As a part of my series about strong female leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Crystal R. Bowyer.
Crystal R. Bowyer was namedPresident & CEO of National Children’s Museum in 2017. In this role, Bowyer provides creative leadership, oversees design, and drives all business aspects of National Children’s Museum’s redevelopment and planning. Bowyer has dedicated her career to serving children with 15 years of experience in government and nonprofit administration. She comes to National Children’s Museum from the Museum of Science and Industry (MSI) in Chicago. At MSI, Bowyer managed individual philanthropy and membership, as well as supported board development and strategic planning for the organization. She contributed to the development and execution of MSI’s $380 million capital campaign and historic building preservation. She previously held leadership roles for the Chicago Children’s Choir and the Boys & Girls Town of Missouri, where she was awarded Employee of the Year Award for Outstanding Innovation. Bowyer has also served as adjunct faculty at North Park University, as a member of the Board of Trustees at The Driskill Foundation, and was Chair of The Cradle Adoption Agency Associates Board.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
I have always just wanted to help children. I thought I would go into government and be a children’s advocate attorney. I almost went to law school after college, but I found this wonderful job at Boys & Girls Town in Missouri and I knew I wanted to stay in the nonprofit world. I decided I wanted to go to business school to make sure I could really understand the strategy and planning required to run a successful business. I’ve been honored to work for children’s organizations all over the world, but I spent almost a decade in Chicago working for amazing cultural institutions that served children. My last role was with the Museum of Science and Industry (MSI). It is the largest science center in the U.S. and a very special museum, and I completely fell in love with the work and the impact you can make inside a museum as a vital part of a child’s learning ecosystem.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
My first six months were very interesting. I was employee #1, working with a few hundred thousand dollars to find a new location, build out the vision and business plan, consolidate our collections and assets that were scattered in several locations, and find the team to bring the Museum to life. I commuted from Chicago for the first two months and then worked from my house with one intern for the first four months in Washington, DC. We discovered a lot: there were exhibits in a former staff member’s garage, a 6-ft Big Bird sculpture was amongst our assets — there are too many interesting stories to count. But since moving to DC, so many Washingtonians have told me special stories about what was originally known as the Capital Children’s Museum. It was an amazing community resource since the founding in 1974, with adult literacy programs in the 1970s and a charter school in the 1980s and 90s. I’ve heard some inspiring stories from DC residents about what this place meant to them. Those are the stories that drive me, and I can’t wait to hear from people in the years to come about their visit to the National Children’s Museum.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
The classic mistake I made early in my career was making too many changes at once. When you are going into a new position, especially in a long-running institution, it’s important to take time to listen and learn, and then make any essential changes first and know that the rest can come a little later.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
When I was contacted about rebuilding the Congressionally-designated National Children’s Museum in our nation’s capital, I knew Washington was the only major city in America that also did not have a science center. It was a unique opportunity to combine the content commonly found in both of these spaces into one modern museum experience, and serve a wider age range — ideally the whole family — but our STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts, and math) learning objectives are targeted to children under twelve years old.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
We open the first week of November!
What advice would you give to other female leaders to help their team to thrive?
Support the growth of your team, and be intentional about developing the culture you think they need to be successful and enjoy their work. Happy employees are much more likely to thrive.
What advice would you give to other female leaders about the best way to manage a large team?
I’ve been lucky to work for some amazing leaders, but sometimes great leaders are not good managers. Anyone who has had a bad boss should be more thoughtful about their own approach. I care a lot about culture. I’ve studied how different generations rank various qualities in their work life. Number one in my generation was relationship with direct manager in one study I read. Of course, employees also have their own personalities and needs at work, so I try to balance our staff meetings to give everyone what they want out of the meeting — the mission moment, the facts, the celebrations, etc. I also make sure everyone in the room talks and shares their work briefly. It’s about everyone feeling heard and valued, and having transparencies between your employees so that they know everyone else is working as hard as they are every day.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
One of the most amazing things about working in nonprofits is that you get to work with these amazing, brilliant volunteers that are choosing to serve on the Board of Trustees. I have learned so much from various Trustees, but the Board Chairs that I worked under very early in my career taught me a lot. They always believed in me and let me try new things. I told one Board Chair that I had this idea to restructure my teams, and he said, “Go for it — try it!. And it fails, who cares — try something else!” He would tell me stories about mistakes he made along the way, and I realized that you are going to fail sometimes and that’s ok. Having the trust and support of these successful business leaders gave me the confidence to take risks.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
My entire career has been in nonprofits serving children. It drives me every day and it’s all I ever want to do.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why?
- Reserve time for the things that are important to you. Being a good mother is my most important job, so I try to block out evenings and weekends to spend time with my son. Or if I have an evening event, I will try to come in later so we get time extra time together in the morning.
- Make time for yourself and your health. You have to balance your time carefully when you in are in a CEO role because it can completely consume your life and mind, and for me, exercise and physical and mental health are directly related. When I work out, I clear my head, and come back to my work stronger in every way.
- Hire staff instead of consultants when you can. I wanted to keep operating costs low so I filled some roles with consultants early on, but our staff has been so dedicated and passionate, and I wish they had joined the team sooner.
- Working in DC is much different than any other city. The government implications on arts and culture are tremendous because so many of the cultural institutions are federally funded in Washington. National Children’s Museum has no federal support or no free federal building to operate within.
- Don’t take the experience for granted. In the midst of the craziness and fires of what really is a start-up, I have been trying to remember that this could be the most fun I will ever have at work. You have to enjoy the ride and keep a positive perspective so you don’t get overwhelmed by the issues on your plate.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
As the Congressionally-designated National Children’s Museum, we have a unique opportunity to be a platform for important scientific research. Inside one of the exhibit spaces, the Innovation Sandbox, we will feature a digital interaction that gives children the super-power to control the weather. This experience will teach environmental science, the difference between weather and climate change, and challenge the children to go out and be “Climate Action Heroes”. A partnership with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration will enable us to share important research, but our goal is to encourage guests to take action to help slow the effects of climate change — and make it a fun and less intimidating experience for children.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Kindness is key” is always the first thing that comes to my mind because I really believe that if you are kind to people and work hard, the possibilities are endless.
We are blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂
The people who I most admire are those that use their success to help others and are thoughtful and generous philanthropists. I have had the honor to work with some amazing leaders that fall into this category, but I would love to meet Bill and Melinda Gates. National Children’s Museum received a wonderful grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and I have heard Melinda Gates speak about their approach to philanthropy. They have done some incredible work around the world to affect real change, but they are also just nice, brilliant people and I would love to thank them for everything they do for children, women, and education.