Photo/Courtesy of Joanne Simon-Walters
Joanne Simon-Walters' life was deeply influenced by her mother's determination to get her and her siblings into public housing – an upgrade to their situation at the time. For years, she watched as her mother checked on her application every day until they were approved and moved into the Oswald Harris Court housing community in St. Thomas, Virgin Islands. That was one of Joanne's first childhood memories – her mother's resilience. Now, Joanne strives for excellence, pushing herself past her limits to accomplish her goals.
This mentality led to a strong work ethic at school. Excelling in her studies would be Joanne's way out – out of the projects. And as the academic force that she was, Joanne was accepted into the University of the Virgin Islands (UVI) early admissions program with a full scholarship after completing the 11th grade.
After three semesters at UVI, Joanne transferred to the University of Houston. The move offered a more diverse college experience in a city with more potential career opportunities. She received a Bachelor of Business Administration in Finance. Then in 2002, she earned her MBA.
Exploring the Possibilities
'What next?' It's a question that Joanne always asked herself after completing a set goal. Initially driven by money, Joanne pursued finance and technology jobs she believed had great pay. However, when she became a mother, it changed her perspective on what she wanted to do. Joanne began to focus less on her career and more on how she wanted to spend her time.
The Executive Director of The Aurora Community Study Circles board Joanne served on in Aurora, Illinois, directed her to one of her human resources (HR) colleagues for a school district. And like that, Joanne landed an HR manager role with the school district.
Just that bit of exposure in the HR field propelled her to strive for more. Joanne's pursuit of excellence in everything she does drove her to become a certified Senior Professional in Human Resources (SPHR), a SHRM-Senior Certified Professional (SHRM-SCP), a certified Crucial Conversations trainer, and a trained paralegal specializing in employment law.
Joanne Simon-Walters' move into human resources wasn't about the profession itself. She focused on all the areas in which she excelled in past roles to guide her decision. Having had management and leadership, Joanne used those skill sets to excel in HR.
Since leaving Aurora, the HR thought leader has held numerous HR positions, including Manager of Employee and Labor Relations at School District U-46 in Elgin, IL, Strategic HR Business Partner Director at the International Capital and Management Company, and Head of Human Resources at Air Ambulance Caribbean, Inc.
Her vast experience in this field has opened many doors for Joanne. A recruiter from McGraw Hill contacted her to collaborate on a book in 2011. Joanne has since co-authored six HR certification preparation manuals published by McGraw-Hill and is a LinkedIn Learning Instructor with several courses on HR and leadership. She was recently featured in the new book "The People Behind the People: Heroes of the HR World" by Kayla Lebovits.
Championing Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Belonging
After years of social inequality, Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Belonging (DEIB) has become top of mind for businesses. For Joanne, this topic is very personal – having experienced bullying and harassment in her workplace. Joanne shares with Unstoppable Yes You a time when she felt like "an outsider" at work. She found out that a colleague had taken photographs of her during a social event and shared them with others in her office while they all laughed and made crude comments. Joanne felt like she had lost her voice and confidence at the time, and she hated it. This was one of a few experiences that led her to deliver a TEDx Talk on bullying and harassment in the workplace.
Joanne Simon-Walters TEDx Saint Thomas
The TEDx Talk was an "empowering moment" and sparked a change in Joanne. She had found her voice again, dropped 100 pounds, and felt emotionally stronger than ever. She was ready once more to face the world as her authentic self.
"What I realized is that even though I thought I was very resilient, up until that point, what that experience was doing for me was helping me build a level of resiliency that I need for this next level. Because at every level, you need to be even tougher," Joanne explained.
Now, as the Chief People Officer at Simplesense, she works to create environments for people who look like her to feel safe, secure, and comfortable showing up as their whole selves.
"Being yourself is your superpower," Joanne said. "I want Caribbean people throughout the diaspora to know that you can be you and be a success. You don't need to perform and fit into a prescribed box. Your authenticity is what connects people to you. Your authenticity creates environments within which you can thrive."
Joanne's Next Chapter
When asked about her next chapter, she responds, "It's being written." In the near team, Joanne would like to complete her Doctor of Philosophy at the University of the Virgin Islands. After quitting and recommitting many times, she is back on track to achieving this academic endeavor by March 2023. Her thesis focuses on the relationship between perceived unfair treatment and leadership opportunities for Black women in corporate settings. Vernā Myers, Vice President of Inclusion Strategy at Netflix, is someone Joanne admires and has in mind to work with to put her thesis into practice.
She believes this PhD ties everything she has done so far and will position her as an expert. One thing she is sure about is that it is preparing her for her next big thing. Who knows, it could be a nationally syndicated talk show or a Board of Director seat in a private equity and venture capital firm.
"I've been married for about 20 years, and we have two kids. So, a lot has changed in my life, and I've had many varied experiences since I was that little girl growing up in Oswald Harris Court. Yet, I'm still the same intellectually curious little girl at heart—the person who only needs to see a tiny glimpse of light of what could be. I don't have to know exactly what those possibilities are, but my curiosity drives me to want to find out what that little bitty light I see is. That curiosity and ability to thrive in ambiguity have shaped my whole career," she said.