TCC president sees herself as a servant leader

By: Nora Firestone
Inside Business, September 26, 2016

Photography by: Harry Gerwien

Edna Baehre-Kolovani sailed across the room like a breeze: cool, swift and quietly in command. She’s a welcome presence to faculty, students and proponents of Tidewater Community College, where this veteran leader in higher education spends the bulk of her time and heart since her 2012 inauguration as its fifth president in almost 50 years.

August sunlight poured through the colossal windows and over majestic-blue walls, hardwood furnishings, potted plants and framed memorabilia. A small plaque conferring the Morehouse College 2007 Gandhi, King, Ikeda Award for Peace faced her office door as if to greet entrants with a quiet assurance that this executive leads by service, not selfdom.

She’d already met with Bryan Stephens, president and CEO of the Hampton Roads Chamber of Commerce, and Bill Crow, president of the Virginia Ship Repair Association, to discuss roles for a new network of local centers to assist military veterans separating from service to successfully transition into a civilian workforce. For many, this would include further education or workforce training for job readiness, a realm that Baehre-Kolovani has steadfastly championed at TCC by partnering with businesses and industry leaders to gauge demands and enhance or develop high-quality programs.

Later she’d meet with other movers and shakers regarding numerous initiatives designed to positively affect people, education, business and opportunities throughout the region.

Now she broke for a brief, informal photo shoot with Robert Guess, associate professor of information systems technology and principal director of the college’s cybersecurity center. He’d arrived to celebrate and document the school’s recent designation as a National Center of Academic Excellence in Cyber Defense Two-Year Education by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and the National Security Agency. With authority granted by Baehre-Kolovani, Guess had devoted countless hours over the course of a year to the application process. His hard work and her ardent support paid off in May, when TCC became one of only three community colleges statewide to have achieved the designation. The award endorsed TCC for significant contributions in meeting the national demand and the highest industry and government standards for educating and developing a growing number of professionals with cyber defense expertise for the critical work of securing, protecting and defending the nation’s complex information infrastructure.

While Baehre-Kolovani embraces such distinction on behalf of the school, she sees herself as a humble “servant leader” in all causes and gave credit where due:

“You have every right to be proud of what you accomplished for the college,” she told Guess.

“It’s not me; it’s the institution,” Guess replied, likeminded. “This is a signifier of an institutional commitment to cyber defense education, and we are fortunate to live in an area where there are jobs, and these jobs pay very well. We’re going to do everything we can to help ensure that we have a cyber-savvy workforce.”

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the national median annual wage for information security analysts exceeded $90,000 in 2015. Increasingly high demand prompts a projected growth of employment in the field of 18 percent from 2014 to 2024. Guess, Baehre-Kolovani and others involved in TCC’s expanding cybersecurity education programs have spearheaded the mission to position the college as a leading developer of talent with this expertise.

a new term and a fresh eye

Those who know Baehre-Kolovani best say it’s this level of desire, devotion and ability to act on behalf of others that makes her a great leader.

Joseph F. Bouchard, now vice chair of the Tidewater Community College Educational Foundation, was among those who’d interviewed the most recent presidential candidates for TCC and conveyed their recommendations to the Virginia Community College System chancellor.

“Edna was articulate, sincere and enthusiastic; I think everyone who interviewed her or had a chance to meet with her concluded she would be a strong, effective advocate for TCC,” Bouchard recalled. “I was impressed by her understanding of the role of a community college in the community, her vision for Tidewater Community College and her grasp of the importance of workforce training programs.”

As the second largest college in the Virginia Community College System, TCC serves some 40,000 students a year, including approximately 14,000 who are military-related, with four full-size campuses – Chesapeake, Norfolk, Portsmouth and Virginia Beach – and six regional centers, including its Advanced Technology Center and its Center for Military and Veterans Education in Virginia Beach and Centers for Workforce Solutions in Suffolk and Virginia Beach. With 12 nationally accredited programs, it’s also the country’s 17th-largest producer of associate degrees among two-year colleges. And, like any other, it’s had its challenges.

According to Bouchard, for several years prior to Baehre-Kolovani’s arrival, TCC’s priority had been preparing students for four-year colleges. “That was appropriate because the ‘echo boom’ generation was applying to colleges in record numbers, making competition intense and acceptance rates low,” he explained. “Transferring from a community college was the only way many students could get into a four-year college.”

Unfortunately, he noted, that focus resulted in TCC’s workforce the training programs languishing and growing concern within the Hampton Roads business community that TCC couldn’t meet their needs in certain job-readiness realms. “So, for members of the business community like myself, listening to Edna describe her vision for TCC’s workforce training programs and the role that TCC could and should play in regional economic development was exciting and signaled a welcome change in TCC’s priorities,” Bouchard said.

Ruth Jones Nichols concurred.

“I listened to her [inauguration] speech about the opportunities ahead and left feeling very strongly that she was going to do amazing things for our community as TCC’s new president,” she said. “At a time when student enrollment was declining and student demographic characteristics were shifting, she outlined a visionary plan that would enhance learning opportunities and offer comprehensive supportive services to ensure student success.”

During three years to follow, Baehre-Kolovani and Nichols, then executive director for the YWCA South Hampton Roads, collaborated effectively to make higher education more accessible to mothers by establishing affordable, licensed child-development centers on TCC’s four campuses.

Baehre-Kolovani successfully wrangled several other critical objectives, including developing a five-year strategic plan promoting “One college, one voice, one future,” by which she involved more than 400 faculty and staff to help define and support their goals toward unification of the individual campuses and focus on key areas of workforce development, academic excellence, student success, efficient use of resources and philanthropic growth. Dual-enrollment programs that she established with Chesapeake and Virginia Beach high schools now enable students to graduate high school with industry-related credentials and a jump start on their college degrees.

And under her leadership, TCC has received significant support for multiple pursuits, including a $3 million grant to continue hosting the Southeast Maritime and Transportation Center for maritime career training and $1 million in grants from the Office of Naval Research for initiatives that support academic achievement, employability and continuing education for military and other students.

The recent cybersecurity education designation better positions the school for additional grants, Baehre-Kolovani added, and, according to Guess, the expanding program’s enrollment is up 50 percent since a year ago.

In addition, the Virginia Apprenticeship Council in June approved the state’s first-ever Virginia Department of Labor and Industry cybersecurity apprenticeship programs, which will facilitate the placement of some cyber defense students with employers specializing in cybersecurity for an enhanced workforce-education experience leading to licensure. TCC partnered with Peregrine Technical Solutions LLC of Yorktown to provide the apprenticeships beginning this fall.

“This is the ball starting to roll,” Baehre-Kolovani said. Employers are already calling TCC for employees.

Her commitment to personal and professional development extends to myriad causes outside TCC. Among them: She and Nichols now serve together on the board of directors for Opportunity, Inc. and are fellow members of the United Way Women’s Leadership Council, and she chairs the Moving Minds Committee of Future of Hampton Roads, where she works closely with Bouchard.

Baehre-Kolovani’s impressive array of accomplishments, awards and accolades reflects her approach toward each day with a servant leadership perspective and the values instilled since youth.

an apple from the tree

The fruits of her formative years bear the seeds of success for future generations. Born Edna Victoria Waldherr in 1949, she was raised by hard-working professional parents, Friedrich and Helmi Waldherr, in a small village in southwest Germany. Her parents owned apartments, which they rented to American soldiers, and intentionally exposed their son and daughter to people from other cultures and parts of the world.

Her father, a successful architect, instilled in his children that whatever they wanted in life, they had to earn. Hence during summers, young Edna pursued odd jobs like painting and basic electrical and plumbing work at his construction sites.

Her mother, a multilingual interpreter, kept a group of close friends who were also accomplished professional women with families. Knowingly or not, the women all helped shape impressionable Edna by mentorship and modeling the successful merging of professional life and family life. Looking back, Baehre-Kolovani lovingly refers to her early home as “the first suffragette household in Germany.

“It was kind of like my imprinting, to realize as a young person that as a woman I can almost have it all – if I just have the will and the vision and the intelligence to do it,” she said. Later in life, as a wife, mother and working professional in America, she’d learn about “almost,” about finding balance, and she’d clarify the notion: “You can have it all,” she confirmed, “but you have to be prepared to make some sacrifices along the way.” For example, waking at 4 a.m. in the early years to cook the week’s worth of dinners that she, her husband and two children would enjoy around the table together in the evenings.

Edna Waldherr met Richard Baehre in Germany, where he was stationed with the U.S. Army. They fell in love, married in 1971, and she came to America in ’72. To become a U.S. citizen, she had to relinquish her German citizenship.

“That was scary,” she recalled. “I gave up the home I’d grown up in. I’d given up all my friends. Giving up your citizenship is a big step.”

“I did what I had to do, which was go find a job and earn money,” she said. There’s great value in a strong work ethic; it’s how people build a life or a career, one stepping block upon another. She believes that eventually hard work and integrity – not entitlement mindsets – get people where they deserve to be.

Her career as a college president began in 1997, at Harrisburg Area Community College in Pennsylvania. By then she and Richard had a daughter, Lisa, and a son, Nicholas. In 2001 the couple divorced. Edna Baehre remained at Harrisburg until 2010. Meanwhile, she’d met Bill Kolovani, a businessman from nearby Lebanon. Kolovani called it “fortuitous.”

“I was in the middle of a huge downtown revitalization project, changing the face of downtown Lebanon by restoring and revitalizing the original 1892 farmer’s market, creating a new restaurant, café, art gallery, retail, parking and more,” he recalled. A vice president of Baehre frequented Kolovani’s restaurant, Niko’s, and she thought he and Baehre should get to know each other. “So her V.P. kind of arranged for us to meet at one of [the college’s] building projects that they were showcasing,” he said. “Edna said, ‘It was love at first sight.’”

Kolovani fell too. “Edna was kind and gracious to everyone,” he recalled. “She was such a great conversationalist and treated everyone with such dignity and was so incredibly humble.” He admires these traits and believes they enhance her leadership. And he recognizes the impact she has on others:

“Dr. Kolovani wants to leave her mark on society, not for the notoriety but for the impact she can make in students’ lives, in their futures,” he said.

The couple married in 2011, midway through Baehre-Kolovani’s two-year position as president and superintendent at Napa Valley College in California. Though she hardly considers anything a failure, per se, as long as a person learns from his or her mistakes, she does consider the move out west a self-imposed derailment of sorts. For the first time, she’d based a major career decision on personal wishes – in this case to be close to daughter Lisa Baehre, who’d moved there. But the West Coast personnel didn’t appreciate her East Coast business savvy when it came to how to manage mandatory budget cuts.

“All the things that I was hired for were the things that the employees, in particular, faulted me for,” said Baehre-Kolovani, who had to make tough decisions that they didn’t all like. “There is more of this entitlement mentality in California than I think any other state in the country.”

That contradicts everything she knows about hard work, accountability and earning what you get. The position was a poor fit. In 2012, she and Kolovani came to Hampton Roads, where she’d long considered living, and an opening at Tidewater Community College enticed her.

“I was attracted to TCC because of its reputation,” Baehre-Kolovani recalled. The campuses, which she calls “state-of-the-art phenomenal,” rival many universities. Its reputation for innovation and awards of multi-million-dollar grants spoke volumes about people here “being willing to break out of their molds and take risks,” she said.

“What I found at the college was a real interest by the college community to come together as a cohesive unit,” she continued. TCC had thousands of employees, and they wanted to work together. That’s a good fit.

the leaders’ leader

Nichols, who is now CEO of the Foodbank of Southeastern Virginia and the Eastern Shore, praised Baehre-Kolovani’s leadership style:

“She leads with vision, creativity and compassion for serving others” and seeks to ensure “that they have opportunities for personal or professional development in a manner that is meaningful to them,” she said. “She is also focused on measurable results that point to transformational changes in the lives of those impacted by her work.”

“I’ve always believed that quality leadership is about people,” said Micky Nye, president of Farm Fresh Food and Pharmacy. Baehre-Kolovani has served with Nye on committees and has been instrumental in connecting her with others whose causes she can help.

“It starts with a clear vision of where the leader wants to go and sharing with the team why that direction is important,” Nye said. “Follow this up with a clear commitment to action and accountability to get to the goal. People follow leaders that are strong in their convictions and believe in their teams. People naturally want to be part of the solution.

“Edna has an amazing vision for TCC and she has done a terrific job of articulating that vision on campus and in public through formal presentations, press” and more, Nye continued. “My observations of Edna are that she holds herself accountable first and then expects the same from her team. She is straightforward in her communication and very efficient on her follow-up to keep everyone on track.”

The traits Baehre-Kolovani most values in others include honesty, integrity, humility and straightforwardness. She admires others who’ve had positive impact in the world, including former Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir and Mahatma Gandhi, whom she quoted regarding the notion of servant leadership as teaching, “It’s the action, not the fruit of the action, that’s important. You have to do the right thing” regardless of whether you will ever see the fruit.

Perhaps more than anyone, Baehre-Kolovani’s own father, “a gentle man of great character,” epitomizes integrity to her. “He was humble, and he imprinted on me that you have to be honest and have integrity in everything you do,” she said. “Whatever he got, and what he ultimately accomplished, he’d earned the hard way.”

Bill Kolovani said he’s fortunate to see all facets of his wife, including what others might miss. “She knows no race, color or creed; she has no prejudices and is thankful for her blessings every day,” he said. She’s “trustworthy, sassy, vivacious, captivating and truthful,” and “there’s so much depth to her” as a wife, mother, friend, woman and professional. Others seeking to emulate her would be wise to adopt her servant leadership mindset, Kolovani noted.

“She personifies being a servant first and then leading, assuring that everyone’s needs are met first, preparing them for leadership,” he explained. “Nothing is beneath her, just like Jesus nearly 2,000 years ago washing his disciples’ feet.”

“The bottom line for me is doing things for the right reasons,” Baehre-Kolovani said. “It’s not about me. It’s about our college; it’s about our mission.”

Nye recommends people adopt her “always look forward” attitude. “Have a vision for what you want to accomplish, make sure everyone else understands the vision and knows what they have to do to bring it to life,” she urged. Then “bring that vision to life through your people.”

Lisa Baehre, now 37, living in Virginia Beach and the executive director of the Sandler Center for the Performing Arts Foundation, said her mother is “fantastic,” a “pioneer” in the area of balancing the responsibilities of family, work and personal life.

“I always felt she was very much involved in my life and activities growing up,” she said. “At the same time, she was building a successful career, mentoring employees, developing innovative programs, etc.

“My mother believes strongly that great leaders are committed to the principles of servant leadership,” she said. “She has taught me that not only are they listening and learning how to serve others in the leadership roles, they are also constantly evaluating themselves. Good leaders listen to others. Great leaders listen, adapt and practice the principles they are instilling in others.”

Their own mother-daughter relationship has evolved on new levels, Lisa Baehre affirmed. “I feel I can discuss my own career and life responsibilities with her. She is a great sounding board and truly my best friend.”

from here, keep going

The future’s bright for students who’ll benefit from the truth in TCC’s longstanding “From here, go anywhere” motto.

Furthermore, Bouchard said he’s seen a significant increase in the cohesiveness and energy of the TCC senior leadership team. Baehre-Kolovani has built a stronger team than she inherited, he said, and as a visionary, articulate and tireless advocate for TCC, she’s inspired masses and quickly built a broad range of valuable relationships with business leaders, elected officials and the broader community.

“Similarly,” he noted, “I have seen a welcome increase in TCC’s visibility in the community.” He praised her strides in taking TCC in “bold new directions” per her “compelling vision” for its future.

There’s a solid spiritual core to Baehre-Kolovani’s nature, and she pondered coincidence vs. destiny: “I think back on my life, and there have been so many touch points of things that have happened … that ultimately, somehow, come together. I think about those things and say, OK, somewhere along the line maybe that was part of somebody’s plan.” She’d wanted this to be the last stop in her career, and it is, she said. The culture’s inspiring, the mission is sound, the vision is clear.

“I have no plans to go anywhere else.” – IL