Yemi Akande-Bartsch, Ph.D. – who will be honored as Non-Profit Executive of the Year at the St. Louis American Foundation’s 2023 Salute to Excellence in Business on February 16 – has served as president and CEO of FOCUS St. Louis since 2014. Previously she served as vice president of Leadership and Alumni Programs for FOCUS, and had more than 20 years of experience in designing and facilitating leadership training, development, and coaching programs.
She holds a doctorate in communication (with a specialty in intercultural, organizational, and political communication) from the University of Oklahoma. She also earned two master’s degrees from the University of Oklahoma, in human relations and organizational development, and in public relations, journalism, and mass communication. She earned her bachelor’s degree in speech communication from Southwest Baptist University in Bolivar, Missouri. She serves on the boards of directors for the Sheldon Arts Foundation, Greater St. Louis, Inc. and the University of Health Sciences and Pharmacy.
The American spoke to her about FOCUS St. Louis’ future plans, how the organization has navigated the COVID-19 pandemic, and why, as a transplant to St. Louis, she continues to call this region home.
What is new and what is next for FOCUS St. Louis?
While FOCUS is always growing and evolving, I think this is a particularly exciting time for the organization. Last year, we had the good fortune of celebrating our 25th anniversary – both as an organization and for our signature “What’s Right with the Region Awards.” Now we are hard at work on a new strategic plan engaging our board leadership, staff, alumni, and other stakeholders in helping us to envision and chart our course for the coming years.
This year, more than 250 individuals will graduate from our leadership programs, taking with them the knowledge, resources, and networks so they can help make change not only in their own organizations, but our entire region. It’s been great to be back to in-person sessions for all our programs and to be able to offer participants the opportunity to get back out in the community so they can build face-to-face relationships. But we’ve also been grateful for the lessons and capabilities we gained from our time as a virtual learning provider.
In March, we will be wrapping up our Community Forum Series, hosted in partnership with the United Way of Greater St. Louis, which has been focused on some of the most pressing needs in our region – affordable housing, jobs/transportation, and behavioral health care. We’re also working on a new lineup of forums exploring workforce development issues, which we hope to announce soon. This is, of course, in addition to the ongoing variety of in-person and virtual opportunities we offer to our alumni and the community for leadership development and networking.
What is new and what is next for you personally?
Yemi Akande-Bartsch: On a personal level, I’m a relatively new mom and enjoying and savoring every moment with our daughter. I’m experiencing the world and leadership through her eyes, and it’s been refreshing and simply magical.
We’ve all heard the quote about enjoying the journey, not just the destination. I could go on about monumental expectations for the future, but that’s not where I am mentally and physically. I’m taking time to lean into lessons of the moment. My future personal journey is embedded in my present – and that is bringing leaders together to make a greater impact.
How has the pandemic impacted FOCUS St. Louis? What have you had to do differently to manage the crisis?
The coronavirus pandemic transformed civic issues and leadership education like no other event in recent memory. In a matter of days, many civic leadership programs closed their community campuses and moved classes online, altering every part of the educational experience.
As an organization, we have been very conscious about remaining true to our mission during the pandemic. During our 2019-2020 program year, as COVID-19 and social distancing forced a shift to online meetings, FOCUS quickly and successfully transitioned our programs and events to virtual sessions. Despite running our program in the virtual realm, FOCUS St. Louis continued to challenge our community to have the significant conversations that will shape the future of the St. Louis region.
Developing leaders in our region has always been at the heart of our mission and maintaining the FOCUS experience continues to be one of our top priorities. To facilitate this, we built an online campus community that continues to serve the organization beyond social distancing – making the FOCUS perspective, resources, knowledge, and network available to leaders 24/7. Historically, FOCUS has met our participants where they are – today that means where they are on their personal leadership journey and where and how they are best able to receive this training. We understand that the way people receive information is changing, as individuals are seeking learning opportunities to fit their schedules and health-risk tolerance levels.
Given the nature of leadership, it’s somewhat surprising that it can be taught – you know, “sit down, shut up and learn how to be a leader” seems a contradiction. How does one teach leadership?
It’s the great debate in leadership development as to which is more important – nature or nurture. I’d have to say both are equally important in the development of a leader. At FOCUS St. Louis, we view leadership training as a combination of self-awareness, civic issue education, leadership development, and experiential training to amplify strengths and minimize weaknesses. We have natural-born leaders who come to us to fine-tune their leadership skills and we have others who may not be natural leaders but learn about the leadership playbook in ways that strengthen their impact at work, at play, and in the community.
You have some interesting stickers on your luggage – Oklahoma, Bolivar, Missouri, and I know your family has roots in Nigeria. How did you come to St. Louis? What keeps you here?
When people ask me if I’m from St. Louis my response, however tongue in cheek, is, “I’m not from here and I didn’t go to high school here, but I did get here as quick as I could.” One of the most fulfilling aspects of my life is my affinity for travel to new places and spaces. I’ve had many, many enriching experiences that have filled me up spiritually and intellectually so that when I return home, I have a sense of the new and the possible. I come back rejuvenated and ready to take on challenging opportunities. And that’s how St. Louis came calling.
I’m happy and fulfilled to be in the St. Louis region. My focus is of course my family and FOCUS St. Louis. My family foundation is strong in that I am literally surrounded by those who love, support, and champion me – my husband Bill, our two-year-old daughter Alexandra, and two of my siblings A. Bola Akande, city administrator, City of Brentwood, and Benjamin Akande, senior vice president, Stifel Financial, and their families. And FOCUS St. Louis is a guide star for me in what can be accomplished when like-minded people put their heart into developing the world around them into a place for all.
Read any good books lately?
Lead to Win: How to Be a Powerful, Impactful, Influential Leader in Any Environment by Carla Harris, Straight Shooter: A Memoir of Second Chances and First Takes, by Stephen A. Smith, and Queen of Kindergarten by Derrick Barnes and Vanessa Brantley-Newton.
Any favorite podcasts?
Oprah’s Super Soul and Snap Judgment.
Most recent binge watch?
The Chef’s Table, a Netflix series, and a Masterclass leadership series featuring Lewis Hamilton, British racing driver.
Afrobeats and world music.
Jollof rice and pepper soup.
Habit you’re trying to break?
I have a sweet tooth.
New Year’s Resolutions?
I haven’t had a New Year’s Resolution in a while because it is always a moving target. That said, two words that I’m meditating on this month are “transformation” and “impact.”
The misconception of St. Louis you’d like to correct?
Change and progress isn’t possible. It’s already underway.