Monica Thornton | Executive Profile | ATLANTA TREND
A Thirst for Learning
By Karen Rosen
Monica Thornton’s motto could be “Sign me up!”
She never turns down a chance to learn new skills or take on a different role.
“Reaching beyond what I know is just something that I’m always set to do,” Thornton says. “My appetite for learning has always been hard to quench.”
It’s become her brand. Thornton applies her new knowledge in ways that help her community, her state and now her gender.
Since September, Thornton has been the executive director for Women In Technology, a non-profit advocacy group for girls and women in Georgia’s STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) and business communities. She also manages the operations of the WIT Foundation.
“I am an evangelist for STEM and encouraging girls to embrace it,” she says.
WIT has an ambitious goal: “We want Georgia’s workforce to be 50-50 by 2020,” Thornton says, noting that women in the state currently hold fewer than 30 percent of the jobs in careers.
“We’re not seeing ourselves (in these jobs), going into them or staying,” she says, “and so we’re not getting to those levels where we’re the decision-makers.”
Thornton adds that executives in the C-suites and other decision-makers tend to hire people who look like them and they feel they can relate to.
“We have to change that dynamic,” she says.
Women must also figure out how to better network with men, whether by building robots with them as youngsters or playing golf with them as adults, “because we’ve got to be there and we’ve got to help them see us as their peers.”
Thornton says federal, state and local governments, as well as the education system and labor department, also want to see women get ahead in business and technology. “It’s a great place to be right now because everybody is thinking the same thing,” she says.
In addition to encouraging girls to go into STEM careers, WIT is trying to change perceptions about the games they should play while growing up. ”I would like to see race car and builder sets created for girls,” she says.
Thornton says she unwittingly fostered gender stereotypes in the past. She and her husband gave their oldest son a computer as one of his first toys. The first toy she gave her goddaughter was a dollhouse.
“Now I have a different mindset,” Thornton says. “As a 12-year-old, I’m giving her gadgets and apps.”
Through her work with WIT, she’s also giving girls tools to succeed.
“Society puts a lot of emphasis for girls on being beautiful and rich,” Thornton says. “We’ve done a lot to take care of that pretty part, but nobody’s telling them how to get rich. In STEM careers, their potential to be rich is so much greater than in any other career path that they will choose -- and nobody’s told them that.
“And they haven’t told them that they can do it on their own.”
Thornton was a woman in technology before the 21-year-old organization was founded.
She was born and raised in metro Atlanta. “My parents were really different,” Thornton says. “We were the house that if there was a new piece of technology, we had it.”
She was so fascinated by the special effects in “Star Wars” that to this day she has Princess Leia, Luke Skywalker, Chewbacca and other figurines adorning her office.
When Thornton enrolled at Clark Atlanta University as a journalism and communications major, people assumed she would be the next Monica Kaufman. After all, they shared a name and an interest in television.
Thornton applied for a summer internship at WSB-TV and was offered a one-year training program instead. Realizing that the opportunity was one she couldn’t pass up, Thornton began working 9 to 5 on weekdays and taking classes at Georgia State at night.
By the time she graduated, Thornton had four years of on-the job training. “I took advantage of everything,” she says. Every time someone asked her, “Would you like to learn this?” Thornton replied, “Absolutely. Sign me up for that.”
Venturing into a production suite for the first time, she learned how to write copy and work with an art director and editor.
“Going home that night, sitting on my couch and seeing it on the air blew my mind,” Thornton says.
It also changed her path from becoming a news anchor like Kaufman. “I knew from that point that I was headed in the direction of production and producing. I wanted to create something. “
Thornton produced marketing and public relations pieces and then longer specials for community affairs.
At Georgia State, she changed her major to film and production. Her mother and husband-to-be convinced her to get her degree even though she was already using some of the skills being taught in the classroom at WSB.
“It was challenging, but I wouldn’t change it because I think burning the candle at both ends is just a part of my life,” Thornton says.
It also groomed her for the intense jobs she would be drawn to in the future, though she didn’t know it at the time.
“It prepared me to really go beyond what I thought I could do,” Thornton says
With Jocelyn Dorsey, she worked on Family 2 Family, the station’s new public service programming.
“That’s when I started to really see the impact that television could have on our community,” Thornton says. “That kind of planted a seed for me, and began my personal journey of taking jobs that had an impact on our community.”
Reluctantly, she left WSB after earning her degree. A mentor told Thornton that colleagues at the station would always view her as a trainee and not as the professional she had become.
“She really kind of nudged me out of the door to say, ‘Go and fly. You can do this,’” Thornton says.
She went to work at a station in Birmingham, Ala. As luck would have it, Robert Thornton went to Birmingham to cover the Fred Tokars trial for WSB.
When the trial was over, they came back to Atlanta, got married and started their family. Their three sons are now 18, 12 and 10.
Thornton went back to work at Fox 5 in community affairs, then moved on to Georgia Public Broadcasting where she saw an opportunity to make an impact on a statewide level.
Thornton produced the fundraising telethons for both TV and radio. She was brought in to fill a roll that had been passed around among other staff members.
“Again, it was something new that they were trying, and I was the guinea pig to go, ‘Yeah, OK. I can do that,’” she says.
While it was fulfilling, the job burned her out in about two years. When Thornton saw her little boy reaching for his father or a babysitter when he needed something, she knew it was time to leave GPB and spend more time with her family.
However, the relationship with GPB has continued. Thornton is still an on-air spokesperson during telethons and has fortunately had employers that understood “that this is a passion for me.”
When she was approached to work in development for Piedmont Park Conservancy, Thornton had a rare moment of hesitation. “Raising money for the park? How would I do that? On that one, I was like, ’I’m not really sure.’”
After a meeting with then-CEO Debbie McCown, Thornton changed her mind, thinking, “Please God, let me have this job!”
The conservancy was about to embark on a $42 million, 53-acre improvement of Piedmont Park and Thornton was intrigued by the chance to do legacy work.
As SVP/Chief Marketing and Development Officer, she also had to smooth over the controversy over a new parking deck.
“They were really looking for someone to help them get the messaging about the expansion out there and to change the conversation so that they could concentrate on the fundraising,” Thornton says. “It was probably some of the most rewarding work that I’ve done in my whole life because it’s so tangible. That’s the kind of stuff that my grandkids can go, ‘Nana helped do this.’’’
On the wall of her Buckhead office, Thornton has a quilt made out of Conservancy T-shirts which reflect the rebranding effort and new logo. She also has a photo montage of the 13 improvement projects, including the “Active Oval,” completed during her time there.
After nine years, Thornton realized she had “checked all the boxes.” “I finished it. I’d done what I came here to do.”
About the same time, she found out about the job at WIT.
“I had always avoided the executive director route,” Thornton says. “I liked being behind the scenes and being that person that helped put out the fire.”
With her husband retiring and her oldest son off to college, Thornton decided to take the step. She had experience in fundraising, marketing, crisis communications. She learned about distributing funds from a stint with United Way of Metro Atlanta. And she also knew how to be “out front” from her time with the GPB telethons.
“It really has been a nice blessing for me to have an opportunity to use all of those skill sets for something that I think is so important,” Thornton says.
As a bonus, she had the perspective of knowing what it felt like being in a mostly-male field.
She recalled being “kind of lonely” in her film production classes and edit suites because there were so few other women. She also remembered that the women were often “at the mercy” of the men to teach them what to do.
Thornton says women should not “wonder if you’re supposed to be there. What WIT is doing is making certain that they know that there are other women who are like-minded and have similar goals and are creating an environment for them to dream big and go beyond.”
WIT begins interacting with girls in middle school and continues through college and the whole career cycle. Women in STEM careers go into the schools to talk to girls. Girls also come to them in a job shadow program.
Because WIT is a founding society of the Technology Association of Georgia (TAG), any member of TAG is a member of WIT -- even the men.
“I think that men, at least the decision-makers, understand that we have to do something,” Thornton says. “They want the diversity that is necessary to have the best ideas and the best minds as much as we do. And they’re clearly not reaching those numbers on their own.”
Thornton says young women need to understand that in today’s world culinary arts and fashion are STEM careers too. Math and science skills are essential in putting together recipes while some clothing contains technology to help relieve aches and pains.
“If we start thinking about even those careers paths that way, then it’s still OK for girls to play with tea sets,” Thornton says.
“But helping them see how those skills are tangible skills that they can one day use in the workforce, making those connections for them, we’ve got to start earlier.”
WIT operates with an annual budget of about $1 million. Thornton has two-full time staff members and is filling a full-time business development position.
WIT volunteers dedicate more than 1,000 hours annually to the legwork on the ground. They create relationships with colleges and technical schools, talk to sponsors and government officials and take part in school programs.
“We have so many amazing volunteers; I’ve never seen anything like it,” Thornton says. “But, of course, we’re women. We know how to organize. We know how to get things done.”
Someday, Thornton hopes to publish her children’s book about a nightlight that is afraid of the dark. In the meantime, she’ll work to make sure that no girls are afraid of science, technology, engineering or math.
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