Soon after relocating from Chicago to St. Thomas in 2015 to pursue a job opportunity with an Economic Development Commission company, Joanne Simon-Walters observed that the University of the Virgin Islands (UVI) was launching a PhD in Creative Leadership for Innovation and Change.
She was intrigued.
“It was described as a trans-disciplinary program that would encompass business, education, public administration, and healthcare which are all areas I have worked in during my professional career. In addition, the program aligned with my motivation for moving back home which was to be an integral part of the economic development of the territory by contributing my time and talents to the conversation regarding the global positioning of the U.S. Virgin Islands.”Joanne Simon-Walters
Simon-Walters is among the program’s first cohort to graduate.
Simon-Walters, who also earned a graduate certificate in Organizational Development & Leadership, said the doctoral program went beyond her academic achievement.
“I experienced transformative growth on a personal level which translated into professional growth as well,” she noted. “When I applied, I shared that I intended to complete my research on investing in agricultural technologies by leveraging public-private partnerships with the goal of improving food security in the USVI. After returning home eight years ago, I was disheartened to learn that we imported most of our food. At the time, 97 per cent of our food was shipped in.”
“Though solving our food security concerns was still significant to me, where I wanted to focus my research shifted as I got deeper into my studies. I eventually developed a second topic which I turned into a TEDx St. Thomas talk that I delivered in 2017. Then Hurricanes Irma and Maria devastated the territory that Fall which, again, caused me to reflect on taking my research in a new direction that led me briefly back to agriculture being a central focus of my research. After losing my father, completing my first 10K the next day and attaining my first executive level professional role, my research took yet another turn into exploring Black women executive employment experiences.”
She said the doctoral program helped her find her professional voice.
“I had an executive recruiter describe me once as ‘having all the pieces, but there is just a certain something missing’,” said Simon-Walters. “I interpreted that at the time as lacking executive presence. What I realized through my PhD journey is that the missing element was confidence. Corporate America can wear you down over time. Having to ‘wear the mask’ or code-switch daily can sometimes make you lose a sense of who you really are. My PhD journey applied just the right amount of pressure to force me to either give up or find my true self so that I could keep fighting. I did both. I gave up a few times but, in the end just like my career, I chose to put myself back in the ring and go for the win.”
Simon-Walters has contributed a chapter to an upcoming book co-edited by UVI faculty members Drs. Kula Francis and Anna Clarke.
‘Women of Colour and Hair Bias in the Work Environment’ explores the experiences of professional women of colour who have had experiences of uncertainty, self-consciousness, or different treatment and/or discrimination because of their natural hairstyle choices.
As an executive who has worn her hair in locks for nearly 25 years, Simon-Walters was excited to contribute her perspective.
In addition, she recently spoke at the Humanities in the Workplace interdisciplinary conference at the University of Pittsburgh and is developing and delivering online courses with LinkedIn Learning on various leadership topics.
Born in St. Thomas and accepted to UVI Early Admission program on a full scholarship after Grade 11, she transferred to the C.T. Bauer College of Business at the University of Houston, where she completed a Bachelor of Business Administration with a concentration in Finance.
Simon-Walters, who also has a Master of Business Administration (MBA) with a concentration on Technology Management, said her passion for higher education came from her mother and older siblings.
Raised in the Oswald Harris Court community in St. Thomas, Simon-Walters said being resilient was her biggest takeaway growing up in the USVI.
“My parents immigrated from Antigua which is also the birthplace of my nine siblings and dozens of aunts, uncles and cousins,” she said. “Like many immigrants, transitioning to the USVI had its obstacles. My identity as a Virgin Islander was challenged at times. My parents were steadfast in their faith and I grew up knowing that, with hard work and focus, I could change my situation.”
“In a nutshell, the possibilities are infinite, and the future seems bright because of achieving my PhD,” added Simon-Walters.
Simon-Walters is appreciative of her husband of 20 years for supporting her and oftentimes carrying the heavier part of the parenting load for their two children that were just 4 and 8 when she embarked on this