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October 5, 2022

Championing Leaders Through Times of Transition

Kathayoon Khalil

By: Kathayoon Khalil, PhD

Foreword by David Walsh

We have exciting news to share about our team. On January 1st, Kathayoon Khalil, PhD will be moving into a full-time role as Associate Vice President of Conservation Learning at the New England Aquarium. With this change, she’ll take an Of Counsel role with Canopy Strategic Partners, stepping back from her position as Director of Engagement.

“We’re so thrilled to see Kathayoon take this next step in her career and be able to continue to offer her passion, energy, and influence to the Aquarium and throughout the AZA community. Our clients have greatly benefited from her expertise, and we look forward to having her stay involved and connected with Canopy’s breadth of initiatives,” said David Walsh, Canopy’s President.

To know the story of how this all came to be, read on for Kathayoon’s personal journey to this new opportunity:

At the risk of overusing this statement, it has been a wild couple of years.

Prior to joining Canopy (nee Zoo Advisors), I’d been keenly aware of the work David and his team had been doing. I remember attending the first Women in Leadership conference session. The room was completely packed and HOT from the sheer volume of people who came to listen to female directors share their experiences. I hung on every word, invigorated both by the speakers and by the room full of participants, starving for these conversations. I remember being invited to my first Next Gen Leaders cocktail event; previously feeling like I was invisible in the circles I wanted to occupy. This was the first time I felt noticed, felt seen. And I remember meeting with David and Kathy at conferences where they wanted to know what I was up to, hear about my work and ambitions, and provide advice and support. As a young professional floating in an ocean of possibility and often feeling adrift, these interactions gave me grounding and a safe place to land.

Like so many people, my life was completely overturned by the pandemic. In December of 2020, I was unexpectedly laid off from my dream job. For the first time in many years, maybe ever, I seriously doubted whether I’d be able to remain in the zoo and aquarium field. I owned a house in Portland, my fiancé had gotten into medical school, and jobs were hard to come by. Twenty minutes after receiving word of my layoff, I had to sit on a Zoom call to brainstorm new avenues for Canopy’s Women in Leadership initiative (I think…it’s kind of a blur). David, Kathy, and Jackie were on the call, as well as many of my role models in our field. Kathy asked us to introduce ourselves with our name and institution. I frantically tried to breathe and center myself by scrolling through cat memes on my phone, but when my turn came, I just burst into tears. I had no institution. I had no position. I had no idea what I was going to do. Since I was a high school student, I had been trying to land a full-time job at my home zoo. I had finally done it…and suddenly it was all gone. When I got off the call, David reached out to see if we could talk about making this tragedy into an opportunity. A few days later, he offered me the Director of Engagement position and I enthusiastically accepted. Once again, Canopy had offered me a safe place to land in a moment when I really, really needed it.

Over the last two years, I’ve had the amazing opportunity to work with many of our clients through strategic planning work, the Women in Leadership initiative, and our efforts to support emerging leaders and the BIPOC community. I’ve been able to work alongside my dear friends Charles Hopper and Lori Perkins to launch our Speechless podcast and I’ve learned so much about the person and professional I want to be.

Over a year ago, I joined Kathy to work on a strategic framework for the New England Aquarium. With my origins in education, this was a new and energizing way to think about how our institutions could rebuild and re-engage in this work in a more impactful way. While attending the Directors Policy Conference, I received an unexpected call from Vikki Spruill, the Aquarium’s President and CEO, asking me to help with the next steps in bringing the framework to fruition. It took us a few months, but we developed an interim position that would allow me to stay with Canopy but work more closely with the New England Aquarium staff as the leader of the Conservation Learning department. Interim positions in our field are not common but can provide a much-needed opportunity to pause, pivot, and then proceed without letting the work lag or overburdening already busy staff members. At the Aquarium, my time as interim allowed me to connect with the remaining learning staff as well as the executive team, get to know the Aquarium culture and context, and bring the voice of conservation learning to the senior leadership. I worked a hybrid schedule, spending some time on-site and some time back in Portland.

Before I transitioned into the interim role, I remember clearly telling David that there was no way I’d take the role full-time…Boston was too far from Portland, and I didn’t want to move away from Oregon quite yet. I had projects at Canopy that I was excited about, including the opportunity to work in future interim positions. In fact, I told this to many of my friends and colleagues. So, I’ll be the first to say that I’m as surprised (maybe more) as anyone to take this next step in my career, but I’m confident it’s the right move to take. And while change is always hard, I’m happy knowing that I’ll still be able to be part of the Canopy team, continuing to co-host Speechless and help to advance the work that we’ve been doing with women in leadership and emerging leaders.

At the Aquarium, I’ll lead my own department for the first time. The opportunities to evolve, innovate, and impact both the Aquarium’s communities and the AZA world at large are exciting and – at this moment – seemingly boundless. It’s been years since I managed my own staff, but as a shameless extrovert and empath, it feels like a natural fit; this is a gap in my resume that I’ve recognized for a long time as something that I know I can do but haven’t yet had the chance to prove. Running a department from 3,000 miles away poses unique challenges, but my staff are incredibly adept at managing their programs, allowing me more space to provide vision and oversight (but still popping in each month for some in-person time!). I’m humbled and honored to work with this team, hit so incredibly hard by the pandemic, to rebuild programming and staff morale and reposition the Aquarium as a leader in ocean conservation. As I – and the Aquarium – embark on this unconventional adventure, I’m committed to sharing what we learn along the way and finding new ways to contribute to our community.

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