Editor’s note: KCultivators is a new, lighthearted profile series we’re kicking off to highlight people who are meaningfully enriching Kansas City’s entrepreneurial ecosystem. Check out our first profile with Donald Carter here.
You may know Susan Wally as CEO of the education nonprofit Prep-KC, a member of KC Rising’s Human Capital committee or as a board member at Wayside Waifs.
But in her free time, she’s encouraging not only her peers, but Kansas City as a whole to embrace an entrepreneurial mindset.
“I think anyone who’s running a successful business or enterprise in the 21st century has to be more and more innovative and more entrepreneurial,” Wally said. “And if you’re in a big organization, you have to be intrapreneurial.
Wally is passionate about creating a pathway to high-quality jobs for students in urban areas, and that’s exactly what Prep KC is focused on. This spring, she is launching a pilot program that will match teachers with industry professionals to enhance student engagement.
“We need to help their teachers learn more about the 21st-century workplace,” Wally said. “We call it industry informed instruction.
In continuation of the KCultivators profile series, Startland News sat down with Wally to learn more about what makes her tick.
Job: President and CEO of Prep-KC
Twitter handle: @PrepKC
Hometown: I was raised in McPherson, Kan., but have spent my adult life in the Kansas City area. I’m now in Leawood.
Favorite drink: At 5 o’clock in the morning, my husband and I both make a pot of strong coffee, and the first cup of coffees is always awesome! For the evening, sometimes a glass of white wine. On the weekends, a good martini.
A startup idea you don’t mind if readers steal: It’s not exactly a startup idea, but what has blown me away is to see when we bring professionals from different industries together with kids it’s just amazing how the light bulbs come on for kids — especially urban kids who don’t have a lot of professionals in their lives. If I could, I would say an organization where every kid in all six urban districts in Kansas City had an adult professional to talk to them about their career pathway and coach them along their way.
A historical figure you’d like to have coffee with and why: I would really like to talk with President Truman. In my opinion, he made some of the 20th Century’s toughest decisions. It’s still controversial that he chose to drop the bomb, but I am fascinated with his decision to racially integrate the military — it wasn’t integrated before. He got lots of backlash for doing that but it has actually served us well going forward. Diversity makes us better, in most cases. I would have loved to pick his brain. I see him as a man of character.
Weirdest thing you’ve eaten: When I was growing up, there was a state run game preserve near McPherson, Kan. that had buffalo on it — because of course buffalo used to run the plains. Every spring you could buy tickets to a buffalo barbecue, and that was a big deal in my family growing up.
The animal you’d want to become in your next life: I have a strange affinity for elephants. The more I learn about them, the more I respect them as a species and I want to protect them. They live in communities and protect their young and elderly as a community and they experience emotions. I worry about them because of poaching and loss of habitat.
You’re up to bat for the Royals, what’s your walk-up song: I’d say something like Eye of the Tiger because I’d want to get pumped.
The KC’s biggest area for improvement: I think that we need to do a better job crossing boundaries. All kinds of boundaries, like geography — west and east of Troost, downtown vs. the suburbs. And of course race and income boundaries, the usual suspects. Kansas City is growing up and I’m proud of the work we are doing but we could be better.
Favorite food joint in KC: Extra Virgin. Great place to sit at the bar, great people watching and a great bartender named Berto.
An influential book in your life: The complete works of Robert Frost. I love the way he uses the economy of words to make such profound statements and I continue to be impressed with him.
What keeps you in Kansas City: Why wouldn’t you want to be in KC right now? This is the time to be in Kansas City. We’re known for having a healthy diversity of business with different specialties. It’s not like Silicon Valley — we aren’t dependent on one industry. Traditionally, we don’t have high highs or low lows, economically.
New technology that you’re most excited about: Self-driving cars — I could get more work done on my way to work if I didn’t have to drive.
What you would do if you weren’t in your line of work: I think I might want to be someone that is involved in protecting the natural world, in some way. Whether that be endangered species or conversation. Maybe a botanist innovating around food sources or working on the legal side behind conservation. I’ve always thought that was really interesting.
What pisses you off: I get really angry when people don’t take the time to understand the impact they have on the environment. The more privileged we are, we ought to be more protective of the natural world and I don’t think we do that enough. We need to educate people.
Favorite KC organization or brand: One program of Wayside Waifs that I enjoy is called No More Bullying. It’s a curriculum for young children and goes into 3rd, 4th and 5th-grade classes and the teachers — who are employees of Wayside — teach young children empathy and compassion by taking care of animals, which translates to better treatment of people.
What you hope you’re remembered for: I’d like to be remembered for being a part of the solution. Creating access to educational and employment opportunities for all kids, no matter what zip code.
Biggest failure: I wish I had learned some of the lessons of how to do the work I’m doing now earlier and faster. I am still learning and reflecting all the time, the failure is wishing I was a faster learner because maybe I could have done more.
An inspiration in your life: Ewing Marion Kauffman. In 1990, Mr. K hired me as an associate and it was an honor to work for him. I managed his big scholarship project at the time, Project Choice. It was such an honor to work with him. What I remember the most about him is that he asked good questions. In some ways, he caused people to think hard about the work they were doing at the foundation because he asked good questions. I learned a lot from him.
You can’t invest or save it — how would you spend $1 million: I would pay tuition for a lot more urban kids to get into college.
Man crush: My husband. He still keeps his sense of humor, even when things are serious.
Favorite travel locale: Telluride, Colo.
Your mantra or motto: Onward.
Hidden talent or ability: Gentling and training a horse. I had this beautiful little saddlebred filly that I bought years ago, and when I bought her I decided I was going to gentle her myself. With some good coaching, I mostly gentled her. It was kind of like having a big dog. She was playful when she was young. I was always proud of myself. I got thrown off, I got dirty and got myself back up and I guess that’s something nobody would guess.