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USI alumna Deidra Conner, president of The Arc of Evansville, is a member of the Romain College's Board of Advisors, composed of senior business leaders who are acquainted with the needs of the community and of commerce and have a strong interest in establishing and maintaining direct and effective communication between the business world and the business classroom.

Conner's headshotIn her capacity as President, Deidra is responsible for overseeing The Arc of Evansville’s programs and services to meet the needs of individuals with developmental disabilities in Evansville and the surrounding communities. Deidra works with the United Way, other local agencies, community leaders, The Arc of Indiana, and local and state elected leaders to advocate for individuals with disabilities. She also works closely with The Arc of Evansville Board of Directors and management team to fulfill the agency’s vision for the future.

What is your connection to USI, and what makes USI and the Romain College of Business special to you?
I am a 1987 graduate from the University of Southern Indiana. I graduated with a bachelor's degree in accounting. I was the first person in my family to go to college. I did not have the knowledge or the financial resources to consider attending another college or university. USI was easily accessible to me; I received a significant scholarship from USI, and I left the university with zero debt. I really didn’t appreciate that as much as I should have as a 21-year-old grad; however, over time, I realize that was a VERY significant gift that the university gave to me.

I’m now a member of the Romain College of Business Board of Advisors, where I interact with a wide variety of seasoned professionals from a variety of industries. I still find it hard to believe that I am one of the members of the Romain College of Business Board of Advisors. I’m a small town girl from Chandler, IN, and I never thought I would be asked to be on the Board of Advisors. It’s such an honor for me to be involved with a group of community leaders and University staff and faculty that I hold in high regard.

Shortly after I graduated from USI, I was a member of the USI Alumni Council. I supported the capital campaign for the “new” Business and Engineering Center and also have a planned gift in place for USI as part of my estate plan.  

From your prospective, what is unique about the Romain College of Business?
I appreciate the interaction that USI students get from visitors/guest speakers coming in to the classrooms as well as the special events that are planned for students, faculty, and alumni. I appreciate that I can engage numerous colleagues from the Romain College of Business to help me with a project or help me problem-solve. I appreciate knowing that I can offer to volunteer to speak to a group of students to provide some “real world experience” with the complete support of the professors and the Dean. I always feel welcome in the College of Business - the faculty, staff, and students are warm and welcoming, and those who know me on a personal level always ask about Arc and the work we are doing.

Tell us about some of the highlights as you’ve advanced in your career path.
Passing the CPA exam was a big highlight for me – it took months of intensive study and prep work to pass the exam.

I also really enjoyed being able to work in several industries – working at BKD in public accounting, working in a variety of jobs at American General Finance, working in the Internal Audit Department at Deaconess and creating the first Corporate Compliance Program for Deaconess. All of these experiences, as diverse as they are, led me to my “dream job” of running one of the larger not-for-profit organizations in Evansville – The Arc of Evansville.

I always wanted a job where I could help improve someone’s life. The work we do at The Arc of Evansville was life-changing for me, and I began to recognize what’s really important in life and what’s really important to me in terms of truly being able to make someone else’s life just a bit better. I believe I am a better human being as a result of what I’ve learned from Arc’s clients & families.

What attributes make a person successful in your industry?
You definitely need “grit” (resilience) in the non-profit arena. There are many highs and lows with fundraising, with State and Federal funding, making sure our clients achieve their outcomes, and making sure all of this work is truly client-focused. The great work being done at Arc has very little to do about me and my abilities and very much about the front line staff who work with our clients/children EVERY SINGLE DAY!

What is one thing you wish you knew when you were in college?
I should have engaged in more activities at the University and allowed myself to have more fun. I was a commuter student and worked part-time at Credit Thrift. I wanted to get out of college in 4 years, and I didn’t engage enough (if at all) in campus activities.

What advice would you give a recent college graduate?
My advice is work hard on EVERY SINGLE PROJECT OR TASK YOU ARE GIVEN. Develop resilience – don’t give up – figure out how to work through an issue or problem. Be willing to ask for help when you need help, but not until you’ve really tried to do it on your own and you have no other ideas on how to proceed. Develop relationships with people that you admire who are good role models and good human beings and ask for their feedback, their insights, where you are strong, where you need coaching. I also believe we learn more from our mistakes than we do from our successes. You never truly know why something was a “success,” but when you have a project or idea that you consider to be a “failure,” you typically learn so much more about what went wrong, and that will provide great insights for you going forward.

How would you finish this sentence: If I were back in college, I wish I would have gotten a better understanding of________________. to be a “typical college student” who enjoyed the social aspects of the University.

What are some challenges you see your industry facing in the short-term and in the long-term?
Funding is an issue for most not-for-profit organizations and The Arc of Evansville is no exception. Historically our services were fully funded from Federal and State dollars; the recession 10 years ago changed that and funding from State and Federal agencies are not enough to keep our doors open. Many of our community members have no idea what The Arc of Evansville does on a daily basis to benefit our children and adults with developmental disabilities. We serve 750 individuals and the general public would be amazed at the talents and skills our adult clients have to offer for the workplace, for volunteer opportunities, for educating others about diversity. The Child Life Center prepares children with and without disabilities to be successful as they move into Kindergarten classrooms. We are constantly working on building better relationships with our current donors, cultivating potential donors, and assessing our programs regularly to ensure we are providing the most appropriate services for those we serve.

Who do you think are the most important/influential people in your industry today?
That’s a tough one for me to answer. Our industry is unique and there are not many agencies that do what we do.

What’s the most effective daily habit you possess?
Discipline and resilience. I’m a very disciplined person and that discipline allows me to focus on something without getting distracted, i.e. I can knock out a lot of work in a short amount of time. I typically have my plan developed for the next day and execute most of those plans without too many interruptions. Resilience is very important in my business. When you ask someone for a donation and they decline to help I just view that as the first step to getting to know that person better. Sometimes that happens in a very short time-line; sometimes it might take 10 years. I don’t give up easily for ideas/causes that I care deeply about.

What factors do you consider most often when planning for the future?
I used to think about and create “plans for my future” but life gets messy and all of those big dreams can quickly change. I love the quote “Man plans; and God laughs”. I learned long ago that no matter what I THINK I WANT, it’s not necessarily in my hands. There were many career opportunities that I thought I should have been given the opportunity to pursue, but most of those never panned out and in hindsight, I know those career opportunities were not the right ones for me. It was a job I was passed over many years ago that ultimately led me to Deaconess and then to The Arc of Evansville, and I can truly say the work I’m doing at The Arc of Evansville really is my “dream job.”

What are you passionate about?
I am very passionate about making a difference in my community, for the people we serve at The Arc, and I hope that somehow, someway – even if it is a tiny contribution to the Evansville community – I will be remembered as someone who really cared enough about her community to invest a lifetime trying to make our community a better place.

Published October 12, 2018