THE BLOG

Women in Business Q&A: Dr. Rebecca Thomley, Founder, Headwaters Relief Organization

02/12/2015 06:47 am ET | Updated Apr 14, 2015

Dr. Rebecca Thomley is the President and Chief Executive Officer of Orion Associates, Meridian Services, Zenith Services, Orion Intermediary Services and their related company Morning Star Financial Services . In this position, she is responsible for all aspects of the organizations. In 2005 Dr. Thomley created the non-profit Headwaters Relief Organization, a collaboration of volunteers that provides disaster relief services. Dr. Thomley holds a PhD in Clinical Psychology, an MS in Psychology with an emphasis in Rehabilitation Counseling, a Masters degree in Psychopharmacology, and an MA in Organizational Management. She is a Certified Rehabilitation Counselor, a Licensed Psychologist, a member of the American Red Cross Mental Health Support Team, the state Mental Health Advisor to the Red Cross, a member of the National Academy of Neuropsychology, and a member of the American Academy of Experts in Traumatic Stress.

How has your life experience made you the leader you are today?
My experience as a psychologist has led me to work toward collaboration with a focus and awareness of various perspectives in communication with others. I have learned to help people focus on their strengths. In turn, I have learned from others and have benefited from mentorship by others. I came into business almost as a second career and was able to look at the strengths others could bring to the business. I have used consultants to bring knowledge and expertise to the organization as well.

How has your previous employment experience aided your tenure at Headwaters Relief/Orion?
From the time I was a young child I volunteered. When I began working in the human services field I continued to volunteer, and now I promote volunteerism within our organization and in the community. I started working at an entry level position in the human service field and worked my way up, which I think brings credibility to my current position as Chief Executive Officer. I have set a standard that everyone should be willing to work side by side no matter what your role is in the organization, especially in providing disaster relief. I continue to model that for others.

What have the highlights and challenges been during your tenure at Headwaters Relief/Orion?
Anytime you work in service to others there are rewards, because you see changes in people's lives. In our disaster work we see our staff undergo changes in their own lives as their experiences in service to others create meaning for them. Disaster work and the immediacy of helping others under the worst circumstances are life-changing. We worked in the Philippines shortly after the typhoon providing emotional support shortly to teachers who lived through the disaster. It was incredible to see the recognition in their eyes as they processed the event and realized that their emotions and the stress they were feeling as the result of the disaster were normal reactions to an unimaginable experience. Often, those relationships that are established last over time and that is important and meaningful.

What advice can you offer to women who want to start their own business?
I believe you can focus too much on the barriers to whatever you choose to do. If you are passionate and focused on your goals, you can break down barriers one step at a time. It is important to be determined and resilient in the face of challenges or difficulties.

What is the most important lesson you've learned in your career to date?
I think the most important lesson I have learned is to surround myself with people with complementary skills and attributes. I think that in any team of people, there needs to be that balance. Having the opportunity to integrate others' skills and being open to feedback and criticism of your work enhances potential outcomes.

How do you maintain a work/life balance?
As any woman with children will tell you it is never easy. It's a struggle to maintain a balance. I think that work/life balance means different things to different people. It is important to me to create time for family and friends. I try to stay in the moment and be truly present with others rather than distracted by work or related problems.

What do you think is the biggest issue for women in the workplace?
One of the fastest growth areas in new businesses is women-owned enterprises. My experience is that one of the barriers for women business owners is acquiring capital for growth. I always believed hard work and determination would help me overcome obstacles. Now I see and experience the differences for men and women, the continued need for change and the importance of continuing to struggle against those barriers.

How has mentorship made a difference in your professional and personal life?
I have had wonderful mentorship from many people including peers, colleagues, family members and friends. I seek mentors in many aspects of my life. I think you learn so much more by being open to the opinions and influence of others. I also think self-awareness and self-reflection both personally and professionally are important.

Which other female leaders do you admire and why?
I admire the women in my organization. They have believed in our mission and have walked the path with us. My mother and the women within my family are people I also admire greatly. My great aunt was a college basketball star in 1890. In fact all of the women in my mother's family were non-traditional in their accomplishments. I also admire women leaders, for example, Hillary Clinton. I admire her for her politics but more so for her strength and determination.

Determination and perseverance are key assets for women in business.

What do you want Headwaters Relief to accomplish in the next year?
I would like to see Headwaters Relief Organization establish more of a presence. As a national and international voluntary organization providing disaster relief we have differentiated ourselves in an important way. We don't leave. We have continued our work in New Orleans, Haiti and now the Philippines. It is important for people to know that disaster relief doesn't stop when the media is no longer covering an event. There is a need for help in affected areas for many years after the disaster. We are flexible and change the type of assistance we offer as the conditions and needs change.