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Pepperdine University

Hanna Skandera

School of Public Policy | 2000
Chief Executive Officer, Mile High Strategies, LLC

What does being an honoree of this campaign mean to you?

It is an incredible honor to receive this recognition. There are a tremendous number of amazing women who have gone before me and led with grace, integrity, and courage; they inspire me, and I am truly grateful to them for their example and leadership. Still today, it's so important for women to encourage and support one another on their professional journeys. There are countless glass ceilings left to break, and in both business and government especially, more women leaders are needed.

It is important for me to recognize that I would not be where I am today without the mentorship of two people I met here at Pepperdine—former President David Davenport and Dean Ron Phillips. They encouraged me, had faith in my abilities, and consistently believed that I have what it takes to play a prominent role in improving the world around us. As I look forward in my professional life, I aspire to provide the same guidance and mentorship to the next generation.

Describe your success story.

As I reflect on my life thus far—and on my career as an education policy leader—I recognize that the start of my journey was a bit unconventional. I was homeschooled as a child and it was a positive experience, but not one without challenges. It was certainly a different lens through which to view the world. From an early age, as I pondered the value and purpose of schooling, I settled on the belief that the core mission of education is to spark and develop a sense of agency and curiosity in the mind of a child. I was a hard-working young person; I remember picking grapes in my grandfather's raisin vineyards in central California for hours at a time. I always had a deep sense of gratitude for the lessons his life experiences taught me and for the gift of life in general. This was further reinforced by a near-death experience I had at age 13 due to an undiagnosed medical condition. From that day on, my life had a sense of purpose, and my journey has been shaped by what I call grace, grit, and generational transfer. For me, grace is the ability to do what you're made to do. Grit is having the faith to walk to the edge and the courage to live there. And, generational transfer is the humility to build on those who have gone before you and to invest in those who will come behind you.

I was a business major and started my career in commercial real estate and insurance, along with coaching track and cross country at the middle school and collegiate level. I simultaneously launched an educational nonprofit that fueled my passion for education and community service. Not long after, I decided to attend Pepperdine's School of Public Policy. While at Pepperdine, I was nominated for a fellowship at Stanford University's Hoover Institution where I had the opportunity to write and speak about numerous public policy issues, including education. At age 29, I become Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger's assistant secretary and then undersecretary for education. Sometime later, I joined Governor Jeb Bush in Florida as his deputy commissioner of education, followed by two years as senior policy advisor and deputy chief of staff to US Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings.

Experience in the private sector fueled an interest in returning to public leadership. When I sat down with the newly elected governor of New Mexico, Susana Martinez, in 2010, I entered the room planning to simply provide her with advice on education policy. I left the room with a job offer to lead the state's struggling school system as the secretary of education. In New Mexico, we realized record-breaking outcomes, including graduation rates reaching an all-time high—up 10 percentage points, AP course enrollment more than doubling, a one-third increase in the number of high-achieving schools, and the dramatic reduction of high school graduates' college remediation rates.

Is all of this a success story? Sure, in the sense that I've been fortunate enough to hold several high-profile positions in multiple states and with the federal government. But my sense of success really comes in the hope that my service has helped deliver the life-changing promise of education to some child, somewhere—or perhaps to many children, in many places. That's the goal of my life, and I feel I have a lot more progress to make toward it.

How has Pepperdine played a role in your success?

Pepperdine's School of Public Policy has been a valuable part of my leadership journey, both the curriculum and experiences I engaged in, but also the relationships I built during my time here and since. It has provided a strong grounding in the foundations that America is built on, which pushed me to get clearer about my basic presuppositions. That foundation is what presented the opportunity for an internship at the Hoover Institution and later parlayed into my first real-world public policy experience. The value, however, went beyond the classroom, and the opportunity to meet and get to know so many amazing advocates, mentors, and leading thinkers— President David Davenport, Dean Ron Phillips, Dean and Gail Wilburn, Dr. Gordon Lloyd, Dr. Ted McAllister, Helen Young—was unparalleled. For me, Pepperdine truly was a launch pad.

Describe a lesson you've learned from a challenging time in your career or life.

The journey hasn't been an easy one, but I believe the toughest times create the greatest opportunity to be clear about who you are as a leader and what matters to you most. When Governor Martinez appointed me as secretary of education in New Mexico, there was a lot of union opposition to change. As a result, it was a four-year journey, including many baseless personal attacks, protests at my office and home before being senate confirmed. The continuous opposition really forced me to be resolute in my decision to rise above the political fray and stay focused on what mattered most—the success of our students. In these moments, it becomes abundantly clear the difference between a job and a calling and living your calling is joy, pain, grace, grit, and gratitude all blended together.

How would you describe your leadership style?

I have been described as principled leader with strong convictions, who carries a sense of urgency and drives others to focus on generating outcomes that matter. My commitment is to building teams who are laser focused on outcomes, and who, when working together for what matters most, can accomplish the unimaginable. I am a bold, visionary leader who has the courage to challenge the status quo.

"For me, grace is the ability to do what you're made to do. Grit is having the faith to walk to the edge and the courage to live there. And, generational transfer is the humility to build on those who have gone before you and to invest in those who will come behind you.."

Hanna Skandera (MPP '00)

Who has helped you achieve success in your career?

Throughout my career, I've relied upon a "personal advisory board" that I consult on key decisions and have consulted since I was a teen. Members of this group range from pastors and teachers to bosses and mentors. As a leader, the most important component of success is to know your mission and consistently drive toward it which, for me, means never to lose sight of our kids and their success, as well as the sacrifices needed to keep their best interests front and center. I have been incredibly blessed with amazing parents who are both Pepperdine graduates. They have consistently provided encouragement and wisdom, and have selflessly given of themselves to create possibilities for me.

What's next for you?

I am excited about the opportunities for real innovation at the intersection of four emergent trends: the need for "upskilling" within a new economy; the lack of coherence of all education sectors; the growing consumer dissatisfaction with actionable alignment within the employability pipeline; and, finally, the erosion of social capital. I consistently ask myself how might we redesign pathways between education, work, and life so that all people, especially those most at risk, can achieve lifelong upward economic mobility and participate in a redemptive generational cycle. I hope to be a part of the answer to this question.

What was your first job?

As an 8-year-old, I received special approval to have a daily paper route. I enjoyed the responsibility and the notion of working hard. Naturally, other "businesses" were launched and flourished—including breadmaking, ironing, and housecleaning in my neighborhood (all before the age of 13).

What historical or modern-day leader do you admire and why?

I admire Margaret Thatcher as an influential and respected leader. She did not shy away from challenges or controversy, and she was dynamic and charismatic, while also portraying a level of simplicity and practicality.

What is your mantra or favorite quote?

The mantra I have kept front and center in every professional position I've held is: "What is the return on investment (of our resources, time, or interventions), and how does it drive us to our identified goal?" Essentially, I tell my teams that we are in the positions we are in to make an impact. Results matter. If what we're doing today doesn't move us closer to the change we're trying to make, then we should change what we're doing.

How do you prepare for a busy day?

To prepare for a busy week, I set aside Sundays as a day of rest and reflection—physically, mentally, and spiritually. For instance, I attend church, nap, journal, pray, read, and prepare. Within the week, I start each day with a walk and time of reflection—usually 45 minutes of quiet time to focus on what matters most and listen to what guides me.

What is one of your favorite hobbies?

I love hiking. As a kid, I ran cross country so perhaps that inspired my desire to be outdoors. I also just took my first golf lesson—who knows, maybe that will become my next go-to activity!