When Alfreda Norman mentors young executives, she likes to remind them that leadership is more art than science. “Like art,” she says, “leading is based on hard work and discipline and doing lots of little things right.”
Norman knows a thing or two about art, business, hard work and discipline. A senior vice president at the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas, she says her path from dance student to successful banking executive was a winding, somewhat unexpected one.
The journey began in the mid-1970s, when, as a high school senior living in the suburbs of Chicago, Norman decided to apply to just one college: Southern Methodist University.
“I didn’t need to go to college to study dance, and there are a lot of great dance studios and universities in the Chicago area,” Norman says. “But I wanted to go to a good liberal arts school, and I wanted a chance to venture out.”
At first, Norman’s choice concerned her parents, who had moved to Chicago from Alabama in the 1940s. Like so many other African Americans who migrated north during the mid-20th century, they moved in order to escape the pervasive racism, discrimination and violence of the Jim Crow South.
Norman describes her father as a smart, savvy businessman who, despite having only a fifth-grade education, harnessed the construction skills he learned as a soldier in World War II and built a solid, middle-class life for his family. She understands why he was hesitant about her desire to study dance at a university in Texas with “Southern” in its name.
Still, Norman says, her parents supported her decision. “I wrote those tuition checks, which my father was paying, and I realized what a huge sacrifice he was making for me to go to college. How nice and fortunate that he believed in me, that he let me go where I wanted and do the thing I loved.
“It turned out to be a pretty darn good bet, too,” Norman adds. She earned degrees in dance and history from SMU and went on to build a robust, diverse career in Dallas. An internship at the Dallas Arts District morphed into a job administering their foundation and managing programming, which then led to a position in the city’s Office of Cultural Affairs. She was working there when Bank of America came knocking on her door.
They wanted Norman to be their community liaison. “We will teach you banking,” they offered. “Because it’s easier to teach you banking than to try to teach a banker about the community.”
Today Norman oversees the Dallas Fed’s communications and public outreach programs, managing corporate communications, community development, economic education and much more.
Norman says she has been successful as a businesswoman in part because of skills she acquired as a Meadows dance student.
“To be a leader, you have to be self-aware, and dance is the best way to absolutely understand who you are as an individual in space. You have to learn about yourself, to study yourself. It’s metaphorical, but studying your physical self does lead to having a clearer appreciation of what your other abilities are.”
SMU gave Norman something else as well: she met her husband, also a Meadows alum, when they were both undergrads.
“I still remember going to that post box when I was in high school and opening up that envelope,” Norman reminisces. “I was accepted! Life would’ve been completely different if I hadn’t gone to Meadows. It’s pretty fortuitous the way things worked out.”