Sonya Medina Williams reflects on service and leadership – and provides a fitting battle cry for the upcoming BCA reunion: “Memories and milestones, motorcades and M&Ms.”
Sonya Medina Williams serves as President and Executive Director of Reach Resilience, an Endeavors Foundation that is committed to “serving communities in crisis by activating allies, enabling change and elevating humanity through efforts that restore dignity, nurture confidence and empower perseverance.” In many ways her work today is a natural extension of her policy work at the White House on behalf of President and Mrs. Bush. In this month’s “Five Questions With…” feature, Medina Williams reflects on service and leadership – and provides a fitting battle cry for the upcoming BCA reunion: “Memories and milestones, motorcades and M&Ms.”
Q: The response for the May 19-21 Bush-Cheney Alumni reunion has been strong. What are you most looking forward to and what is it about this group that drives so much excitement around reconnecting every few years?
I was honored to serve our country with some of the smartest, most passionate, and hardworking people I’ve ever known. Our bonds were strengthened by supporting President Bush during pivotal moments in history, from September 11 to the liberation of the Afghan people.
We are forever connected by these powerful experiences, by memories and milestones, motorcades and M&Ms, and a shared commitment to serve. The Bush-Cheney Alumni reunion is a wonderful opportunity to connect and celebrate our camaraderie, our commonality, and our continued efforts to make a difference in the world.
Q: You were one of the few staff members to report directly to both the President and First Lady in your dual role as Deputy Assistant to the President for Domestic Policy and Director of Projects for the First Lady. What did you learn from working so closely with both President and Mrs. Bush?
I must have had the longest title at the White House, and certainly the most incredible honor to serve both President Bush and Mrs. Bush. Working for them was like a masterclass in purpose-driven leadership. I learned the importance of serving others, and that we are all called to and led by a higher, greater purpose.
President Bush exemplified and taught me to lead with conviction and compassion, to be decisive yet diplomatic, to trust facts, but also your gut, and to believe that we all have the capacity to change the world.
Mrs. Bush has the distinct ability to handle difficult situations and decisions with grace, empathy, and resolve. She taught me the importance of being a female leader and advancing women’s leadership, of owning my identity and idealism, and to focus on issues that are often overlooked, and where we can make the greatest impact.
They both also understood the importance of diversity, and that our democracy always has been and always will be strengthened by an array of people, cultures, and beliefs. I am immensely grateful to have learned from them, and their example has influenced my life and career in tremendous ways.
Q: How do you apply those lessons in your work as the president of a foundation and a member of two public company boards?
I have been fortunate to work in many different areas in my career. No matter the cause, my central purpose is to advocate and advance change for underserved communities.
As President and Executive Director for Reach Resilience, a national foundation that uplifts communities in crisis, including veterans with PTS, military families, and people affected by natural disasters, I lead efforts to amplify support, activate allies, and restore hope and dignity during challenging times.
My work on both the Delta Apparel (NYSE: DLA) and Papa Johns International (Nasdaq: PZZA) boards is similar in that I strive to ensure that the distinct viewpoints of the Latino community are heard and reflected. As a Latina, my culture is my superpower and is an added value in my career. Being a mom is also a superpower, and Papa John’s knows that moms order a lot of pizzas!
It’s an honor to serve with my fellow board colleagues, including Shaquille O’Neal. We both understand the importance of bringing your whole self to the board room – this means who you are, where you come from, and all your life experiences. We represent different demographics, and our insight is critical to building market share, ally ship, and strengthening diversity, equity, and inclusion both at a company and global level.
Q: Are there any tips you can provide your fellow BCAers about how to find opportunities to serve on corporate boards?
As the world has undergone dramatic social, political, and economic upheaval, corporate boardrooms have been forced to evolve. Modernized boards are looking for diverse leaders to maximize corporate value. This includes diversity on many different levels, including age, expertise, demographics, experience, cultural background, and geography.
Anyone seeking a public board seat should work on a platform where they can get noticed and once there, they must perform. Serving as an executive or working in the C-suite level are great entry points. Know your expertise and clearly illustrate your niche, strengths, and skills. Ask for help in navigating the channels of board work and service. Lean on your network and let colleagues know that you are interested in a board seat. And most importantly, understand that joining a corporate board is a monumental commitment. In good times and bad, you are at the table, so be truly passionate about the business.
Q: Can you leave us with a favorite moment or story from your time at the White House?
In 2008, I traveled with Mrs. Bush to Afghanistan to meet with the first woman governor of Bamiyan province, Habiba Sarabi, as well as female graduates of the Police Training Academy. It was an honor to work with Mrs. Bush for nearly seven years, as she powerfully advocated for and advanced the rights, education, and inclusion of women and girls in the Middle East. To see the results of her advocacy was a dream come true.
The trip was also transformative for me in that it was one of the first times I saw our military men and women serving overseas. It was an overwhelming moment to fully understand the sacrifices our troops make to protect and serve our country.
The reason we could visit Afghanistan and see progress was because of their selfless service, courage, and conviction. We don’t recognize enough the tremendous dedication of our military. Every day, they ensure our freedom and the rights of millions around the world by risking their lives to defend our ideals. And their families serve by supporting their loved ones.
In many ways, this experience has inspired my work at Reach Resilience today. I am honored to support our veterans and military families and share our immense appreciation for their service. This is another example of just how profoundly President and Mrs. Bush and my fellow Bush-Cheney colleagues have influenced my work and life.