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Education

Swain Center Chief’s Career Pivot

By Lynda Van Kuren, posted Jan 5, 2024
Yolanda Pollard serves as director of the Swain Center for Executive Education and Economic Development. The center is part of the University of North Carolina Wilmington’s Cameron School of Business. (Photo by Terah Hoobler)
Not everyone has the courage to make a major career transition and relocate across the country. But Yolanda Pollard isn’t everyone.  

Pollard traded in her 30-year career working with corporate leaders on strategic communication to serve as the new director of the Swain Center for Executive Education and Economic Development. The Swain Center, part of the University of North Carolina Wilmington’s Cameron School of Business, works to enhance the effectiveness of organizations in the Cape Fear region by providing economic services and executive education. 

Pollard said the switch to higher education was a natural transition, as higher education plays an integral role in creating corporate leaders. 

“The academic setting is where leadership and theory evolve,” Pollard said. “I wanted to go back to the starting point to support that effort and proactively bring that knowledge to other people.” 

Pollard has held multiple corporate leadership roles herself. At Entergy Corporation, a Fortune 500 utility company, Pollard started as a communications manager. After holding consecutively more responsible positions, she ended her tenure there as the director of corporate media relations. Pollard’s career path followed a similar trajectory at GE Vernova, the portfolio of GE’s global power business, and she ultimately served as the organization’s senior communications leader. 

Throughout her career, Pollard worked alongside top executive leaders, advising them on everything from employee engagement to interacting with Wall Street analysts. Along the way, she saw how leaders improve and how their development impacts the business environment, which sparked her interest in leadership development and executive education.  

“The academic setting shaped many of the leaders I had the opportunity and fortune to work with,” Pollard said. “The academic setting is where leadership and theory evolve. I wanted to go back to the starting point, to support that effort and bring that knowledge to people proactively.”
 
Pollard took a page from the executives she admired and invested in her own professional development, earning her doctorate in executive leadership from the University of Holy Cross.
  
Armed with her new degree, Pollard wanted to find the right place for a new career. Several factors made the Swain Center the right fit, she said, including UNCW’s growth, its recent high research designation and the university’s new leadership.  

“It is a good time to come in as leadership is changing, and I am making a transition as well,” Pollard said.  

In only six months on the job, Pollard has taken several steps to expand the Swain Center’s programming. 

Pollard first met with existing and potential clients, UNCW faculty and staff and the Swain Center’s advisory board, which gave her a better understanding of the region and the Swain Center’s client base. Pollard also studied her predecessor’s Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats (SWOT) analysis.  

From the background work, Pollard developed a strategic plan and new goals for the organization. High on Pollard’s list of priorities is ensuring the Swain Center offers programs executives need to lead today’s – and tomorrow’s – workforce, such as resilience, data management and data analytics, and how to lead startup environments.  

Pollard also wants to help executives successfully manage startup environments. 

“It’s very important that we support leaders … so that they’re able to manage employees in an environment that evolves very quickly,” Pollard said.  

Another of Pollard’s goals is to repurpose the Swain Center’s existing programming for other organizations. For example, she said the Swain Center’s programming for the health care industry is suitable for other types of organizations.   

While implementing these additions to the Swain Center’s offerings, Pollard also tracks and monitors the area’s economic development and the location of new businesses.  

Pollard is involved in outreach as well. She is among the first to contact organizations and businesses moving to Wilmington. In addition to sharing background information about the Swain Center, Pollard provides information about the region’s business environment and explains how the Swain Center can help these businesses succeed in that environment.  

Even though the Swain Center’s programming focuses on individual leadership, Pollard said its impact reaches far beyond a person or a particular business. She said good, or great, leadership is integral to a city’s economic development and progress. 

“The work we do at the Swain Center prepares leaders for their roles in organizations and also positions the region for growth,” Pollard said. “The leadership development programs prepare leaders and employees to attract and retain the skill set needed to grow the region and position it to attract additional businesses over time.” 

Pollard used professional development to forge her path to success.  

“One of the ways I have worked through obstacles is leadership development and executive education,” Pollard said. “The more I developed as a professional, the more I was prepared to work and succeed in any setting.” 

In leading the Swain Center, Pollard may be taking an unconventional career path, but it is one she is most happy to pursue.  

“My philosophy is that leaders equipped with the skill set for managing and developing others naturally open doors for others,” Pollard said. “Opening doors for those leaders to be lifelong learners is an exciting opportunity for me.” 

Editor’s note: Yolanda Pollard was included in the latest WilmingtonBiz 100 list as a Connector. To read more about why and info on the other members, pick up the current issue of WilmingtonBiz Magazine or go to WilmingtonBizMagazine.com.
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