Michelle Cromwell

HOMETOWN: Trincity, Trinidad

OCCUPATION: University Executive; Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Consultant; yoga teacher; Reiki master teacher

FAMILY: 24-year-old son Kidane

EDUCATION: Diploma in Music Education from Valsayn Teachers College; B.S. in Social Work, University of the West Indies; M.A. in Dispute Resolution; and Ph.D. in Conflict Analysis and Resolution, Nova Southeastern University (Florida)

SB: What important lessons did you learn early in your career?

MC: One of the first things I learned was that I need to bring a sense of joy — not just to work, but also to whatever I want to do. I make sure that whatever the career that I have is also serving me and bringing me a sense of joy. Otherwise it would just be work.

SB: Who was your most influential mentor?

MC: My first mentor was my mother. People don’t always see their parents as mentors, but she gave me a sense of irreverence and fearlessness that took me to where I am today. She taught me to fear absolutely no one. Respect them, but fear no one. My career mentor has been Judith McKay. She was my professor in graduate school and she became a colleague and a friend. She taught me a lot about navigating higher education. She is still very present in my life. I call her my North Star. She is a constant and she still guides me.

SB: What was the best piece of advice you ever received?

MC: Stop caring too much. Very often we care too much about what people think about us. If what I do brings beauty, gain and good — and is legal and moral — then I  am okay. As long as I am doing things with good intentions, I can stop caring about what people think.

SB: What advice would you offer to someone starting out in their career?

MC: Do what serves you. Do what is related to your sacred center. Very often young people coming up tend to live out other people’s dreams. They let the noise and desires of what someone else wants for them lead their careers. What I would say to them is that you can hear it, but then you need to put that noise aside. Then stop and ask, ‘What do I really want and what will serve me?’ and go after that. The most successful people follow that direction.

SB: What habits do you have that contribute to your success?

MC: I truly am fearless. Very few things scare me. I am also disciplined and grounded, but I think with all of that, you have to have some ease. I’m easy going. I think you have to be direct and committed but be habitually compassionate.

SB: What are you most proud of professionally?

MC: One of my qualities is that I am very honest. I am a unicorn. There aren’t many Afro-Caribbean executives in higher education. One of the things I am most proud of professionally is being able to navigate white spaces with comfort and integrity to make it look do-able to other people like me.

SB: Can you tell us more about what ‘white spaces’ are?

MC: A white space is one that is occupied predominantly by people of whiteness. When you look at the demographics of a company for example, and most of the managers and decision makers are white, that’s a white space. It is also influenced by the demographics of all of the workers and of the people that the organization serves.

SB: If you could have dinner and spend an evening with any well-known person, living or dead, who would you choose and why?

MC: The late Toni Morrison. She was able to capture stories that seemed pertinent to only certain identities, but yet a large cross section of people could understand and relate to. In some ways that also describes my life experiences. When you see me, you think one thing about me, but then when we sit and talk you see how I am relatable to so many different identities. I would love to be able to sit and talk with her, and I think we would chat it up all night.

SB: What is something no one would guess about you?

MC: That I am very shy and very introspective. I can be the life of the party, but then I need to retreat and recharge. I like my solitude sometimes.

SB: What do you look for when you hire?

MC: I like to call myself a CIA agent. I look for character. I want to be clear about who people are, so I feel that you have to be open with your character and demonstrate who you are. I will hire somebody that will walk the talk. Not just throwing words out there, but I want them to show me on the resume that they really have done the things they say they did. That shows integrity and I want people who can be held accountable and to also hold me accountable. I say to my colleague “Keep me honest”.

SB: How do you work with others in difficult situations?

MC: No situation is really difficult unless we see it that way. I try to understand what the root issue is. I will test assumptions by stating what I understand. Once I am able to do that, then I tackle it. I use a level of directness and creativity, along with a sense of compassion. I try to always separate people from issues so that at the end, however that situation is resolved, the people involved can go away feeling that they are still okay and that their humanity is in tact.

SB: Who is a local person you admire?

MC: Deena Giltz McCullough from Northern Insuring. Deena did something that seems simple, but that helped to launch me into the North Country. She held a welcome to Plattsburgh party at her home for me. One of the things that helps people thrive in communities is making them feel welcome from the get-go. So now, I have to pay it forward. Even though I have only been here for two months, there is no one who can tell me that this is not my town. It is incredible.