From a Small Town to Making It Big Featuring: Amy Waninger
Amy Waninger is the Founder and CEO of Lead at Any Level LLC. I met Amy through the network of a former colleague. Our connection is proof that when the time is right to connect with someone, you will connect. I invited Amy to be in my LinkedIn network in the summer of 2017 with a personalized message. Amy accepted, but didn’t see the message. Several months later, she reached out and apologized for missing my message. We quickly connected, had an amazing exchange, and after learning that she grew up in a triangle of small towns with a population total of 4,263, I knew who my next guest on the blog would be. Thanks, Amy for sharing your story!
Where did you grow up? Amy grew up in the tri-town area of Santa Claus (Population 2,463); Dale (Population 1,532) and Gentryville (Population 268) in Spencer County, Indiana. Her county has a total population of less than 20,000. Amy graduated with 85 classmates from one of two high schools in Spencer County.
What has been your geographic journey from the time you left your small town? After graduating from high school, Amy attended The University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee. She ultimately decided to return closer to home to complete her undergraduate degree at Indiana University in Bloomington, where she stayed for several years.
She steadily worked her way north and moved to Morresville and eventually Fishers, Indiana, a suburb of Indianapolis, where she has lived for three years.
What has been your academic journey? Amy’s parents instilled in her that she needed to go to college. In her small town, the only people who she knew who went to college were teachers, doctors and lawyers. The other professions Amy had exposure to were primarily farming, retail, and factory work. Even though she saw attending college as mandatory, it was unclear what that meant for her future profession.
As Amy says, “I thought engineering was about trains. I thought people went to business school so they could be receptionists or bank tellers.”
When Amy got to college, she was suddenly challenged by what to study that would prepare her for white collar work.
Amy’s academic path is a good case study in what happens when everything and nothing seem possible all at once.
As she put it, her undergrad major was “in everything”. She started out as pre-med. She also knew she wanted to write a book someday, so she majored in English. She ended up with a criminal justice major with a minor in sociology and Spanish and was one class shy of having an African American studies major. She thought these majors would put her on the path to law school, one of the white collar professions she had exposure to in Spencer County. After learning how much law school cost, and knowing her passion would be to serve as a pro-bono civil rights lawyer, she decided to forgo law school and join the workforce.
Her first jobs out of college were not satisfying and at one point, a co-worker encouraged her to consider computer science. She ended up going back for a second degree in computer science with a minor in math.
What is your professional journey? When Amy graduated with her degree in Computer Science, she was working in IT. This was around the time of the Y2K bubble. She cycled through six roles in a very short period of time due to both industry instability and downsizing.
The first time Amy was laid off, she was six months pregnant with no network. This led to a sense of panic. The third time she was laid off, she was told that her job was going to be outsourced to India. Instead of reacting in panic, Amy doubled down and learned as much as she could. She offered to travel to India to train the people who would be taking her job. This is one of the greatest memories for Amy. She still gets phone calls from the people she met while in India. She said it never occurred to her growing up in her small town that she would have friends on the other side of the world who would call her on her birthday.
Currently, Amy wears several hats. By day, she is an IT management professional in the insurance industry. By evening, weekend, and the minutes in between, Amy is the Founder and CEO of Lead at Any Level, LLC. Her company promotes in-the-trenches leadership, diversity and inclusion, and career management through career coaching, public speaking, and her forthcoming book, Network Beyond Bias: Making Diversity a Competitive Advantage for Your Career.
How has your small town upbringing allowed you to be successful in your professional life? When you live in a small town, there is no such thing as an unimportant job. The guy who works at the carwash is as important to the community as the dentist. Because there is only one of everyone in a small town, they are a crucial component to the fabric of the community. Not only is their role important, but you also know them personally. This perspective allows Amy to appreciate everyone in all jobs.
Not only does Amy appreciate the people she works with, she also is grateful for the professional opportunities she has had. She realizes how far she has come from her blue collar upbringing and reflects continually on the world that has opened up to her now that she has been exposed to numerous companies, professions and industries.
Overall, Amy recognizes that we have a lot to gain in our busy lives by simply acknowledging and connecting with each person – regardless of whether they greet us at the front door or sit in the C-suite.
When did you have your first “We’re not in Kansas anymore, Toto” moment? Amy experiences moments when she still feels like a blue-collar person in a white collar world. During her internship, she was called in to the manager’s office and was offered a full-time job. At the time, she still had to finish school and was confused at why they would offer her a job when she hadn’t finished yet. Because she was never exposed to this hiring process, she didn’t know it was normal to get a job offer before graduation. Even stranger to her was when the manager was describing the cafeteria benefits plan. Amy said the internal dialogue that happened at the time was “But I’ll just bring my own lunch.”
Beyond figuring out the norms of office life, Amy has also had these “we’re not in Indiana” moments when traveling for work. Her trip to India was eye opening. She was in a place that smelled, looked and sounded different.
Even while traveling state-side, Amy has had eye opening moments. While traveling early in her career in New Jersey, she and her colleague were lost. Amy volunteered to hop out at the next gas station for directions. She said in her town, someone would nearly drive you to your destination if you were lost. This was not her experience with the gas station attendant in New Jersey, who didn’t think giving directions was something he had to do. She definitely didn’t feel like she was in small town Indiana anymore!
What experience is the most memorable from your time in a small town? Amy has vivid memories of hog wrestling – as a spectator only. The premise is that you put a pig in a mud pit with an industrial-sized spool in the middle. Teams of four run in and try to get the pig on top of the spool. The team with the best time wins and gets a trophy. Afterward, they get washed off with a fire hose. You can’t get much more country that this! Check out a demonstration featuring friends of Amy!
Where do you get your passion for diversity and inclusion? While speaking with Amy, I told her I was going to make an assumption and I needed her to correct me if I was wrong. I told her from my view, I’m looking at a straight, white woman living and working in the Midwest – so where does the passion for diversity originate? She stopped me and said until recently, she might not have corrected me. However, she recently came out as bisexual at her company and has committed to being a more visible member of the LGBTQ community.
Amy was raised in a town where racial diversity was not the norm. She remembers only one biracial family. This made her curious from a very young age about African American issues. She read poetry, history, and literature from African-American perspectives. She continued this interest into college and was one class shy of having an African American studies major.
She points out that there are so many parallels between African American and LGBT issues and she wanted to be an advocate for change. She started blogging at work about diversity and asking how she could do her part in Indianapolis. That’s when she was introduced to the Diversity Officer at her company. Until that moment, she had no idea that diversity could be a job. Since then, she has continued to show up in ways that was unexpected for someone working in the Midwest office. She’s marched in Pride parades. She’s spoken at women’s workshops.
Amy’s bottom line is that we can only ask for the support we are willing to give other people. She continually asks herself, “Whose struggle am I ignoring?” Put yourself in Amy’s shoes (or wheels) for this example. While coordinating her employer’s participation in a recent Pride parade, she volunteered to pick up wheelchairs for the associates who were unable to walk the entire route, but otherwise don’t use a wheelchair. In the few-block journey from her minivan to the parade, when she was pushing her own children, she noticed how bumpy and uneven the sidewalks were. That gave her new appreciation for people whose daily lives require navigating broken sidewalks and crooked curbs from a wheelchair or behind a walker.
We all ignore what is easy for us to ignore. If we stop doing this, we could lift each other up.
What is the most important lesson you took with you from your small town upbringing? Amy has a concise list that we can all learn from:
- Every job is valuable
- We can’t discount people because of the type of work they do
- People are not to be thrown away
- Look out for eveyone
Throughout her career, Amy’s managers and co-workers have commented on how she treats everyone with respect. She doesn’t treat people differently based on their level. It’s frustrating for Amy to witness others not giving equal respect to all people.
Amy has also been given a lot of grace in her career, and in turn, she does the same. In one of her early travel experiences, she didn’t know you had to turn in your valet ticket for your luggage at the hotel. She made it two hours to a field office without her luggage. When she revealed this to her manager who she was traveling with, they made the return drive so she could get her luggage. People make mistakes because they have never been in the situation, not because they are stupid. Amy gives people the benefit of the doubt.
How have you brought the small town spirit with you in life? Amy talks to people and has built community where she is. That community is not always geographical. She has built diversity committees and Employee Resource Groups. She sees her role as reaching out to people who don’t feel a sense of community where they are and invites them to connect. Within those communities, Amy empowers others to share their experiences, which becomes the foundation for building strong connections.
What advice would you give kids who are growing up in your hometown today?
Visit people in other places and learn about what they do.
Go to job fairs and ask “What do you do for a job and how did you get there?”
It’s such a big world. If you don’t get out and see any of it, you don’t know what’s out there to experience.
Want to be one of the first to have a copy of her book? Pre-order it here!