Agenia Clark

How a Former News Anchor Became a Girl Scouts CEO

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Key Takeaway: The more you can let your team contribute to the process, the better your outcomes will be. That's leadership

Top 5% in the world at: Reading. At one point, I was in three book clubs

As the only African American student at her small high school in Mobile, Alabama, Agenia’s school years were tough for her socially. But she poured herself into her studies and focused on becoming the first in her family to go to college. “I learned that nothing is insurmountable,” she tells us, reflecting on her high school experience. “It just takes dedicated time, attention, and tenacity.” It’s easy to see this tenacity throughout Agenia’s career — she once created a marketing campaign to convince Pepsi to hire her. She also used to wake up at 4am to anchor the morning news before spending the rest of her day taking classes for her MBA. Now, as CEO of Girl Scouts Middle Tennessee, Agenia is helping other girls achieve their dreams. She sat down to tell us more about her journey and the valuable leadership lessons she learned in the newsroom.
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How She Did it

Neither of my parents was afforded the privilege of a college education. But my mother believed that an education gives you the opportunity to have a career, instead of just having a job. My parents really promoted the idea of finishing high school and going to college, which no one on either side of their family had ever done. They put me in a college prep school. I was a member of the only all-black Episcopal church in the diocese of the central Gulf coast. For years, the diocese had been funding the Episcopal school in the area, which wasn’t integrated at that point. So the church took students who were interested over to the high school for the admissions process. I was accepted and was funded by the diocese to bring some integration into the school. From that experience, I learned that one black child does not integrate. I also learned that if you're really focused on what your purpose is everything else is easy to manage. I was there to take advantage of a quality education. When I look back on it, they were extremely difficult years socially. But, when I look back on the experience academically, it was the beginning of me having what I would describe as an extremely high-quality life. Was I wanted there by the other students? Probably not. Was I wanted there by the faculty and staff? I didn't feel like I was. But I also learned that no one can control or dictate your future. Besides the education, that was the greatest gift that high school gave me — that regardless of what others thought, felt or did, it didn't matter. What did matter, was that they had no control over my future. That was a good stage of my life to learn that.

Why University of TN?
I found the University of Tennessee on television. Every time colleges played each other in any sport, each school had one minute to do a marketing piece about their university. The only thing I remember about their piece was that in the first five seconds they had an aerial shot of the campus, showing thousands of people. It was massive, and all I remember thinking is that if I could go to that school there would be too many students, too many professors, too many administrators to pick me out and make me a standalone for their bias.

Everything about the University of Tennessee that I had dreamt and wished for came true. It's too big of an environment to have a biased opinion against anyone's child. And I had come from such a small, biased filled environment.

With large campuses, there are also lots of clubs and activities and you can really explore. I realized that not only is college about getting a degree, but more importantly, it’s the best time to explore your interests.

Did you know what you wanted to do after college?
I was on a pre-med scholarship and I stayed in that for three years. I had a summer job working for this wonderful woman named Dr. Gretchen Caplin. She was starting an OB-GYN practice and needed a lab assistant/appointment maker. The experience was phenomenal, but I learned in about 30 days that I didn't know what I was going to do with my life, but it was not going to be in medicine.

How did you figure out your next steps?
I went over to the career center on campus and did some assessments. The counselor told me, “You did extremely well on all of your assessments. You can probably do whatever you put your mind to, so what is your objective?” I said, “If I don't have to take anymore biology and chemistry, that would be great.” She told me that if I majored in communications they would accept all my chemistry and biology courses as prerequisites, and I could graduate in a year. And that's how my communications career began.

Summer Internship:
I knew I wanted to do radio and not television. Who wants to be seen on TV every day? There’s not a lot of broadcast outlets in Knoxville, so I got on the phone and called everybody. I got an internship working at WIVK radio in the newsroom under a wonderful gentleman named Mike. I worked for them about 10 hours a week over the summer and re-enrolled in school for the fall.

Mike’s lead reporter who was covering the mayoral election got seriously ill, so Mike called me and said, “You're going to have to cover this election.” I ended up covering the mayoral election, and he was really proud of my work. The guy who got sick didn’t come back and Mike offered me a full-time job. I took one class a semester while working.

The people at WIVK were amazing teachers. They let you make mistakes and then showed you how to correct them. One of the greatest gifts of being a leader is letting people learn by doing — from their mistakes they grow.

How did you find this opportunity?
I had been reporting on a very difficult story for WIVK about a family that had a daughter dying of cancer and, based on their religious beliefs, they didn’t want her to have treatment. I received several award nominations for my coverage, and the television station called and said, “We really liked the quality of your work and we'd like to see you join us here.”

Because I didn’t want to be on television, my career there started as the newsroom assignment editor. Oh dear Lord, you had to be the brain trust of every news story going on in the community! You looked at a board to see how many correspondents and photographers you had available, and then you had to assign them to cover stories. You also had to manage these different personalities all day long — that was really my first job in management.

What skills did you need to learn?
The first few months of managing all these personalities were rather disastrous. I quickly realized that you can't treat everyone the same because they're all so different. So I started asking each person, “What are you most interested in working on today?” Just that one little thing made the job easier. I would also ask them to bring their own story ideas, and I would pitch them to the producer and the news director. I ended up creating an interesting flow between newsroom management and the journalists.

It doesn't hurt to ask people, “How would you rather do this?” I like people to set their own course, and I stand there as a guidepost. By allowing the photographers and journalists to do that, the newsroom started experiencing some huge wins, and an increase in award nominations. The more you can let your team contribute to the process, the better your outcomes will be. That's leadership.

Why go back to school?
It was when they put me on air that I stopped liking my work. I interviewed the dean of the Haslam College of Business at the University of Tennessee for a story I was working on. I told him that I was looking for something different to do and trying to figure out how to transition to business. He goes, “Oh, that's easy. You need to come and get your MBA.”

Why Business?
I had done and read so many stories about what happens in the business sector, and they actually produce an outcome. The outcome on television lasted 15 to 90 seconds, and then it was gone. I wanted to do something that hangs around for longer than 30 seconds.

When I told the news director that I was going back to college, they brokered a deal with me to continue doing the early morning news. I got up at 4am, did the broadcast from 6 to 7am, and at 7:15am, I got in the car and drove straight to the university where I spent the rest of my day.

Marketing internship @ Pepsi Cola (Summer 1988, Somers, NY)
Second semester of the MBA program, I had a marketing professor with all the personality. He was bigger than life. I scheduled a meeting with him and asked where he recommended I do a summer internship. He said, “Well, there's one place I would like to see one of our students go, and we've had no luck: Pepsi Cola. Do you drink Pepsi?” And I said, “Of course, I do now!”

It was the only internship I applied for. I researched everyone in the marketing department with a name, title, and an address, and started a letter-writing campaign. One person replied and said I didn't possess the skills they were looking for. Well, I was giddy because I thought, at least they got my letter!

How did you get the job?
I'm embarrassed to admit it, but I bought bright orange construction paper and created a little campaign about why they made a gross error by not selecting me as their intern. I became the first student from the University of Tennessee to secure one of the coveted 15 summer intern positions for Pepsi Cola. I saw a lot of coursework come to life, and also saw the stress associated with that kind of work.

I had accepted a job to work for American Express and do a marketing leadership development program in the Northeast. But, one of my classmates, Charles Clark, proposed marriage and he had already accepted a job in Spring Hill, Tennessee. My first thought when he told me was, “Where is that?!” I told my mom that I would really like to marry this guy, but I wasn’t sure about living in Spring Hill. She said, “Here's the deal: If you really love him, I suggest you marry him. If you’re with the person you love, you can live anywhere.”

I went back to my marketing professor to let him know I couldn't accept my offer from American Express; he was like, “are you sure you want to give up American Express to marry this guy?” He recommended I look up Nortel Networks, a multinational telecommunications B2B company, and that’s how I ended up there in their rotational, leadership development program. I worked in the sales department, in compliance, and in international compliance. I ended up touching on so many different things. With each assignment, you learn more about yourself and more about the kind of work you like to do.

How did you find this opportunity to work at Vanderbilt?
I got a phone call from the new Assistant Vice Chancellor of Human Resources at Vanderbilt because they were looking to streamline their HR processes and systems. Nortel had gone through a series of new executives and was having serious financial problems. It looked like this was the time to transition into something different.

Why Tennessee Education Lottery Corporation?
I got a phone call from a member of the board of the lottery — I didn't even know they had voted to have a lottery here! The board member said they needed to hire someone to put together the entire HR process for the business. To me, that was a startup. I had never worked at a startup and thought it would be exciting.

Accepting the job because I was in love with the opportunity was a mistake because I wasn’t being mindful of the mission of the organization. I was hired before the CEO, and I wasn’t aware of the culture associated with that kind of work. I learned to never accept a job unless you know who you're working for, and to always read the mission of the organization to make sure it’s aligned with your values. In that particular job, I made two of the biggest mistakes of my personal and professional life.

Once I created the HR systems, I thought, I've got to walk away from this because this isn’t a fit for me. I needed to hit pause, catch my breath, and figure out how to get out of there.

I got a phone call from a search firm who said, “We're looking for the CEO for the Girl Scouts of Middle Tennessee and you've come highly recommended.” They were looking for someone to bring business acumen to the table and create an organization that is sustainable, especially financially.

I knew the mission of this organization and knew who I would be reporting to, so it was a no-brainer. And here I am, 15 years later, still doing this work. I figure out how to generate the necessary funds so that every girl in Middle Tennessee, regardless of her financial background, has access to a Girl Scout experience. My job is to engage the community so that donors and philanthropists give to us, and we can in turn help these children's dreams become a reality. Actualizing that is beautiful.

Advice for your career launch

Education is a matter of choosing what you want to do with it
My mother knew that education would provide value. She used to tell me, “Go and experience your education. You're going to get something out of it. Once you get the education, no one can take that away from you.”

Treat everyone equally
Just because someone is a CEO or a VP, doesn't mean they're any more knowledgeable than the Executive Assistant or the janitor sweeping the floor at night. If you treat everyone the same way your career will be golden because each person brings a different set of skills and knowledge to the table.

Leaders are curious
When I hire, I like to ask, “What are you curious about?” Curious people know how to seek out a solution; they're not just sitting there waiting for somebody to tell them what to do. Leaders constantly have to be willing to learn. If you’re not willing to learn to grow and develop your team, then you become a title. I don't like to operate as a title.

To be empowered, empower yourself
Female empowerment stems from a woman who chooses to empower herself. If you haven’t empowered yourself, then opportunities will pass you by because you're waiting for someone to give you something. When a woman has empowered herself, she can embrace opportunities.

Don’t second guess yourself
I'm always amazed at how we, as women, still second guess ourselves on so many occasions. I don't spend a lot of time second-guessing myself — either I'm going to do it or I’m not. Between getting it done and not getting it done is a learning process. The last I checked, I knew how to read, write and do arithmetic, so I'll figure out how to get it done. That's my personal self-empowerment.