Ontario Wooden is the Associate Vice Chancellor at North Carolina Central University. He grew up in rural southwest Georgia and is passionate about helping low income and first-generation college students.
Ontario did not actually plan a career in higher education but expected to be an elementary school teacher and perhaps later on a school superintendent. However, in his senior year of college he was elected to be the Vice President of the Student Body and had the opportunity to learn about the way that universities operate and had close contact with the President and Vice Presidents on campus and it totally changed the trajectory of his career. He obtained his college degree in Early Childhood Education at Albany State University and then went on to focus on higher education for his Master’s and his PhD at Indiana University.
When Ontario started on his master’s degree, he began working as a Financial Assistance Counselor at Indiana University. He continued to advance and became a Research associate and Instructor while completing his graduate and doctoral programs. He then became an Assistant Professor and also Director of the Honors Program at Albany State University, part of the Graduate Faculty at the University of Arkansas – Little Rock, and then moved up the ranks in several positions as Associate Dean and then Dean of the University College, Associate Vice Chancellor, Dean, Associate Professor at North Carolina Central University (NCCU). After 12 years, Ontario is still employed at NCCU and is currently the Associate Chancellor for Student Success and Academic Outreach.
Where did the idea for your career come from?
I had that initial desire to become an elementary school teacher and a part of that was born out of my grandmother’s idea of wanting to be a teacher and never being able to realize that dream. In my mind, I somehow wanted to realize that dream for her, but at the same time I’ve always had a passion for helping people because to me the best way to help people, build them up and support them is to educate them.
I have a natural inclination to help and support people. I have loved working in higher education and then becoming a university administrator, because I get to do such positive things in my work. Every day there is an opportunity to help a student. If a person does not care, there is no way they can teach. You have to have that in you. Those are innate skills that I’ve had and been able to use as a higher education administrator.
What does your typical day look like and how do you make it productive?
My day starts around 6 am with email, but I do try to get some prayer and meditation in before I start. I go through the emails that have come in overnight and see what I can respond to immediately. I keep a mental list of things that I want to accomplish for the day. For me, there are usually three things I try to accomplish. Whatever those three things are, the goal is to get those done. If I accomplish more, it’s been an awesome day, but having a manageable three things on top of my meeting schedule serves me really well.
Since March, there has not a day that passes that I’m not in a COVID-related conversation. But even in COVID-related conversations, there are those things related to how are we going to teach classes? How are we going to keep classrooms clean? Are we going to allow students to live on campus in residents’ hall? How are we going to continue to engage students and make them feel as if they are a part of this community when social distancing is the order of the day? Can we channel some of their energies around social media and video gaming in a positive way? We are reaching out to students even for their guidance on how to navigate through these spaces. A lot of universities are putting out student-produced videos on how to be engaged during COVID in a socially distanced kind of way. There are some real fears, but I think it’s also making us stronger in some ways.
How do you bring ideas to life?
I am a collaborator. My collaborative style of doing things is usually how I bring ideas to life. It’s usually, “Hey, I was thinking about . . . ” or “I was reading about . . .” in one of those group sessions or in a one-on-one session, and someone will come up with an idea or something they have been thinking about. It’s a “Hey, let’s try to run with this . . .”
At a certain point the University had not invested in an appointment scheduling apparatus. Students would have to get in a line to make an appointment to see an advisor. Students would have to wait in line twice for an advisory appointment. Students would come and make an appointment and then not come back for the appointment because they’d have to stand in line again. One of my close colleagues whose husband had worked at another university shared the idea of the software that was out there, and we were able to implement it.
What’s one trend that excites you?
Before COVID, I was excited about the number of students that we were getting involved in study abroad experiences, outgoing and incoming. Right now, we may not be able to send students abroad, but we can use the technology that is available to create virtual study abroad experiences. I can be in France via a Zoom platform taking a course and having a study abroad experience without physically being there.
What is one habit of yours that makes you more productive as an entrepreneur?
Writing things down helps me to stay the course. I keep a notebook and I always write down the three things that I try to accomplish each day. I want to check them off, or put a line through them, or put an X. It gives me that sense of accomplishment.
What advice would you give your younger self?
Don’t put so much pressure on yourself to be perfect. Somewhere along the way, there is a message that we send to young people that somehow they need to do everything right and have all the answers, and I think it leads little room for people to make mistakes and take detours. You don’t have to be perfect. Some of the stress I put on myself along the way really wasn’t necessary and didn’t allow me the opportunity to live in the moment and enjoy the moment.
Tell us something that’s true that almost nobody agrees with you on.
We are all right. One of the things that continues to divide us as people and as a country right now is people’s political stances. One of the things, I have had to be reflective about is that truly we are only the sum of the experiences that we’ve had in life and the things that we have been exposed to. Being in certain parts of this country will limit your access to a number of things, including information. We are all right based on the information that we have access to, based on the experiences that we’ve had, and all that we have been exposed to. But we’ve also got to be at a place where we are able to sit down and agree to disagree. We might be saying the same thing to each other, but we’ve just had different experiences that color how we see it. I believe for the most part we are all right. We’ve got to dig a little deeper to understand people’s experiences and their levels of exposure so we can move forward. How can we ever tell anybody that their life or their experiences mean nothing or have meant nothing? People need to be challenged and supported around the ideas that help move us forward.
As an entrepreneur, what is the one thing you do over and over and recommend everyone else do?
Higher education has had to become a bit more entrepreneurial in its thinking as it related to revenue streams. We can ask: What are the goods and services that we can create and sell to students on campus or to outside partners? There are tons of universities involved in the lab work that’s going into creating vaccinations, which will be impactful for both personal well-being and the country.
What is one strategy that has helped you grow your business?
I think higher education has to become a bit more entrepreneurial in its thinking. I know one leader in the Office for International Affairs at another university who shared with me that their office provides services for folks who are not native to the country in the community, so they allow them to come on campus to have birth certificates validated as a service to the community but also a way that the university can make money.
What is one failure you had as an entrepreneur, and how did you overcome it?
I interviewed for a job once. It was going really well. We got a certain question that was asking me how I would handle a certain situation. I knew the answer they wanted, but I gave the answer that was really true to my core, true to what I believed in, and what I would have done in that situation. I chose to prioritize a student issue over a request from the dean, and I could feel the interview going downhill from there. It was a position that I wanted, but in that moment, I realized that it was not the position that was best for me. I had considered this interview a failure, but after the interview there were other things that happened that proved to me that it would have been the wrong place for me. What I considered to be a failure was actually protection from something.
What is one business idea that you’re willing to give away to our readers?
Start up a virtual institution and take all of these lessons that we are learning from COVID and apply it to the online space. Faculty members can successfully teach their classes from home. They can still publish articles and books. Students can successfully attend class and take exams from home. They can collaborate and be part of communities without being physically in each other’s space. Administrators can still have meetings, get documents signed, and still make budget decisions and not be in my physical office space.
What is the best $100 you recently spent? What and why?
That would be money I spent recently on three physical hardcover books that I chose to help me to focus inward on things that will make me a stronger professional and get me to that next level in my career. I made it my goal to read three books during this COVID time. One of the books I purchased was What Got You Here Won’t Get You There and the ideas in that book really resonated with me.
What is one piece of software or a web service that helps you be productive?
I have spent more time looking at Excel spreadsheets, sorting and filtering and removing duplicates, over the last six months than I have in years as we try to plan for the next year in light of COVID. We have had to consider how many classrooms we have in buildings, the number of course that are offered, the number of students in classes, putting space between classes, and ways to ensure proper social distancing. Excel has been helpful as we consider all of these variables.
What is the one book that you recommend our community should read and why?
Upstream: The Quest to Solve Problems Before They Happen by Dan Heath is one that I recommend. This book talks about the importance of resolving problems at the lowest level. This gives leaders space to focus on the broader vision of the organization, creating new streams of revenue, to think about how we can treat our people better and provide work/life balance.
What is your favorite quote?
“To be clear.” Oftentimes when I’m talking with people, I will lead with, “To be clear . . .” Using that phrase has helped me to think about clarity in how I relate to other people. Trying to be clear is really a way of life for me.
• Stay true to yourself and grounded as it relates to your belief system.
• Work hard even on things that you don’t necessarily want to do. There is a reward in it.
• Make the time to care and support other people.
Steve (Stefan) Junge hails from Germany and helps with the day-to-day publishing of interviews on IdeaMensch. While he and Mario don’t share a favorite soccer club, their enthusiasm to help entrepreneurs is a shared passion.