THIS WOMAN || Debra Dunn

This Girl Laughs, This Girl Cries, This Girl Does Nothing actor and co-producer Beth Thompson brings us another inspiring story in the fifth installment of the This Woman portrait and interview series. Debra Dunn, founder and president of Synergy Resources Group, shares her experiences championing women, finding success in male-dominated spaces, and Alice Cooper concerts.

Photos by Lava Alapai

I met Debra Dunn through some of my nearest and dearest, the women in my life who are constantly inspiring me to be a better person. She came into their lives as a friend and a mentor. Debra is a fierce and sharp woman. She’s always hungry for inspiration and on the lookout for warm and wise hearts to take on the journey with her. Debra has been working in business since the early 80s and got into lobbying and government affairs later that same decade. She’s the only woman in the This Woman series who has been experiencing the rise of feminism in the workplace over the course of the last three decades, while most of the others were busy being born and going through puberty. As such, Debra can offer a perspective that is unique, and one that continues to resonate in the here and now.

“My feminist journey started when I was a teenager and my younger brother got to do everything because he was a boy. And, a feminist was born. ‘What do you mean I can’t go to the Alice Cooper concert but my brother can?’ Not that I wanted to, but just because I couldn’t!

“I went to burn the bra protests and did a lot of pro-choice marching. My journey has been fiercely feminist, always thinking about women in many roles and trying to break the silences and boxes that women are put in.  It’s also put me in positions, in places, where conflict lived, which I learned to navigate.”

“I know that today’s women, your generation and all those behind me, are making such great strides in the workplace.  Just think  – women could not get financial credit in my lifetime! That’s appalling. However, women are advancing, and I know that I’m standing on the shoulders of many generations of women who made it possible for me to do what I do today.”

I asked her to tell me how and why she got into what was, especially at the time, an industry overwhelmingly governed by men.

“Well, it was journey. It started in the 80s where I was lobbying for education issues with Oregon Parent Teacher Association and I was on their legislative committee. We were able to get the checkbox on the tax return if you wanted to contribute to child abuse prevention. And for me at a young age, that was a pretty big deal and I found that I enjoyed it.”

“But, I also had to make a living, so I was working for a veterinarian who was more of an entrepreneur than a veterinarian.  He gave me the opportunity to work with him to buy and sell veterinary clinics. I would analyze the position of the business and determine whether we were going to purchase it. And, once we did, I developed the business and marketing plan to turn it around and then we sold it.  We had a lot of fun.”

“But, then my former husband wanted to go into the trucking business. And, at the time, I brought the business and financial acumen to the table and he had the technical experience. So, it was important for me, just out of self-preservation, that I got involved in the business to make sure that it was successful.”

“Long story short, I got involved in transportation issues. As I was already familiar with lobbying on education issues, it gave me the opportunity to talk to people about issues that were impacting our business, and at that time, it was safety issues. We were without the kind of safety regulatory environment that we have today. So, I got involved with lobbying on transportation issues, met many friends in Salem and my life took a different path. I probably would never have pursued a career in transportation. But, I really enjoyed it and I enjoyed the people I was working with.  I found opportunities to lead organizations that were transportation related where my primary role was the public affairs side of the organization.”

The whole concept of that story is a little wild for a girl who has been focused on making theatre for more than a decade, so I asked Debra about her education, what schooling led her to all this.

“My education is in business.  All I usually needed to hear was that it really wasn’t a place for women or it really wasn’t something women were qualified to do and it became a competitive opportunity for me to prove that wrong.”

“But, it did put me in situations that, at the time, were very difficult for women in that you were the only one at the table. There weren’t any people of color at the table and there certainly weren’t any other women at the table. But, it put me in a position to learn and understand the environment that I was walking into.  I had set a high standard for myself that immediately demonstrated my abilities. My financial acumen helped because most women were supposedly not math oriented, right?  So my ability to read and understand financial statements usually bought me some credibility. But it was difficult to demonstrate your abilities, your effectiveness and your performance because you were instantly overshadowed by all the men in the room.”

“So, my high achiever personality worked well in that environment, because I became very results driven. And, it wasn’t so much how I got there, it was the results. If I could show the right results, then I would get their attention and the ‘Oh, gee, she must know what she’s doing.’  So, I was very results oriented and set professional and personal goals, and I still do every year.

“In those days it was critically important to be focused on what I was trying to accomplish. And, it was hard. I’m not going to say it was easy. I can say, ‘Me, too,’ many times over. I remember going into the legislature, some of my first times in the legislature I had female lobbyists immediately telling me which legislators’ office not to go in alone.  And, I of course, listened. And thought, they know something didn’t.”

“So, it was tough. And, I’m sure it still is; however, I do think it must be easier for women. I’m glad that there are so many women in executive roles now. “

Now, I’m pushy. And, Debra is a friend, so I asked her to speak honestly with me about any ways that working in the male dominated spheres of business and government at those times shaped who she is today.

“It totally shaped me. You have to be pretty confident to be in that industry. I was pretty confident to start with, but it required some pretty tough skin and that’s probably one of the reasons I got out. You don’t want to lose sight of your sensitivity and that was at risk at times because I had to be on my game at all times.  I’ve wondered if I had been in an environment where it wasn’t so male dominated, if it was more balanced as I see so many environments today, just what a difference…I’m sure I would be a different person.”

“Am I satisfied? I’m certainly satisfied with who I am. But, it shaped me, the goal setting and just setting high standards. But, it put me in a position where I was exerting so much energy on a day-to-day basis that there wasn’t a lot left of me for my family, my girls, and that suffered. And, that’s a shame. Being in that environment and working at the level just didn’t leave a lot leftover. So, it did shape me in a positive way, as well as in ways that had an impact on people that I cared about.”

Mentorship and mentoring women, has been a long-time conversation between Debra and me. She fully believes it is the mission of the rest of her life to mentor other women. But, that is the mission, in part, because it wasn’t always the focus.

“In those early years, I’ll be the first to admit, we didn’t take the time to mentor other women. We were so busy trying to keep up with everything that was trying to tear us down, we didn’t take the time to help other women. My first opportunity was in the late 90s. I realized then that I could find opportunities to help women in the workplace. I decided I wanted to put myself in a position to be open to it if there was someone that I thought was reaching out in some way for advice or guidance, I would be ready to share.”

“But, I also realized that in many of the businesses or associations I ran, there wasn’t a lot of room for advancement. And some of these women were so qualified to do so much more that I found myself using the workplace as a training ground. So, I would hire these really qualified people to gain the experience in where they wanted to go. And, they would launch from there to a place that inspired them. I had a lot of fun with that. I know some people thought, ‘Well, gosh, they’re here and then they just go. But, I thought, ‘Great. It’s just wonderful.’ Because there isn’t anywhere for these amazing women to go within the organization! There weren’t that many leadership roles, so that was a way for me to think in terms of how can I bring women up.”

And, there is also a focus on interweaving her multi-generational circles to aid in this work.

“Because of the work I’m doing right now, I’ve worked with a lot of 30-somethings and I thoroughly enjoy 30-somethings.  I have friends and colleagues who say they drive them nuts. I find them to be creative and full of energy; they don’t like boxes, neither do I; they like to draw their own lines, so do I. I mean, they’re entrepreneurial almost by their nature.”

“But I feel like I’ve been able to create opportunities to bring women of all ages together and find that there is common ground. And I think one of the challenges with many of the women in my generation is that they’re feeling that maybe they didn’t do a very good job of bringing up women of color.  If I had the opportunity… but I didn’t create the opportunity. That’s one of the things we’ve talked about, “How could we have created that?” Because we have to be intentional. And that’s what I’m encouraging them to do… we have to design that outcome. And, the outcome needs to include women and people of color.”

“So, I’m able to have those conversations with women my age and it’s been helpful testing those conversations with 30-somethings. It really has. Because you provide an insight, a point of view, that I wouldn’t have considered…sometimes…and yet it’s right in front of me.”

And, that’s the thing that has always struck me about Debra. She is intelligent and wildly opinionated. And, she is equally curious and truly open-minded. There is an intelligent demand to her curiosity that inspires me to bring more to the table in conversations where I am trying to shift her perspective. The passion of her strength and the warmth of her flexibility are the examples that mentor me in our friendship together.

Synergy Resources Group is a proud sponsor of This Girl Laughs, This Girl Cries, This Girl Does Nothing. Check out their blog to learn more about why Debra is supporting this project, and then get your tickets here!

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