Celebrating Women’s History Month: An Interview with iMentor CEO Dr. Heather D. Wathington

Dr. Heather D. Wathington has dedicated her career to the belief that high school graduation is the place where opportunity radically changes and that everyone, especially first-generation college students and students of color, can achieve their ambitions through postsecondary education. Her background is a blend of education, research, and philanthropy focused on students in underserved communities. Prior to joining iMentor in 2021, Dr. Wathington served as president at Girard College and the CEO at See Forever Foundation and the Maya Angelou Schools.

In recognition of Women’s History Month, Dr. Wathington discusses her role as the leader of iMentor as well as the uniqueness of having an all-woman C-Suite leadership team.

You’ve been the CEO at iMentor for a few years now. How would you characterize your tenure here so far?

It's been great and intense. I certainly came in at the tail end of the pandemic. The organization was still trying to attend to our mentors and young people in pandemic mode, and then trying to shift – what do we look like on the other side of COVID?

At the same time, it was a crash course in learning the organization pretty quickly. You come in and there are challenges and problems to solve. It’s also been a time of transition for the organization, coming up on our 25th anniversary and a transition in terms of leadership. Leading through change [is] definitely part of what I've experienced.

Let’s talk about yourself as a leader. What does it mean for you to lead an organization not only as a woman, but as a black woman?

There are very few of us in leadership. When you look at CEOs that are black women, it's a really low percentage. It's meaningful to be able to advocate for young people that look like me. I've had a wonderful career advocating for [them] and trying to make sure that higher education is accessible to them. I feel it's a deep honor to be able to direct the educational path of the next generation, and I don't think that everyone gets an opportunity to do that.

I like to quote Mother Teresa in that the miracle is not in that we do this work; it’s that we have such joy in doing it. It is an opportunity and a privilege to be able to chart out the path and support the educational journey of so many young people.

How have you used your perspective and experiences to move iMentor forward as an organization?

I think my lens has been the culmination of my experiences serving largely black youth in DC, and then Philadelphia. I bring the advocacy for underserved students and my real passion and commitment and everything I've learned.

I would say I also bring the fact that I'm a seasoned CEO. You see a lot of the same things and patterns when you're in leadership. There are challenges that sometimes feel insurmountable. You learn to lean into them, knowing that you can work through it and outlast the problem.

I love my enthusiasm for the work. I'm really committed about making sure that we take care of the next generation. [I’m] really passionate about the students we serve and want to make sure that there is some measure of equity for them. As much as iMentor can bring to bear, I want us to bring it to really make sure that our students get every opportunity that's available to them.

iMentor’s C-Suite team happens to be all women. Why is that significant for an organization like iMentor?

It's extremely rare. I really love the team and love working with them. They're phenomenal women. They're all really smart, thoughtful, knowledgeable, and gifted. It's an honor and a pleasure to work with them.

As a CEO, you don't take that for granted. It's nice to have a team that I really believe in and enjoy working with, and they all happen to be women. It’s rare and unheard of – but it is something that I also think people take note of. People won't lead with it, but they see it. The more I've shared that our C-Suite is all women, it's clear that it is a notable factor to other people as well.

What kind of message do you think iMentor is sending by showing that the organization has so many women in leadership roles?

I believe in a diverse team. I feel like we grow from a diversity of experiences, background, and thought. That makes an organization stronger when you have a team that's well represented across a variety of different dimensions. But there can be real strength and solidarity that comes from being of a particular group, where you have that one thing in common. I feel like we exemplify that. We certainly speak to the women in [iMentor] and women in other organizations that you can be a C-Suite leader and be a woman. There's nothing preventing you from doing that. The opportunities are there, and the talent is there. Hopefully, it's a message that you can have the best team and they can be all women.

I got the privilege of choosing this amazing team and this dynamic team chose iMentor – I feel like we should own and celebrate that. That's part of our genius right now. It’s a powerful moment that should be noted for iMentor and its history as an organization.

iMentor is always searching for passionate leaders who believe in the power of education, human potential, and excellence! View our open roles to join our team: https://imentor.org/get-involved/join-our-team