Born of humble beginnings in New York, Mayor De La Isla faced many challenges at a young age. Early in life, her mom fled for safety with her and her brother to Puerto Rico to live with her grandparents. By age 17, she was homeless, and at 19, pregnant. Rather than feel sorry for herself, Michelle made a conscious decision to overcome her circumstances and finish her degree.
She moved to Kansas in 2000 and graduated from Wichita State University with a bachelor of science degree in biology, after eight years of trying. That summer, she worked as a teacher for Upward Bound and unfortunately discovered that others faced challenges similar to hers, igniting a fire for advocacy and service that to this day cannot be extinguished. She relocated to Topeka and soon after became a single mom of three children.
In 2005, Michelle joined MANA National and traveled around the country educating women on financial literacy. She was also one of the founding members of the local Hermanitas chapter for mentorship of Latina girls. As her community involvement developed, she participated in the Capital District Group to advocate and develop the current Downtown Topeka plan.
In 2010, she became Executive Director of Topeka Habitat for Humanity where she established the first office, the ReStore and exponentially increased service delivery. She works alongside Dr. Morse to deliver an annual girls empowerment conference at Washburn University where more than 170 Topeka girls attend. Michelle supports the Rescue Mission as a volunteer and serves on the board of MANA National.
In 2013, Michelle was elected to the Topeka City Council and served as Deputy Mayor in 2016. She is the Diversity and Inclusion Representative at Westar Energy and the Mayor of Topeka. Michelle’s greatest honor is being called Erick, Cristina, and Lorraine’s mom.
Who is a person that you considered as a role model early in your life? How and why does this person impact your life?
My grandmother was an amazing role model for me early in my life. When I was young and my mom left New York to flee for safety, my grandmother helped support us and I saw her work ethic and the love that she had for my grandfather. He was another role model because although he was my step-grandfather, he cared for me like a daughter. Their work ethic and the way they sacrificed themselves and cared for each other has always been a way of life that I hoped I could live up to.
How do you maintain you and your team’s daily motivation and inspiration despite obstacles, pushback or setbacks?
I think that the magic sauce with my team is the fact that we have a bunch of leaders that are leaders in their own right. As a team, we don’t have someone who says, “I’m the leader.” We are a team of leaders. And there is this openness and fluidity that we all share with each other. We break bread on a regular basis, stay in touch on a regular basis, care about each other on a personal level, and are very committed to the mission not a person. I think the motivation for all of us that we are constantly seeking ways to make our community a better place. It’s not about me, per se, because I understand that I am not leading this community my own.
As far as dealing with pushbacks and setbacks, I think that I’ve always had this mindset that, like Michelle Obama says, “When they go low we go high.” That was our motto always throughout the most difficult challenges. When things were going wrong, we would always stay positive. I think that our optimism and attitude that no matter what happens we are going to do things to leave our community better than what we found it keeps us going.
How do you foster creative and innovative thinking within your organization?
I think that the key to fostering creative and innovating thinking is to allow people to be who they are and to celebrate their successes and try not to make an employee or team member something that they’re not. For example, if I have somebody who is amazing at design work, why would I have them do copyright? If I have somebody who is great at strategy, why would I force them do something they’re not great at? When you allow people to be who they are and use their talents, their creativity grows and they are able to take more risks because they understand that failure is just about learning one way that it didn’t work.
What advice would you give a someone going into a leadership position for the first time?
Brace yourself. In all seriousness, aside from bracing yourself, just be vulnerable and be yourself. People get into a lot of trouble because they try to be somebody that they’re not when they’re leading. Always be open. If you think you have all the answers, you’re not in the right place because once you’re in leadership you know that you don’t have all the answers. And what you can be really powerful at is making sure you surround yourself with experts and people who are ten times better than you, because then you’ll know you’ll succeed.
What is the most important characteristic that every leader should possess?
The most important trait that any leader should possess is humility. You can’t lead if you’re not willing to follow. And when you understand that leadership is nothing but stewardship, then you really can accomplish some amazing things. Any leader really is a broker of the talents of all the people around them. If you’re not surrounded by people helping you with your cause, then you’re not a leader, you’re a dictator. So I think that humility, openness, a hunger for learning and an obsession for opportunity are things that make a great leader. Most importantly, leaders should want to build people up. People are the most important. People come first, every single time.
What are the most pressing challenges that leaders are facing today? And why?
One of the biggest challenges is communicating our message. You have one million avenues for you to share your message and that message is constantly trying to find its way to help people understand what you are trying to accomplish. Every day people have so much more information coming at them that they have to process. In addition to that, technology is also changing on a regular basis, so once you think that you have the solution to something here comes something brand new that you have to read about and learn on the go. As a leader, having that hunger and passion for learning and wanting to understand more things keeps you relevant. Right now, there’s so much information and so many channels and so many changes in technology that you have to stay afloat and that’s a challenge for some people.
Do you have a mentor? If so, what traits are you seeking in a mentor and why?
I have many mentors: Joan Wagnon, Ted Warren, Michel’ Cole, Coleen Jennison, Cheryl Hishmeh, Teri Hund, and Barry Feaker (I could keep on going). I also have mentors that are extremely young such as Chelsea Jenks and Tyler Groundwater. I have many people that are different ages that have different perspectives and life experiences, and some people have immense wisdom in areas that I have absolutely no idea about. For example, with Chelsea and Tyler, they are much younger than I am and they have a whole set of experiences that keep me young and relevant. People like Joan and Ted are seasoned and matured. Teri and Cheryl are spiritual mentors.
When I look at my mentors, they are people who call me on my stuff. They don’t ever let me be the emperor with the new clothes. And that’s what I look for in people. People who can keep me sharp, people who I can talk with. I have mentors that don’t look the same, don’t act the same and don’t have the same experiences, and I think that’s what keeps me humble and compassionate towards people.
What are you doing daily to ensure your growth and development continues as a leader?
Continued education, exposing myself to different people who have different points of view and active listening. There is nothing more powerful than listening to understand instead of listening to reply. If you really take the time to listen and understand not only what is happening in front of you, but the context, you learn so much. Part of what I do is that I have a ridiculous collection of books that I keep adding to, that I feel like I will never be able to finish. I finish one book, and I’m halfway through another one and I’m 20 pages into another one. Books excite me because I love getting into people’s minds and learning from their experiences. For me, reading is an amazing way for me to continue to grow and develop as a leader.