Dr. Rowena Ortiz-Walters

Current Position: Dean and Professor of Management, School of Business and Economics at SUNY Plattsburgh
Hometown: Bridgeport, CT
Family: Husband Carl Walters, sons Ethan (11) and Noah (9), daughter Emily (6).
Education: BS Chemistry; MBA, University of New Haven; PhD Management, University of Connecticut
Community involvement: Advisory boards for the Office of Diversity and Community Partnership at Harvard Medical School and the Gender and Diversity in Organizations division of the Academy of Management; Keynote speaker for North Country Chamber of Commerce Celebration of Women in Business event.

Dr. Ortiz-Walters and her family joined the Plattsburgh community in June 2015, when she stepped into her leadership role at the School of Business and Economics at SUNY Plattsburgh. While moving far away from her home in Connecticut with a young family certainly wasn’t easy, Dr. Ortiz-Walters was overcome by the North Country’s hospitality. “I am so thankful to the community and to SUNY Plattsburgh,” she explained, “I have felt completely welcomed here from the very beginning. The peo- ple here helped to make me feel like an insider much faster than I thought.” Before coming to Plattsburgh Ortiz-Walters worked for Quinnipiac University in Connecticut where she spent 11 years moving up the faculty ranks from assistant professor to professor and department chair of the Management department.

She began her early career as a chemist, but always had an innate curiosity about how people interact. While studying for her MBA she discovered how to integrate her passion with her work. With a blend of organizational behavior in business and a hardcore science background, she relates equally well to both the “soft” and quantitative sides of the business world.

Dr. Ortiz-Walters has had to overcome many obstacles beginning with her inner city upbringing. Along the way, her experiences have motivated her to continue to find ways to clear the path to success and make it more equitable and attainable for future generations of women and underrepresented racial minorities.

SB: Your first degree was in chemistry. How did you get into business?
ROW: I never thought about business in the beginning. Coming out of high school I was an overachiever who liked science and math. After working a few years as a chemist I noticed that a lot of young chemists were going out and getting MBA’s. They were thinking long term, keeping themselves relevant, and I decided I should too. Studying for my MBA gave me exposure to the field of organizational behavior. It looked at how people interact, and how that impacts group dynamics, employee morale and the performance of an orga- nization. It wasn’t that I didn’t like chemistry; it was more that I fell in love with business.

SB: What are some important lessons you learned early in your career?
ROW: I made a mistake early on that taught me how important it is to consider timing when you are making decisions. For any decision from when you’re going to have kids, to when to give feedback to an employee, to when you’re going to ask for something, timing is an important piece of the decision making process. Sometimes we are so focused on the process of asking, that we forget that there are better times than others to do it. I think it is a subtlety that a lot of people forget. As a young person you are often trying to be a go-getter and show initiative. Slow down and don’t jump the gun too early.

SB: What qualities do you believe are necessary for success?
ROW: The quality that has gotten me to where I am is persistence. There is no substitute for grit. That, and having a strong work ethic are very important.

SB: Where did you get your grit?
ROW: I grew up in the inner city. It was unstable economically; it was unstable in terms of the neighborhood with people constantly moving in and out. When there is no money, you need to learn to be creative to survive. When your friends are no longer there, you have to learn to make new friends. I think some part of grit is also inherent in who you are. If you have challenges in your life, which I definitely have had, that exercises your grit. Also, when a challenge comes to you, you have to make a conscious decision about whether you want to wallow in it, or do you want to change. When there is a fork in the road, you have to make a choice. I choose change.

SB: What is something no one would guess about you?
ROW: We have a very unconventional family. My husband stays home and homeschools our three children. My husbands’ background was in elementary education. It was he who initiated our conversations about homeschooling. I really knew nothing about it. Since I was always so focused on my career, it was all his doing to take this on. He is wonderful with the kids, and we are very blessed to be able to do this.

SB: What are you most proud of professionally?
ROW: Being a first generation college student and beating the odds. And still today, no one in my family has a college degree.
SB: How did you overcome the odds so successfully?
ROW: I have always had an interest in learning. Having grown up in an environment where there was so much instability, I made the conscious decision that this was not how I wanted to live when I grew up. I’ve always been a bookworm, and I think that was part of a strategy growing up. If you think about being a young person in an inner city where there is chaos and violence, being a bookworm can be a kind of protection.
SB: What aspect of your work drives you?
ROW: Before I came to SUNY Plattsburgh, I founded and directed the Center for Women and Business at Quinnipiac University. My personal mission is to empower women economically. Being able to have the money behind you allows you so many opportunities to do the things you want to do without having to rely on anyone else. Educational empowerment is important as well. Part of my life’s purpose is to serve others. It is especially important for me to be an active advocate on women’s behalf.
SB: What advice would you offer someone just starting out in their career?
ROW: First, observe a lot. You can learn a lot by watching how things are done in your company. Watching the dynamic between people, you can see what works and what doesn’t work. You can sit back and take it all in, even when you are right there in the middle of it. You always want to be assessing the situation.
Second, develop a diverse network and commit to a habit early on to stay connected with people even if you don’t need them. You never know when opportunities are going to arise. It does take discipline, but it is worth it to stay connected in a systematic way.
Third, create a yearly professional development budget, and invest in yourself and your career. We budget for rent, and for food, but we don’t always put money in our budget for professional development.
SB: What inspires you?
ROW: My children. Particularly for my daughter Emily, I want her to have a different future available to her when she gets into the workplace. I really thrive on improving things, and doing good. Anything dealing with creativity and innovation excites me. I would like to figure out ways that the North Country could make greater use of our students. For example, regional economic development is a challenge. Our students are full of energy and full of ideas.