Spotlight: Vikings Women Board Member Barbara Butts Williams

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As a young girl growing up in Pennsylvania, Barbara Butts Williams took notice of her parents’ work ethic.

Barbara watched her father work two to three jobs consistently, from laboring in a steel mill to working as a janitor and for the local city sanitation office. Describing her father as a “proud man,” Barbara wondered at a young age why he would dedicate himself so whole-heartedly to “jobs that nobody wanted.”

It’s a conversation that has impacted Barbara throughout her career journey and still to this day.

“He said to me, ‘I do what I do for you,’ ” recalled Barbara of her father, who had limited education. “ ‘So that you can have the opportunities to become the leader and the manager and the lawyer or doctor, or whomever you want to be. I do this for you. So that you can have the opportunities.  But, you can’t do it without having the right kind of education. And if that’s what you want for yourself, I will support you 100 percent.’

“So I had strong support from my parents and entire family, to really experiment and to do the things I wanted to do,” Barbara added.

While she didn’t immediately identify her gifts and talents early on in her career, Barbara found herself drawn toward any project – formal or informal – that centered around the development of people and individuals discovering and realizing their potential.

“It evolved somewhat. It wasn’t intentional, but it was a path that was carved out,” Barbara reflected.

Over the years, Barbara has worked in a variety of career fields. She started in state government in her hometown, working as the director of education in the Department of Health. She then moved on to Ann Arbor, Michigan, where she worked at the University of Michigan Business School leading the prestigious Executive Program.  

In the early 1980s, Barbara moved to the Twin Cities to work for Control Data Corporation and later worked in consulting – first for Wilson Learning and later in a similar role with her own company. Barbara also served as corporate officer for talent management, global education and leadership development for St. Paul Companies (now Travelers).

Currently, Barbara is in her 16th year with Capella University, where she is the Executive Dean of External Relations & Partnerships. Previously, she served as Dean, School of Business and Technology (twice) and Dean of the School of Education.

Ranging from public service to higher ed to the corporate sector, Barbara’s career journey has been wide-reaching but has consistently centered around themes of leadership, education and civic responsibility.

“I think I’ve always wanted to give back and wanted to figure out how to do that,” Barbara said. “My personal values and the values of the organizations that I’ve worked for were always closely aligned... For me, there were no strong lines of demarcation.

“I had an excellent opportunity to work for organizations that believed in people being able to fulfill their potential,” Barbara continued. “Organizations that had dual missions that really wanted to give back to communities as they reinvested back into the organization.”

In her current role with Capella, Barbara is responsible for the university’s social responsibility and community impact strategy.

“Today, I’m focused on bringing my talents, experiences and passion together to help Impact lives and lift up communities, improve the lives of individuals and the economic vitality of communities by applying Capella’s unique value where it can make the biggest difference,” Barbara explained.

Having served in multiple capacities – but always keeping a consistent set of goals in mind – Barbara strives to model a strong standard, especially for young women.

She reminds herself that “every day is a new day” and that authenticity is important.

“I think it’s about being who you really are and what you really believe in, and being able to both live that and be in environments where people see that,” Barbara explained. “I’ve tried to live my values and place myself in areas and with organizations that can utilize my talents, what I do best.”

Added Barbara: “It’s just trying to be my authentic self. To give back where I’m most needed.”

Barbara’s experience, passions and philosophy made her a perfect fit for the Vikings Women Advisory Board, which she has been thrilled to be a part of – for two reasons.

One, Barbara is a football fan herself.

“I grew up with sports, played sports myself, came from a community where athletes and sports were really important,” Barbara said. “For many people, it was an opportunity to go to college and move their lives in a different direction, to engage with others and make the community proud. I saw what a team could do to make a community and its fan base proud.”

Barbara’s late husband, Dr. John Williams (a Minneapolis dentist), was a standout for the Golden Gophers at the University of Minnesota and was selected 23rd overall by the Baltimore Colts in the 1968 NFL Draft. Williams went on to play four seasons with Baltimore and an additional eight seasons with the Los Angeles Rams.

“I’ve never played the game, but I understand it from someone who had brothers and a spouse who played the sport,” Barbara said. “I’ve always been a fan at the pro level as well as the collegiate and high school level. It was just a natural for me.

“I’ve been in the Twin Cities now almost 38 years, and this is my home team. This is my team,” Barbara said of the Vikings.

Secondly, Barbara admires the Vikings Women initiative and impact it has made in several different areas – from bringing female football fans together and creating networking opportunities, to providing unique access to events like Vikings Training Camp, to playing a role in U.S. Bank Stadium amenities such as the Mamava lactation suites or the mothers’ room that opened in August.

“I really wanted to support the Vikings Women initiative because I believe the vision and goals are aligned with the types of experiences Vikings Women fans will be proud of. The organization has created something very special,” Barbara said.

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