CEO of Discovery Gateway Children’s Museum
Uniquely qualified, Kathleen Bodenlos has worked her way up to the executive level in both large corporations and world-renown museums, borrowing best practices from both. Her experience has afforded her a sound business acumen coupled with a very creative mind that can envision and implement new exhibits, programs, and partnerships. Entrepreneurial in spirit and willing to take educated risks, she has steered her museum from a precarious economic position due to the pandemic, reinvigorated it financially, and created new exhibits and programs to enhance the visitor experience. By identifying the strengths of her talented board members and staff, she has worked alongside her team to tackle and improve the organization’s key elements, ensuring future sustainability.
“When you are a leader, it is important to find time for yourself. Self-care is critical and doesn’t always come naturally to people with leadership personalities. For me, I find balance through exploring other passions—I am an avid hiker, artist, writer, and traveler,” says Kathleen. “Staying curious and learning new things keeps me energized. Finding time for yourself isn’t selfish but helps you to be a more well-rounded person.”
Overcoming Barriers to become a Mentor
The most significant barrier for Kathleen Bodenlos was when she was promoted to the executive level as the only woman in a male-dominated corporation. It challenged her to get comfortable with being very different than her coworkers. It taught her two things. The first is that being different has both disadvantages and advantages, and one has to make it work. Secondly, it was up to her to find ways to allow her coworkers to get to know her. “I wanted them to see that we had more things in common than it first appeared. But it took persistence, patience, kindness, and not to mention a sense of humor.”
Kathleen enjoys working with both women and men but recognizes that women need strong role models to emulate. She has been fortunate that she has had strong women leaders to follow. “On my current senior leadership team, I have more women than men, and I have developed female leaders even when they don’t see themselves in that capacity at first,” says Kathleen. “People need to be believed in to do their best but also must be challenged at times. Whether mentoring men or women, I stay alert and look for times to help a person move to the next level. I find developing others to be extremely rewarding.”
As busy as Kathleen is in her current role, she always finds time to mentor. For example, she is currently leading an initiative to define and build her museum’s culture. Setting aside time each week, she meets with current and future leaders on her team to create an open and safe space to share their values and aspirations. The goal is to continue to shape a performance-driven culture that has fun, builds equity, strengthens core values, and develops future leaders of tomorrow.
Finding Success to Transform
According to the steadfast leader, success comes in many ways and isn’t always linear. After Kathleen had worked her way up to the executive level in a large corporation, after several years in that role, she decided to make a huge career change and follow her life-long passion for working for a museum. It wasn’t any museum but the one she grew up on as a child—the Carnegie Museum of Pittsburgh. It was an enormous risk and included a hefty pay cut, but Kathleen knew in her heart it was right. “Unexpectedly, I ended up on a very short trajectory to becoming a CEO in my current museum. This experience taught me that success comes to those who follow their passion and are willing to take educated risks along the way.”
Museums give us access to the world. As a young girl, Kathleen went to the museum and viewed dinosaurs, art, and gems from all over the world in one afternoon. This experience was priceless as it enabled her to see and experience things she would have never been able to in any other way. “I want to ensure that museums remain sustainable for the next generation. However, it takes doing things differently to be relevant in changing times,” explains Kathleen. “Some museums don’t see that just yet. However, I am fortunate to have a board that is very modern, nimble, and willing to support me in taking educated risks to drive innovation. It is the only way museums will be around for the next hundred years.”
The museum was really hurting financially from the pandemic when Kathleen started. Pulling from her business background, she developed new revenue streams. For example, she reached out via LinkedIn to a local toy store owner and negotiated a contract to become the museum gift shop. It created a new revenue stream with a very low overhead for the museum. It also enabled visitors to take a piece of the museum home with them.
“We need to try new things to get new results,” says Kathleen. “We have a program called the Medallion Program. We raise money so kids in need (physical, mental or financial), can visit the museum for free. Many of these children are in difficult situations and a day at the museum introduces them to a new world of possibilities.” By partnering with other non-profit organizations like Ronald McDonald House and Head Start, they provide free museum passes to distribute to the children and families who need them the most. A day at the museum helps these children to see beyond their current circumstances to explore new ideas and a future where they are empowered.
Kathleen’s vision is to do something original not commonly found in other children’s museums. Children’s museums tend to be high-touch and offer learning through play opportunities. “I want to keep focusing on that, of course, but I also want to add museum quality artifacts and artwork that children will be able to view but not touch,” explains Kathleen. “Since I have worked in large collecting museums, I have a unique background and plan to create a nexus of both hands on activities coupled with amazing artifacts and art. By offering a new hybrid experience for children, our children’s museum will become a gateway to other museums. In this way, we will do our part to inspire a new generation of museum visitors and will differentiate our children’s museum in a modern way.”