple act of breathing relieves chronic or acute stress. Mother Earth is screaming, and I hear her call. She calls me to the mountains and to continue my 25+ year work as an urban farmer and advocate, and to continue my work toward environmental justice and a healthy planet.
In the almost three decades I have spent working to make this a better world--as an advocate, activist, founder, funder, board chair, advisor, and executive leader--I have extreme professional curiosity in challenging companies and brands to scale their impact and to lead from their values. In these challenging times, Pledge 1% is in a unique position to educate, advocate and convene, and push companies of all sizes and stages to leverage their assets for social good.
Pledge 1% helps companies of all sizes and stages leverage their assets for social good. Why do you think it's important that companies prioritize social impact? Do you have any specific stories or examples from your work or colleagues you can share?
As the Senior Vice President of Social Impact at Study.com, I lead the company's efforts to Make Education Accessible with its “double-bottom line” strategy, by building partnerships with others who are aligned with our mission. Study.com has donated $27 million through two national education initiatives, l) Working Scholars program, which offers working adults the opportunity to earn a debt-free bachelor's degree, and 2) Keys to the Classroom, which aims to accelerate pathways to certification for educators by helping them prepare for and pass their teacher certification exams.
Did you know that a major barrier for aspiring teachers is passing their teacher certification tests, a problem that is exacerbated among teacher candidates of color? Nationally, fifty percent of teacher cadets fail the Praxis exam on the first try, and a quarter never pass. These pass rates disproportionately affect people of color--38% of Black students never pass the exam. In response to ongoing teacher staffing issues exacerbated during the pandemic—ranging from classroom vacancies to the lack of educator diversity--we launched Keys to the Classroom in late 2021 to diversify the teacher workforce and accelerate educator pathways by providing free teacher certification test prep support to aspiring teachers. Since its launch, the program has expanded into 20 states and has thousands of participants enrolled, half of whom identify as people of color and 60% of whom identify as 1st generation college graduates.
If you could describe yourself in one word what would that be and why?
It’s technically two words: “radical kindness.” The principles of yoga have guided me in understanding who I am, who I want to be for others, and how I can best serve as a leader. Radical kindness is one value that I’ve deeply integrated into my psyche, and I bring this mindset into the workplace every day. My goal as a manager and an executive, and as a human, is to lead consciously and with compassion in every interaction.
Do you have any unique or useful life hacks to help get through your day?
Say a blessing every morning before your feet touch the ground. Write your ideas with markers on massive sheets of paper. Always start with a clean sheet and use colors. Observe what you see, then draw the connections and watch what appears. Notice when you need to find 10 minutes to sit in silence, then do it and watch your productivity and focus skyrocket.
Do you have any go-to apps or tools use love to use?
As a parent of a 10 and 12-year-old, I love using apps and tools that make it easier to understand what’s happening in children's worlds. I have several education/school-related apps on my phone, and my favorites are those that help streamline communication and save time. In addition, my plant identifier, garden shovel, and handheld lemon juicer are my go-to tools for my garden and home.
What are you looking forward to this year? Are there any goals (personal or professional), activities, or experiences you are excited about?
For six years I have been a Board Chair of World Child Cancer USA, and I am proud of our work in low- and middle-income countries and of the 8,000 children we treated last year in thirteen countries. In 2021 we met with the Secretary General of the World Health Organization and urged the WHO to create a new global goal for survival rates for pediatric cancer -- 60% by 2030, which is more than double the current global cure rate.
As a board member of Conservation Colorado, I work to support candidates and policies that protect the Earth and her natural resources, and I am inspired by our 10-year-old daughter's leadership on these issues in our community.
Finally, as an Urban Farmer and the Chair of the National Advisory Board of Denver Urban Gardens, I am working with the leading doctors, researchers, advocates and organizers to grow food and grow community, at scale.
On a recent birthday, I committed that I would take one nature vacation every year with a close group of female friends, and this year we are off for a 10-day hike and soak in Iceland.