Dana Washington, Honorary Co-Chair, Lead the Change

News, Summer 2015
Dana Washington

Corporate Leader Took a Risk, and It Paid Off

BY MARY LEE HARVEY DIRCKS

What I really like about the Women’s Fund is that they look at women and girls in the community with a growth potential mindset,” says Dana Washington, assistant general counsel at Mutual of Omaha. “They aren’t just picking out a select few, but want to ensure all women and girls have the opportunity to develop and become all that they can be. I think that’s very important work.”

This passion to ensure the same opportunities are available to everyone is one of Washington’s guiding principles. “My purpose is to help as many other people as I can to reach their full potential in the context of whatever I am doing—work, family, volunteering—and give to this community that has given so much to me,” she says. “There is nothing special about me. Everyone should be able to experience living in this community the same way that I have.” She recounts her many blessings in receiving an excellent education and great job opportunities, and in raising her family in a safe and comfortable environment. “I recognize fully that everybody can’t make that statement,” Washington says. “Part of what drives me is wanting to do what I can to make that true for everybody.”

Washington wasn’t initially geared toward a career in law. She taught sixth grade at Omaha Public Schools after earning her undergraduate degree in education at Creighton University. “I loved teaching and I loved working with kids,” she says. “I went to law school with the idea that there would be something I could eventually do that would marry my teaching background with my legal career.”

The decision to attend law school was a challenge, though. Washington was a single parent with a young son and had just bought a house. “I knew what everyone was going to say—you don’t have time, you can’t afford it, this is crazy—so I didn’t tell anybody until after I figured out how I was going to make it work,” she says. That bold action and hard work paid off. “I love practicing law, period,” Washington says. “It involves a lot of reading, thinking and analyzing.” She remembers sitting at her desk at her first legal job, surrounded by thick volumes and lots of notepads, lost in thought to solve a legal problem, when it occurred to her: “I’m actually getting paid to do the things I love to do. This is amazing!”

At Mutual of Omaha, Washington manages insurance and employment litigation throughout the country. “One of the things I love about the work I do is that it is so different every day,” she says. “I love that I get to partner with virtually every department within the company and form relationships with employees at all levels.” This gives her a big picture view that she wouldn’t otherwise have, she says.

In 2012, Washington was elected to join the Mutual of Omaha Foundation Board of Directors. “This is an opportunity to contribute to the community in a big way that is sure to touch many lives positively,” she says. “Our mission is to eliminate poverty in Omaha. That’s big! But I love that about our mission.” Another passion is her work with Big Brothers Big Sisters of the Midlands. Encouraging people to get involved in mentoring youth and young adults is an area where Washington says she is most invested. “When you work with a young person one-on-one, you can help them to build the resilience within themselves that they are worthy and valuable, so that whatever outside situation they are facing; they’ve got that internal belief to get through it.”

To face her own challenges, Washington relies on three basic ideals. One is to be clear about who she is and what she wants to do. “You need to get clear about what you want to contribute to the big picture. Then it’s amazing the opportunities that will open up to you.” She refers back to this idea when giving career advice to others. She finds that people who are frustrated with where they are, and feeling like they aren’t getting the recognition they want, have lost their way. “You are focused on the wrong thing,” she advises. “When you are in your groove, doing the things you love to do, contributing where it matters to you, then you don’t have those feelings.” It’s important to remember that whatever experience you might be gaining in a current position will help you in later opportunities, she adds.

Another is to never stop learning and growing. “Whatever I’m doing, I always try to take something from it,” she explains. If a meeting goes badly, she uses that experience to decide what she could do differently next time. Or if someone else handles something creatively, she incorporates that solution in the future. She’s also an avid reader, absorbing all she can about human nature and why people do the things they do. “The other side of that has to be action, though” she declares frankly. “If you don’t do anything, all the knowledge in the world doesn’t matter.”

The third ideal she learned from her mother—always leave a place better than she found it. “That has been my mantra in my personal and family life, my work life and in my volunteering,” Washington says. When she and her kids would go to the park, her kids knew they wouldn’t leave until after they each picked up three pieces of trash others had left behind. And when they go to a fast food restaurant, they clean up surrounding tables. In job opportunities and when leaving a volunteer board, Washington reiterates, “I want to look back and see that I made an impact; that it’s better than when I started.” In all areas of her life, she keeps the big picture in mind. “I ask myself: What kind of legacy do you want to leave?”

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