By Kathy Wagner
In our continuing celebration of women making history during Women’s History Month, we feature an interview with Andi Kornak, Deputy Executive Director of Cleveland Metroparks Zoo. Note that this interview was condensed and edited for clarity.
What excites you now about your work?
We now have more collaborative work in our communities within AZA, with SAFE programming and greater synergy on population sustainability. I also love helping to develop future leaders, building capacity and hoping we are leaving the future a better place for them to continue the journey.
I’m a lifelong learner and a teacher—sharing my experiences and my mistakes. I’m going back to school now for an MBA in executive leadership, and I’ve completed AZA’s ELDP program.
What are some of the pivotal moments that brought you to this point as a leader?
Prior to coming to Cleveland, I worked at Binder Park Zoo for 18 years where I experienced a pivotal point in my career—opening Wild Africa, a 40-acre expansion that more than doubled the size of the Zoo. The Zoo’s leaders trusted their teams and were right next to them for their successes and failures. The way they developed their teams made me want to build my own teams and continue to elevate my career. I came to Cleveland for their program and great staff. It was a large campus of learning for me. The team inspired and taught me, they allowed me to come to the table when I didn’t always have the skills, and they supported me. I learned a lot from them; they opened doors for me. Dr. Kristin Lukas has been really inspirational. She taught me so much—the talent here allows me to keep learning and developing other staff.
What advice do you wish someone had given you?
I wish I had given myself advice not to fly under the radar all the time; to know that it’s okay to acknowledge your accomplishments. Others have told me ‘you are more than ready for the next step, so stop doubting and have confidence.’ My advice to others would be to reach out to those you can learn from and be proactive. Managing your career is like managing your healthcare—you need to advocate for yourself.
Was there a time when your gender was a barrier to your success/advancement? Or maybe gave you an edge?
It’s been both. A constraint, when early in my career, women had to demonstrate that they could do animal care jobs not just with strength or size but by innovating and finding new approaches. Being a woman has also been an advantage, “leaning in” to other women in positions where they are underrepresented and supporting them, listening, and helping them gain confidence.
How do you find a source of renewal and replenishment?
Learning feeds my passion. It replenishes and challenges me; I can always learn. It’s very fulfilling having a close set of zoo colleagues I can count on—both men and women; we support each other. I’m also fulfilled by seeing the development of emerging leaders and students in AZA courses. It’s exciting to think “that’s someone I could work for.” And, I pull weeds after a stressful day!
How would you tell others to save the world?
Saving the world can be overwhelming—bring it down a little bit. Every one of us can do something to leave the world a better place—be engaged with your local community, be an advocate, widen your lens outside of your community, support your zoo or aquarium, but start with your community first.
Reach behind, support the next generation of leaders. Make space at the table and be willing to be brought to the table yourself. Think about who you can learn from. Be intentional and reach out.