How CEO of YMCA puts her best self forward

Deborah Bagatta-Bowles
Deborah Bagatta-Bowles

Delaware Business Times

Deborah Bagatta-Bowles has been president and CEO of YMCA of Delaware for the last three years.

How did you come to the YMCA of Delaware?

Yes! I have always sought non-traditional jobs; I thought I might be a horse trainer at one point in my young life and later gravitated to the health and fitness field. I worked in that arena for the private sector about 10 years before I joined the YMCA. When I started at the Y, I knew from day one that it was different and wonderful in ways I hadn’t expected. It was a place where people of all ages and backgrounds blended seamlessly, where different languages and cultures joined together in the quest for a healthy life, and children and teenagers always had a safe place and caring adults. That was 27 years ago.

I came to the YMCA of Delaware about three years ago as the president and CEO. Our YMCA is the only statewide YMCA in the country which makes us very special in our ability to scale initiatives that have the potential to impact the health of our citizens, the educational outcomes of our children and the leadership skills of our teens.

How did your upbringing impact your leadership style?

My family instilled a real work ethic in all of us, which has served me well throughout my career. I was also taught a sense of anything is possible. I try to hold that notion close every day and use it to inspire others to always ask, “Why not?”

What are some great pieces of advice that you’ve received?

Two pieces of advice: My dad told us we should always try to find work that we loved and could be passionate about, warning that life would be disappointing without it.

One of my mentors once told me, when I was complaining to her about my workload, that if I was waiting for a trophy at the door on my way out every day, I would be waiting a long time. I disliked her intensely in that moment but, over time, I was able to internalize her advice, not take myself so seriously, and find joy in my work.

The YMCA is such a visible organization in Delaware. Do you think people understand its role in the community?

I think most people understand part of the Y’s role in the community, but don’t fully understand the impact we have. The Y serves over 100,000 people in the state.  We are engaged in the public health arena, preventing diabetes, obesity in children, and working with all populations and income levels on improving health. We serve close to 2,000 young people a day in before and after school programs and summer camps, doing our best to reduce summer learning loss and close the achievement gap. Teens develop as leaders and often find their first job at the YMCA; they receive coaching on job readiness and college preparation. We distribute $5,000,000 in financial assistance, making anything we do accessible to the community.

How do you describe your leadership style?

I would say it’s tough but fair — and I hope we always have an element of fun. I am tough because the work we do is so important to our state that we cannot afford to be anything but great. We challenge each other to be better every day and to seek new opportunities to serve with excellence.

Any advice to new college grads?

Never give up — don’t allow the loss of a job opportunity, or a rejection to grad school or the naysayers to influence your commitment to yourself and your dream career path. Always put your hand up to help at work, even if it doesn’t mean more money- every experience is a resume builder and will help you grow. Surround yourself with positive people and mentors who will tell you the truth.

Always, always be the hardest-working person in the room, the most professionally dressed and well spoken. If you are asking yourself if you should wear a suit to a meeting, the answer is always yes!

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