Miya Hunter-Willis is the Chief Operating Officer of a small, start-up company called The Willis Family established in 2006. Currently, she supervises three entry-level employees, namely her children. Miya is the creator and director of the company’s “Pathway to Success” program which provides each employee with all essential resources (not limited to life, food, and shelter) to navigate this world.
A former history professor, Miya holds a M.A. in History from Marshall University, a B.A. in Psychology and African American Studies from the University of Virginia, and a M.R.S. courtesy of Dr. George Willis.
I did everything–marriage, career switches, and pregnancies–at the worst possible times according to every major women’s magazine and career counselor. Yet and still, I’m more successful today than ever before!
ENM: Everybody has magic; what is yours?
I used to spend a lot of time worrying and being stressed out about what I couldn’t control. I learned that I can control how I make other people feel especially when it comes to encouragement. Whenever I have an opportunity to love on someone, I take it and run with it. Nothing is more magical than the look on someone’s face when you’ve spent time building them up.
ENM: How are you currently using your magic to create impact?
I know that this sounds cliché, but my children are my opus—they are the direct beneficiaries of my magic. I marvel at how much they’ve learned from me. Every single day I get to witness how much they enjoy encouraging other people. Nothing warms my heart more than to see how they’re putting the principles that I’ve taught them into action.
ENM: When did you decide to exist no more and live life fully? Was there a specific event that happened?
Choosing for the third time (yes, it took me three times!) to be a stay-at-home mother solidified my decision to exist no more. I wasn’t laid off from my job, I didn’t stumble upon a lost talent, and I didn’t have a serendipitous moment (aka quarter-life-crisis) that changed how I viewed my life. Before choosing to stay-at-home, I was a history professor—what a privilege! Early on, I realized that I wasn’t the best or most decorated instructor in my department. However, I did become one of the most trusted and sought after faculty members. Students came to my office hours just to talk about life. They’d send me e-mails, text messages, Facebook requests long after the semester was over. I became a counselor, mentor, spiritual advisor, and practically a mother to many of my former students. To me, this is a compliment far greater than knowing if they remember the events leading up to the War of 1812. Basically, I lived a double life (work and home) that eventually converged into one.
Watching my son’s face light up as I helped his teacher was priceless. No, I wasn’t creating the cure for cancer, but for a few hours my son felt special. That is amazing to me. I get to show my kids how much I love them by investing quality time into their everyday lives.
ENM: How did you get from the decision to exist no more to where you are today? What was your process/path?
Like I mentioned before, I didn’t have a specific process or path. In fact, it was my husband’s ambitions that propelled me forward. As a doctor, my husband’s career was already laid out for him—college, medical school, residency, job. Early in our marriage, I had to be flexible since his career was extremely regimented. This was a blessing in disguise. While he was in medical school, I decided to pursue a graduate degree in history while working for the university. During this time, people constantly told me that I was engaging during seminars and that they genuinely enjoyed my presentations. It was at a wedding reception that someone suggested that I leave university administration and join the teaching faculty. Two years later, I began teaching. It was one of the best career moves that I ever made!
Here’s the u-turn: Having children made me realize that I could still be a teacher. My classroom became our house, the grocery store, church, the park, museums, the soccer field. My textbooks include the Washington Post, the Bible, Dr. Seuss, Highlights magazines and remain chock full of multimedia with National Geographic, the History Channel, and yes, Google. My syllabi still change at a moment’s notice. I still have a guaranteed roster of three students, but it expands during soccer season, Vacation Bible School, and whenever I come into contact with a child who needs encouragement.
My point is that my process was unusual. In fact, it’s on-going, a work in-progress. I didn’t follow the stereotypical ladder to success—and that’s okay. I did everything (marriage, career switches, and pregnancies) at the worst possible times according to every major women’s magazine and career counselor. Yet and still, I’m more successful today than ever before!
ENM: What has been the most amazing part of your journey?
Realizing that my life has meaning to other people has been the most amazing part of my journey. Case in point, I had the opportunity to serve as classroom mom for my oldest son’s second grade class. I was the only parent who could participate. Watching my son’s face light up as I helped his teacher was priceless. No, I wasn’t creating the cure for cancer, but for a few hours my son felt special. That is amazing to me. I get to show my kids how much I love them by investing quality time into their everyday lives. When people die, no one ever says that they wished that they spent more time at work—they always mention quality time with loved ones.
I’ve also met some wonderful people along the way—my sisters in success. These are amazing women who are at different stages in their lives. Each lady has a resume that would impress any Fortune 500 Company, both those who work inside and outside the home. I learn from them daily and they reassure me that choosing this lifestyle was not a mistake.
A close second to overcoming the mundane routine of staying at home has been the criticism from other women. Seriously, women are our worst enemies.
ENM: What has been the most difficult part of your journey and how have you overcome it?
Being a stay-at-home mother isn’t all rainbows and butterflies. It’s a job that never ends. It’s a job with little recognition; it’s a behind-the-scenes profession. Real talk: Being with a person who eats crayons for fun, listens to the same song on repeat 17 times in a row and thinks that tissue paper playing hide-and-seek with Mommy’s glasses is a great source of entertainment can be draining. A close second to overcoming the mundane routine of staying at home has been the criticism from other women. Seriously, women are our worst enemies. We have an extremely difficult time supporting each other regardless of age, race, socio-economic status (side note: in the case of stay-at-home moms we evaluate other mothers based on number of extra-curricular activities our kids excel at, the number of volunteer hours we log, the number of recipes circulated on a couponing blog) or any other statistic we use to make other moms feel inadequate. Those “Real Housewives” and other reality t.v. shows don’t help either—too many issues, too little time, too many brain cells lost. In a nutshell, being able to motivate myself to keep pressing forward is challenging when the rewards and support systems are few.
To overcome this challenge, I look to my faith. As a Christian, I’m taught that perseverance produces character. I want to be a woman of noble character, someone that my husband and children are proud of at all times. Being a role model takes precedence over receiving recognition for my tidy house or tasty home-cooked meals. Having integrity when no one is looking is my ultimate goal and I’m striving to impart that quality into my children and into those that I have influence over. Whether in the public spotlight or in anonymity, I want to serve others and that keeps me motivated.
ENM: If you could only pass on one piece of advice to anyone reading this interview, what would it be?
Don’t be the smartest person in your circle. If you are, then it’s time to get a new circle. Surrounding yourself with people who are wiser than you will push you to be your most authentic self. You’ll be forced to ask questions, to really listen. You’ll be humbled and you’ll truly focus on what you’ve been specifically created to be instead of chasing after someone else’s dream, someone else’s expectations, and someone else’s version of you.
ENM: What is your personal philosophy towards failure?
To me, failure is just a necessary part of figuring out how to hone your talents and gifts. What works for the goose doesn’t always work for the gander. Failure helps me to re-evaluate the situation and to try attacking the problem from a different angle. For example, I bought my oldest son a video game. Cool points for Mommy–WRONG! He was appreciative and I know it was a form of encouragement since his grades were perfect all quarter. My husband, on the other hand, actually played the video game with him. Our son responded with great joy and told everyone who would listen about what he and Daddy did. I tapped into my talent, but I failed at the follow-up. Most importantly, I believe that failure is humbling. It proves to me that I don’t have all of the answers all of the time. It reminds me to reposition myself to be the student instead of always being the teacher.
I become a force to be reckoned with whether my child is on the Honor Roll or receiving remedial support…This requires a major time investment, but it’s worth it. Similarly, I become a cheerleader for those children who don’t have someone to help them reach their fullest potential.
ENM: What is the most pressing issue facing Americans today?
We have a major crisis in the American family unit. This goes far beyond whether a women chooses to stay-at-home or work outside the home; this problem extends beyond race and socio-economic status as well. Our children are exposed to more violence, sex, drugs and inappropriate behavior than previous generations. They are over-medicated, under-loved, and generally regarded as byproducts of our failing society. Our country has the most resources with the fewest positive results. Why is that? It’s because the family unit has dropped to the lowest rung on the totem pole. What I am concerned about is our lack of focus on the people who should mean the most to us.
ENM: If you could influence one major piece of legislation, what would it be? How would this enable you to take your magic to another level?
I believe that we have a crisis in the education system. No longer is the major issue about access to opportunity. Today, our children are suffering because they don’t know how to read—plain and simple. Low income children are worse off in 2014 than they were 50 years ago and the American wealthy still fall below their counterparts in other westernized societies. We’ve traded basic comprehension and reading skills for standardized tests. I witnessed this failure in my classroom of college freshmen—too ill-prepared to read the textbooks and resource materials let alone write expository essays, use critical thinking skills to analyze historic events, or craft a well-documented argument.
Someone once said that if you’re not part of the solution, then you’re part of the problem. Supporting teachers and holding school systems accountable for the progress of students is major. This starts with educating parents and keeping them involved. Too many parents rely on the school administration to have the best interest of their children at heart. Guess what? My child means my responsibility; therefore, I invest in my child’s success. I develop a symbiotic relationship with my child’s teacher meaning we keep the lines of communication open, I am a regular presence at school-sponsored functions; I am active in my child’s homework/projects/extra-curricular activities. I become a force to be reckoned with whether my child is on the Honor Roll or receiving remedial support. Most importantly, I invite my child to witness this partnership; he will know that both the teacher and I are working toward the same goal—his success. This requires a major time investment, but it’s worth it. Similarly, I become a cheerleader for those children who don’t have someone to help them reach their fullest potential.