Seeing potential is one of Sinead Voorhees’s superpowers. She’s found a perfect role to put that superpower to use as Whitworth University’s assistant dean of graduate studies in business.
At the same time, Voorhees confesses she’s an anomaly in the role. Unlike most in similar positions, Voorhees doesn’t have a business degree, nor does she have a doctorate. (Her master’s degree is in international studies). In her mid-thirties, Voorhees is one of the youngest assistant deans in Whitworth’s history. And not only is she one of the few women in this field, she’s a mother of four to boot.
Still, Voorhees made her way up the ranks in the MBA program, proving her worth all the way up at Whitworth. This is an apt statement for Voorhees. Along with seeing potential everywhere she looks, Voorhees finds the worth in program candidates who might have felt unworthy, been overlooked or have an unconventional background. Her motto is: “I provide worthy people a chance at their redemption lap.”
How does she do this? With strategic planning and thinking outside the box, by valuing life struggles and journeys, by seeing potential. As an assistant dean, Voorhees is in the unique position to make business studies more accessible to the “highly qualified people who care about this community and are willing to work hard.” She’s achieved this by providing more opportunities and by expanding offerings, including certificate programs and the new Institute of Leadership. She also promoted changes to the admissions procedures to shift focus away from GPA and GMAT scores to other measures of worth.
These measures of worth include involvement in the community. Financial aid became awarded for community contributions rather than solely academic accomplishments or financial need. This approach helps Voorhees to recruit well-rounded and respected candidates who might have never seen themselves in graduate school.
“We shifted our focus to the life-experience of people. We embrace people who are of good character and have a good work ethic. They shouldn’t be afraid of switching careers or taking a crooked path. We want to celebrate students’ stories.”
Voorhees’ impact has led to a dramatic growth in the MBA program which has tripled in size at a time when other programs across the country are shrinking or even closing.
Growing Whitworth’s MBA program is just part of Voorhees’s big strategic picture. Her work as a community advocate and liaison between the university and community directly impacts Spokane and the region.
“Part of the job is to keep (graduates) here. We help students see the potential in Spokane, all the cool opportunities,” says Voorhees.
Voorhees sees the potential among “all these new faces, all these talents, all these gifts” to contribute to the growth of leaders in service to Spokane and the region. She describes education as a tool to help this community thrive.
For Voorhees, this is a labor of love, because she has a profound love for Spokane and its community. For a woman of humble Irish beginnings with a journey that led her to living in six different countries and four different continents, Spokane had the “luck of the Irish’’ that she landed here. Indeed, this is definitely not the life she’d originally planned.
As a young woman, Voorhees had her sights on the UN, with ambitions of “saving the world.” Her first step was attending Gonzaga University and earning a bachelor’s degree in public relations. Her next stop was Ethiopia, where she served as a Peace Corps volunteer.
A severe health crisis in Ethiopia led to a month-long stay in a South African hospital. Recovering from kidney failure, anemic and emotionally spent, Voorhees longed for her community in the “sleepy town” of Spokane, where she could rest, heal, and recharge among her good friends. Perhaps destiny played a part in this decision, because it was during these two years in Spokane that she met her now-husband Mark.
Her original aspirations led her back to Ireland to pursue a master’s degree in international development. Having earned said degree, and then traveling around the world, she realized her aspirations had evolved and that she wanted to move back to Spokane. In fact, she proclaims, “I couldn’t stay away.” She cheekily admits, that decision might have had something to do with Mark being here.
“Leaving and returning to Spokane helps you really see the beauty here. I had developed a profound appreciation for the community.”
Having returned to Spokane, Voorhees started her career at Whitworth in 2013 as internship coordinator for the school of business. With her strategic thinking and entrepreneurial skills, she soon became the assistant director to the graduate studies in business program. Voorhees was such an asset to the business program, by 2017, she found herself in the director’s chair.
Perhaps her own zigzagging path, her journey to leadership and success, taught Voorhees the value of life experience and led to that motto: “I provide worthy people a chance at their redemption lap.”
In July of 2021, Voorhees became the Assistant Dean of the program. She admits, again with the cheek, she wasn’t the first choice for the position.
“I didn’t care! I’ll be the best of any choice,” she laughs. “I’m happy to be here. I love innovating systems. I love reaching more people. It’s been really fun!”
This, proclaimed by a mother of four, all born within five years! How does she do it? Voorhees credits Whitworth’s value on self-care and family life which has supported her throughout the growth of her family. She’s probably the only assistant dean who is literally encouraged to slow down her Energizer-bunny pace.
Renowned for her high energy and accomplishing much in little time, COVID gave Voorhees an opportunity to reflect on her view of productivity. It gave her time to slow down and ask herself, “Am I doing what is most important to do?”
This sense of agency is directly aligned with Voorhees’ philosophy of leadership. “We have agency over our life, how we want it to be. Life doesn’t happen to me, it happens through me. Leadership is taking responsibility for the influence you have over others and positively contributing.”
Thank you, Sinead Voorhees, for seeing the potential in our community, for sharing your superpowers and adding to our greatness.