Katie Leadership Impact: the future of leadership development at St. Kate's

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St. Kate's alumni are changemakers in disciplines spanning civic work, art, science, education, fashion, healthcare, and more. This is no accident. It comes from being a Katie.

St. Catherine students and graduates are intentional leaders — one of the qualities that “makes a Katie a Katie,” as Anita Thomas, PhD, executive vice president and provost, often says. Building on its storied history of educating women to influence change, St. Kate’s is reimagining leadership development to fulfill the needs of the dynamic world of today and tomorrow.


A Plan to Fit the Next Generation of Leaders

Women in leadership bring invaluable contributions to organizations and to society as a whole, and the events of the past two years have reinforced how crucially the world needs effective women leaders from all backgrounds.

Women in leadership, and especially women leaders of color, are underrepresented in the workplace (McKinsey, 2020). Women in S&P 500 companies make up only 6% of CEOs and 27% of senior level managers, women of color represent just 5% of all senior level managers, and Minnesota bears some of the largest racial equity gaps in the nation (Catalyst, 2020; Sauter, 2017).

With St. Kate’s deep history of educating exceptional women leaders — the legacy of the forward-thinking vision of founders the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet — the University was ready to take on these challenges and ensure more women graduated college confident and prepared to lead in their communities and careers.

“‘Responding to the needs of the time’ — that is  St. Kate’s leadership,” says President ReBecca Koenig Roloff ’76. “With fruits such as Katie Leadership Impact blooming from our Academic Master Plan, we are better equipped than ever to help our students cultivate expertise, flexibility, critical thinking, cultural fluency, and the unique strengths our students will use to change the world.”

Katie Leadership Impact is the result of programming and directives laid out in the University Academic Master Plan, an updated clarion call launched in 2020. Continuing St. Kate’s  history of combining liberal arts education with practical career offerings, the Plan expands degree programs across levels and develops accelerated programs to promote career readiness.  A focus on inclusive excellence and cultural fluency  also provides students with the skills to work in an increasingly diverse and global society while closing the gap between students of color and white students.


School of Business Leading the Way

From January 2020 when he joined St. Catherine University as dean of the School of Business, Benson K. Whitney, JD, knew the school was in a prime position to redefine the standards set for preparing women to lead — and to help organizations create systems where women thrive. 

“Within the School of Business, we have six professors with doctorates in leadership and one doctoral candidate in women’s leadership, in addition to those among our adjunct professors,” says Whitney. “These experts were the perfect team to build a well-defined leadership program and to teach a growing number of leadership courses.”

As part of the Academic Master Plan, Whitney and his team began to define new ways for St. Kate’s to bring leadership to life through the curriculum and cocurricular activities. The resulting program, Katie Leadership Impact, fosters leadership capabilities through coursework, applied learning, professional activities, and student support. Each element ties directly back to the Academic Master Plan’s priorities for enhancing leadership development.

This new program is possible thanks to a $1.25 million grant from the Manitou Fund, which was created in 1966 by late Minnesota businessman Donald McNeely. The grant is allocated over four years and covers launching and sustaining Katie Leadership Impact.

“When reimagining a better future, investments in higher education for students are critical,” says Oliver Din, president and CEO of Manitou Fund. “We are thrilled to support the Katie Leadership Impact program in its efforts to empower and effect excellence in women leaders.”


Katie Leadership Impact

Leadership development, internships, and other work-based experiences are vital to both graduates and employers. But lack of time and money prevent many students from participating in experiences that could grow their capacity for leadership. What makes Katie Leadership Impact unique is its combination of theory, practice, financial support, and mentoring, woven together to facilitate participation and success.
Opportunities for students to access leadership and career development, such as new leadership courses in the curriculum, have already flourished through Katie Leadership Impact. In LEAD 2202: Leadership and Influence, for example, students examine what it means to be an ethical and effective leader through an exploration of leadership theory and practice, including a mentoring relationship. 

“Mentoring is an intrinsic pillar of leadership development,” says Namibia Little, director of Katie Leadership Impact. “We work to bring on mentors across disciplines who have the desire to build confidence and strength in our Katies’ growing career skills. When students engage with professionals invested in their growth as a leader and teammate, they’re practicing what they’re learning in their courses, and sharing challenges, tips, and triumphs with their mentors.”

In the Leadership and Influence course, each student is paired with a mentor, found in coordination with the Office of Scholarly Engagement, Alumni Relations, Career Development, and a variety of business and organizational leaders. Mentors are selected based on alignment with students’ career interests, majors, and future goals, and they provide students with active, valuable support through experiences that grow their leadership skills.

Though the Leadership and Influence course provides the official mentorship framework, mentors’ impact on students endures throughout their time at St. Kate’s and beyond.

Mary Henderson ’80, EdD, professor of business administration, teaches several St. Kate’s leadership courses and has witnessed firsthand the importance of hands-on experience for her students. “Learning about leadership theories is important for students,” she says. “It’s just as essential for them to move into application, practicing those developing leadership skills, putting theory to practice through their leadership projects, internships, and applied learning experiences.”

Alumni and field expert mentors fulfill an important role in helping students apply leadership development in a concrete way — namely, applied learning projects and practicum experiences, a cornerstone of the Katie Leadership Impact program. 


The Student Experience

The Leadership and Influence course is only one of many opportunities for students to pursue leadership development. Henderson describes projects in which students explore their leadership capabilities and gain practice leading by opening basketball camps at nearby elementary schools, stepping into tutoring roles on campus, advocating for and proposing growth paths at their place of work, and implementing new health and wellness initiatives at work.

Litzy Silva-Sandoval ’23 was able to apply leadership skills from Henderson’s Leadership and Influence course in a more personal context. When schools transitioned to distance learning at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, Silva-Sandoval worried about her brother’s education.

“My brother was five years old and in kindergarten when the pandemic started,” says Silva-Sandoval. “I knew he would not understand how to use technology for distance learning, and the amount of work in his packets seemed overwhelming.”

Silva-Sandoval took on the task of creating lesson plans for and teaching her brother. She spent her mornings working with him on his schoolwork and afternoons navigating her first year of college and distance learning. Her support of her brother continued into his next year of school, when she continued to tutor him in reading, spelling, and handwriting, while also advocating for him with his teachers.

“This is the help I would have wanted as a child,”  she explains. 

With knowledge of her own abilities and encouragement from faculty — “Professor Henderson reminded me to give myself more credit for what I have accomplished” — as well as résumé fine-tuning from Career Development, Silva-Sandoval was more than ready for a leadership internship. Her mentor from her Leadership and Influence course helped her secure a social media marketing internship at Securian Financial.

“My leadership courses gave me more confidence in my communication, especially in an already difficult virtual environment,” Silva-Sandoval says. “They also allowed me to feel comfortable asking more questions and to have pride in a huge presentation I had to give at the end of my internship.”

Darling Lee ’22 and Munaa Mohammed Cert’19, ’22 echo Silva-Sandoval’s experiences. Lee interned at Katie’s Closet, a free secondhand clothing service for St. Kate’s students and community members, run by business and fashion students.

“As an intern, I learned the importance of working for an organization that puts community first,” says Lee, a fashion and business student. Katie’s Closet interns promote sustainable shopping and close the gap for students experiencing financial insecurity in obtaining business-wear. Working for this common purpose, the interns build the entrepreneurial and leadership skills that are essential in today’s professional environment.

“Working at Katie’s Closet, you’re inspired to serve your community alongside the pursuit of the fashion and business industry with ethical values. I hope to carry these values into my next endeavors in life.” 

“My leadership experiences at St. Kate’s gave me the confidence and skills to go forward,” says Mohammed, a public health major minoring in leadership. “Thanks to my leadership classes and practicum, I’m now ready to be out there and pursue things [outside my comfort zone]. I have more confidence.”

Mohammed completed her practicum at her place of work, a large healthcare organization based in the Twin Cities. Mohammed and another colleague started a mentorship program there, pairing new employees in their department with a mentor who could help them learn the ins and outs of the organization and serve as a first point of contact for questions.

“Mentorship is a good way to create a support system, and helps with job satisfaction and transferring knowledge,” says Mohammed.


Inroads to Equity in an Evolving Future

St. Kate’s emphasis on women’s, particularly BIPOC women’s, leadership is both call and answer — a charge since 1905 to create equity in these areas, and a fulfillment of growing demand for this in all sectors.

“There’s a thirst for this type of overt leadership development,” Whitney says. “From fall 2020 to fall 2021, we saw a 77% increase in enrollment for our Leadership and Influence course.”

Additionally, the University has awarded 55 scholarships for the leadership minor and the Leadership and Influence course. Of the 4,000-plus students attending St. Kate’s, 38% are Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC), and the incoming first-year class is close to 50% BIPOC. Forty-two percent of students are Pell Grant-eligible — undergraduate students with exceptional financial need who have not earned a bachelor’s degree or higher — and 31% are first generation college students. While open to every undergraduate student, 50% of grant funding through Katie Leadership Impact goes to need-based financial support for underrepresented women, supporting the goals of students like Mohammed, who received a scholarship through the program. 

With leadership courses, practicum experiences, internships, and mentorship well underway, the University has additional plans to enhance Katie Leadership Impact. According to Whitney, St. Kate’s is currently focused on developing a women of color leadership speaker series, which launched on February 3 with an event with Kizzmekia Corbett, PhD. Other initiatives in motion include building career communities where students can explore career fields, network, and support each other, as well as creating an online community that helps connect alumni and current students.

“Through this program, I hope we’re changing the trajectory of students’ sense of the possibility of leadership and capacity for leadership, allowing them to be impactful in whatever they do,” says Whitney. “We want them to feel they have the right tools, confidence, and experience that allow them to take on leadership.”

Program director Namibia Little shares this vision. She visits classrooms across all St. Kate’s disciplines to share the possibilities the program offers students. Her hope for the future: that women students, especially BIPOC women, “see themselves as leaders and know they can effectively lead their families, communities, and careers,” Little says. “Our students are not merely our future leaders; they are leaders today. We are equipping them to serve and practically apply the education and experiences obtained at St, Kate’s to their future endeavors.”

Interested in being a career mentor? Get in touch with us: Katie Volunteer Program


By Melissa Neill, from St. Catherine University Magazine spring 2022 issue. Photos by Rebecca Slater '10 / By Rebecca Studios.


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