To solve a difficult puzzle, all someone needs is the right mindset, or as Dr. Sally Ann Zoll puts it, a “yes” mentality.
On this episode of Women of Washington, host Gigi Schumm spoke with Zoll, CEO of United Through Reading. Since 2007, Zoll has acted as the chief guardian and spokeswoman for the organization’s vision and mission to build and sustain lasting relationships with stakeholders and partners. She also leads the program’s finances within the internal team.
Zoll said her personality and her career have a lot to do with how her teachers and mentors pushed her to always go after what she wanted. Being raised in a small town in Indiana, big dreams weren’t always easy to achieve, but she said she’s been pretty lucky.
She shared several defining moments of her life. At the age of 15, Zoll was selected as one of the only two female Indiana students to attend the YMCA Youth Conference in Norway.
“It was really life changing for me seeing what could be … what was out there beyond my small enclosure, so that definitely was my first defining moment,” Zoll said.
Next, Zoll’s internship at a then up-and-coming education nonprofit (now known as Head Start) motivated her to work in the nonprofit field, particularly with education and technology.
The last pivotal moment in her career was her decision to leave her teaching role and join in the creation of an education software company alongside a former MTV employee.
“It was his philosophy that you hired bright, you express the goal and the mission and the end game and then you let everybody go,” Zoll said. “That worked so well for my personal style. He didn’t force me into anything that I wasn’t ready to do, but he let me learn.”
Giving yourself and your employees room to grow is one of the most important lessons she learned in that role.
“I would say to women everywhere that you never know where that next step is going to be and you just never know where you’re at. The expertise that you are gaining as you’re working in different areas are going to tie in to something completely different,” she said. “So again, it goes back to don’t ever say no and keep looking at the world as a whole. Accept it all.”
Zoll advised those looking for a way to dig their heels into the world of the private sector to try first looking into smaller nonprofits and through universities.
United through Reading, a 28 year-old program, is focused on uniting separated military families through audio books. Zoll has been an Army spouse of over 30 years.
“What we do is provide opportunities for our men and women who are away from their families to be video recorded reading a story book and we send the story book and video home to their children so they can watch mommy and daddy when [they] are gone,” Zoll said. “It’s really simple what we do.”
Some of the biggest challenges for that mission come from not only from technology barriers, such as lagging or dropping calls, but the different time zones.
“The timing is off and you might only be allowed a short amount of time to be able to Skype home,” Zoll explained. “Your spouse is going to wake up in the middle of the night to see you because she wants to talk to you, but I bet she’s not going to get the three kids up to talk to you.”
While positivity is key, everyone must also think realistically. She said the secret is in charging forward, smartly.
Gigi Schumm welcomes Washington's most ambitious and influential female executives to share their secrets to success. Contact Gigi at firstname.lastname@example.org. Subscribe to Women of Washington’s audio interviews on Apple Podcasts or PodcastOne.