04/12/2015 15:02 GMT | Updated 04/12/2016 05:12 GMT

Women in Business Q&A: Joan Higginbotham, Director of Community Relations, Lowe's


Joan Higginbotham is Director of Community Relations for Lowe's. She leads Lowe's efforts to support communities in the Unites States, Canada and Mexico through contributions totaling more than $32 million annually. She also oversees Lowe's Heroes employee volunteer program and the Toolbox for Education grant program. Prior to Lowe's, Joan managed the Bioko Island Malaria Control Project (BIMCP) in Equatorial Guinea, Africa, for Marathon Oil Company. She began her career at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida and was eventually selected to be an astronaut by NASA, and logged over 308 hours in space.

Joan holds a B.S. Degree in Electrical Engineering from Southern Illinois University and two M.S. degrees from Florida Institute of Technology. She resides in Charlotte, NC.

How has your life experience made you the leader you are today?

In third grade I transferred from our local public school to a Catholic elementary school which was ethnically diverse. The high school I attended was also intentionally diverse; and the field of study I chose (electrical engineering) was heavily male dominated. These environments allowed me to interact with people who were very different from me and exposed me to various cultures and experiences. Because of my upbringing, I tend to easily connect with and relate to all types of people. I think that is a trait which is useful as a leader because it allows me to interact with a high degree of confidence and comfort with people throughout our organization - from employees in our stores to our leaders.

What have the highlights and challenges been during your tenure at Lowe's?

One of the highlights of my tenure at Lowe's has been raising a record amount of $116,000 in a four-day period for the Lowe's Employee Relief fund - a program that assists those experiencing significant financial hardships through the generous contributions of fellow Lowe's employees. I kept adding up the daily totals to ensure I hadn't made a mistake and then asked a colleague to check my math! It's truly phenomenal the way the Lowe's family supports each other. The Employee Relief Fund gives more than $3 million annually to Lowe's employees in need, and it was nice to be able to contribute the additional dollars we raised to the sum of the good work we do.

One of the challenges I have experienced, like other businesses, is implementing change.

How has being an astronaut changed your perspective on life?

There were two very poignant moments for me while I was in space. The first time I saw the sunrise over the horizon, I noticed how very 'thin' the atmosphere looked from 200 miles above the earth. It dawned on me at that very moment, that the 'thin' atmosphere was the only thing saving the human race from extinction. My next thought was how insignificant we (humans) all are in the context of the universe and how much we need to be mindful of what we are doing to planet earth.

The other moment occurred while I watched smoke billow up from over the Middle East. I immediately thought there was some social unrest. As I looked back inward at the orbiting space shuttle and space station, I thought about our crew as a mini United Nations. The crew was comprised of two African-American astronauts (a first), a Russian cosmonaut, a Spanish-American astronaut, an astronaut of Indian heritage, a Norwegian astronaut, a British born astronaut, and an astronaut of Korean and Russian heritage. I thought "If we astronauts can all get along with each other in this little tin can of a space vehicle, why can't the human race get along with all the space people have on the earth?"

What advice can you offer to women who want a career in your industry?

Obviously, I didn't take a traditional route to become Director of Community Relations at Lowe's, nor did I plan on being in the retail industry. The advice I would offer to women in any industry is to have a career plan, but don't be so rigid in that plan that you're afraid to alter it for the right opportunity. I have learned that in life, you will be presented with some amazing opportunities and you should be prepared to take advantage of them.

What is the most important lesson you've learned in your career to date?

You will always be satisfied with your results if you leave your all on the table.

How do you maintain a work/life balance?

I don't know if there is such a thing as 'balance'. On any given day, I'm probably favoring one or the other. But being a math lover, from a statistical standpoint, I'm assuming it will probably balance out over the span of my career. It's important for us women, who are generally the primary caretaker, to first take care of ourselves; and that's so hard to do. Instinctually, we want to make sure everyone else is good, and we tend to think about ourselves and our well-being last. The one thing I do for myself is to work out. Besides the health benefits, it's therapeutic and cathartic for me. After I finish, I'm good to go...and if that means a 14 hour day to get everything done, that's what I do. I also give myself permission to say, "I just can't do this today."

What do you think is the biggest issue for women in the workplace?

I think women underestimate their abilities and are first to give credit to everyone but themselves. We need to have more confidence in our abilities and not mistake that confidence for arrogance.

How has mentorship made a difference in your professional and personal life?

I've had several mentors during my career. Each one has seen things in me that I might not have seen in myself and has made me push pass self-imposed boundaries. I have grown by leaps and bounds both personally and professionally thanks to these people.

Which other female leaders do you admire and why?

My mother. She was a Depression-era baby, born to parents who weren't allowed to get an education past elementary school. Her parents stressed the importance of a good education and she graduated college wanting to pursue a Registered Nurse degree. However in Alabama, African American women could only pursue a Licensed Practical Nurse certification. She left her family and moved north to Detroit to attend nursing school. She graduated with her RN degree, met my father, married and four children later, she went back to school for her teaching degree. My mom worked during the day and went to school at night and obtained two master degrees in education. She and my father raised an orthopedic surgeon, a forensic scientist, a speech pathologist and audiologist and an electrical engineer and astronaut. Not too shabby if I say so myself.

What do you want Lowe's to accomplish in the next year?

Lowe's is a company with a big heart. From our employees in the stores to our CEO, everyone is deeply committed to doing good in the communities where we live and work. My goal as we move forward is to build greater awareness around what we do outside of the day-to-day business. I want customers to know that not only is Lowe's the place to go for your home improvement needs, but it's also a company invested in the surrounding communities. The communities where our stores are located are also our communities and our homes and what happens there matters to us.