People of IonE: Meet Kristi Kremers
Meet Kristi Kremers, Director of IonE’s Faculty and Graduate Leadership Programs! You may know of her work with Boreas, our Affiliates program, or the ANGLES network, but she’s also a passionate leadership enthusiast and best-selling children’s book author. We caught up with Kristi to ask why leadership?, why children’s literature?, and, of course, why IonE?
You like to say you’ve “led multiple lives” – could you tell us a little about them? And do you have a favorite one?
Growing up in a small farming town in Central Minnesota, I was fascinated by the world around me and beyond me. I was constantly at our local library and was fascinated by the Choose Your Own Adventure series. I think that philosophy of taking risks and not knowing what amazing discoveries you could find really stuck with me. At 16, I became a rock journalist with a bi-monthly column, “Kristi’s School House Rock,” in First Avenue’s magazine. It was a dream! I was interviewing some of my rock star heroes and went to as many concerts as I could. I did that for two years before I went to Australia for my undergrad to fulfill my childhood dream of living and studying with aboriginal tribes in Australia. I only came home once during my undergrad for my sister’s wedding, and took up a job writing obituaries for the St. Cloud Times.
Which of your “lives” was your favorite?
[The Times] was actually probably my favorite experience, because being surrounded by death put me in touch with what truly matters most over and over again. Being there for families in grief and putting into words the contributions of their loved ones was one of the most moving experiences of my life. I also researched reverse culture shock and managed study abroad programs before I fell in love with leadership.
You’re the author of a series of children’s books, the Lead to Love series! What made you want to write for children?
I’ve been teaching in higher education since I was 21 and over the years, I saw an alarming increase in both the quantity and severity of mental health issues for my students. Eventually, I was teaching at the University of Colorado in Colorado Springs where I led a leadership program for really gifted and talented students. I had these students for all four years of their undergraduate experience, and I began to see more acutely how dire and widespread the mental health issues were, especially amongst our most talented students. The pressure they internalized was tremendous. I also realized in some ways how I was perpetuating an outdated model of leadership that views leadership as a position rather than a behavior, and I had a crisis of consciousness: How do we teach students to be leaders if they’re not taking care of their mental, spiritual and physical well-being? At that point, one in four undergraduate students was on antidepressants or other forms of medication to address mental health concerns. I also noticed an escalation in the narcissism fed by social media and in our societal cycles to measure success in terms of how much you could consume or what achievements you could rack up. I also saw this trend within myself, and realized we need to start much younger when helping students understand their values and what matters most to them. In addition to all of this, I started thinking about what I would want for my own future child or children.
I imagine publishing isn’t easy! Once you had the idea, how did you make it come true?
I started having dreams and realized I needed to quit my full-time job at the university and figure out how to make this a reality and start a publishing company. Ultimately, I believe true success and happiness is found in aligning our gifts with the needs of the world and I wanted to find a way to help parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles, and teachers to have conversations about this other way of leading in the world. So each of the books starts with a traditional storybook and in the back there are guided discussions, activities and games to help make it more than a one-off reading experience.
You’ve taught leadership skills for many years in many different places, including at the U of M. In your mind, what makes leadership – especially as taught in an academic setting – so important?
Most of the rest of academia is focused on how to do something, and with leadership we really focus on the why plus how you actually make things happen. Leadership should be taught in grade school all the way through graduate school. Leadership as a discipline was formalized after the Watergate scandal, and in our era, we need everyone with their hands on deck to figure out how we address these wicked environmental, political and social challenges we face. I know I look back on some of my schooling and think of classes like geometry that I never used. I would have loved to have taken a leadership class back then. Leadership is often seen as a non-essential “add-on” or a byproduct of higher education, and it should be central to learning at every level of education.
Could you walk us through your typical day at IonE?
There is no typical day at IonE, which is one of many reasons why I love working here. For example, today, I’m working on a contract for a guest speaker, working on curriculum, and editing a book, “Developing Change Agents,” for our ANGLES Network which will come out in October. My work is a blend of advising, administrative work, event planning, network-building, research and of course, teaching.
IonE now has an official focus on Leadership & Education! What are you most excited for about this change?
I’m most excited about being able to work for and learn from the phenomenal Cathy Jordan, who’s taking the helm of the L&E team. And that we’re starting to figure out that the secret sauce to what makes our programs the most effective is our cohort-based models. IonE has been what I perceive as a start-up hub of sorts, and now we’re sensing what models work best and how we can better align our resources so that they’re rocket fuel as we work together to address these incredible sustainability challenges we face.
You’ve encountered many students, graduate and undergraduate, throughout your time in academia. Are there one or two qualities you think make for a strong change-maker?
I’ve been blessed to work with many brilliant students and faculty over the years. The key differentiators between those who are the most successful at being a change-maker is a willingness to experiment and fail, a commitment to deep work that leads to innovation, and an investment in relationships. Having a community of support, guidance and inspiration is essential. It’s nearly impossible to create change if you’re a perfectionist and consumed with what others think of you. It’s paralyzing. More and more I realize that our greatest challenges aren’t necessarily the science, but are the internal challenges folks have to get their work out there and the need for community in our academic and social fabric that is increasingly digitally connected, yet isolating at the same time.
What’s next for Kristi?
I’m working on taking our workshops for faculty and students online when it makes sense to have greater accessibility for folks across the Twin Cities campuses and the University of Minnesota system. I’m in the process of tuning our curriculum to find best-practices for online workshops with the great emerging technologies we have while also still curating intensive in-person community building opportunities like the Deep Work Retreat in the Boundary Waters for our IonE Affiliates. And I’m getting married, so that’s the icing on the cake.