Austin has no shortage of leaders who are respected, and even revered. But it’s safe to say that, among them all, Cookie Ruiz is our most beloved.
As executive director of Ballet Austin for 13 years, Cookie Ruiz has successfully led the company, alongside artistic director Stephen Mills, onto the national and international arts scene. Even more than that, her vision, savvy, and soul have touched almost every part of the Austin community. She has led us in ways both formal and informal–by serving large institutions and by mentoring young women one at a time.
Her honors include Austin Business Journal’s “Profiles in Power” award, Austin Community Foundation’s Beverly S. Sheffield Award/Excellence as Nonprofit Executive, The American Red Cross “Clara Barton Medal of Honor,” Volunteer of the Year for the Austin Independent School District, and the Lone Star Girl Scout Council “Women of Distinction” Award. A former president of The Junior League of Austin, she provided research and development for the nationally recognized Junior League of Austin Hispanic Mother/Daughter Program (Con Mi Madre). A graduate of Leadership Austin, Ms. Ruiz co-founded the diversity/principle-based curriculum for the Teen Leadership Austin program and served as a member of the Leadership Austin Board of Directors.
Much to Austin’s delight, Cookie has signed a ten-year contract with Ballet Austin through 2021. In the meantime, here’s what Cookie shared with Women Advance about becoming a leader:
Tell us about your career trajectory.
As first a daughter, and then a wife, of an Air Force officer, I completed 17 PCS (permanent change of station) moves by the age of 34. So there wasn’t a lot of opportunity for a “trajectory” to my professional life. But every experience I accumulated through world travel, life experience, for-profit and non-profit work over the years is fully utilized in my role as executive director of Ballet Austin.
Do you have a woman leader role model?
I was tremendously impacted by the appointment of Sandra Day O’Connor as the first female Supreme Court Justice–not because of political views, but because I saw that a woman could finally be chosen to sit on the Supreme Court. This became an important filter through which I began to consider new possibilities. The world grew a little in my eyes. Any time a child can see “someone like me” succeed, it opens up the possibilities in that life. Justice O’Connor did this for me.
What do you think are the top three habits of a good leader?
1. Articulating a clear vision to board and team members
2. Surrounding yourself with amazing people passionate about attaining the vision
3. Excellent hearing . . . and the willingness to use it
Could you share a story about one of your hardest lessons-learned as a leader?
There is a terminal disease that can easily infect leaders, particularly in the nonprofit sector. While infected, you see yourself much like the Dutch boy in the children’s story who physically prevents his village from drowning by plugging up holes in the dam with his fingers and toes. When you have your nose against that dam, you believe that, if you take vacation, or do not stay up to answer each and every email, or do not attend every meeting and weigh in on every issue, the village will be swept away. I’ve been there, and through a series of circumstances I was forced to step away from the dam. I was shocked to discover that the village survived! In fact, there were so many capable hands holding up that wall that I realized: not only can my team members take on greater responsibility, but my skills are actually needed elsewhere. Note to self: You’re not holding up the world. Ever.
What advice would you give to a young woman who wants to become a non-profit leader?
NPO management is an exceptional choice for young women seeking a career that will always be satisfying, of which they will always be proud. It starts with the belief in the Power of One: one person to change the world. I encourage my mentees to consider the ways in which they seek to make the world a better place and to follow that passion. One of the great secrets in life is to find a way to be compensated to do something you truly love. Many women want to know that the time they commit to their professional lives–spent away from their families/friends–is meaningful. That in some way it will improve life/community.
Any final thoughts about leadership?
I have learned my most profound lessons about leadership through working with teenagers. What I learned is that there is an amazing type of leader who invariably emerges from the CENTER of the pack. This isn’t the charismatic kid out front. This is the kid who just IS. She has a clear sense of her personal assets/talents/values as well as her challenges. She leads by living, and slowly the other kids are drawn to this positive force that doesn’t ask for attention or soak up all the energy. It’s almost as if the crowd parts and the group waits as this teenager reluctantly moves forward. The most amazing leader is the one leading by example.