‘Don’t ever say no. Keep looking at the world as a whole and accept it all’

This week, Women of Washington interviews Sally Ann Zoll, CEO of United Through Reading, a nonprofit organization that serves military families.

United Through Reading offers the opportunity for active service members of the military to record video of themselves reading books for their children to watch while they are deployed, Zoll said. “It’s really very simple what we do, but it has a profound effect on families,” she added.

Zoll said that the mission of United Through Reading was close to her heart and shared the story of her own son leaving his family to serve in Afghanistan. Before he deployed, Zoll had her son record himself reading story books to his 18-month-old son. Zoll  recalled that having those videos really made a difference to her grandson when his father returned from duty.

“Fourteen months later, Ethan picked him out of a crowd at midnight at San Diego Airport. He went running, “daddy daddy daddy daddy,” and jumped into his arms with a smile from here to here,” she shared.

“We didn’t know it at the time,” Zoll said of why her grandson had such a positive reunion with his father when other children were less enthusiastic.

Today, she credits that reunion to the stories that her son recorded. She said, “It was only when I learned about United Through Reading and I learned all these other parents were telling the same stories that the reunification was so wonderful because daddy or mommy had been in their room every single night telling a story.”

Zoll also discussed her long career in education and educational media before she joined United Through Reading. She said that she first knew she was going to work in education as a young woman in college.

“When I was in college, I was offered an internship at an unknown nonprofit working with disadvantaged families, moms and little kids. That program became HeadStart, which we all know now,” she continued, “It was a moment in time. I just couldn’t imagine doing anything else.”

Zoll then worked in educational media for a start-up software company.  She said that she had taken a risk by moving into the software industry from education. She credited her supervisor there with teaching her about the business world. He was, Zoll said, a mentor who has influenced her management style.

He “had just come from MTV, which was brand new,” she shared. “He would sit and watch MTV every night and try to figure out what got people excited about it and how you could make educational software that exciting.”

She said, “He had a philosophy that you hired bright, you expressed the goal, the mission, and the endgame, and then you let people go. And that worked so well for my personal style, and I had such an amazing time doing that, that I think that’s probably my leadership style now.”

When asked what the best advice she’s gotten from a mentor is, Zoll replied, “Always think yes. Don’t think, ‘no I can’t do that,’ or ‘no we can’t do that’. You can always go back and say, “maybe not”, but if you say yes at the beginning and you can explore what that yes means, you are going to have a much better chance of doing things you’ve never thought of.”

She shared the advice that she thought had been most beneficial to her career. “Don’t ever say no,” she said. “Keep looking at the world as a whole, and accept it all”

“I think that when you’re positive and see what could be, you just go for it and you never turn anything down.”

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Gigi Schumm welcomes Washington's most ambitious and influential female executives to share their secrets to success. Contact Gigi at gigischumm@gmail.com. Subscribe to Women of Washington’s audio interviews on Apple Podcasts or PodcastOne.

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