National Geographic Society’s First Female CEO On Inclusivity
By Marianne Schnall
In 2020, the National Geographic Society appointed Jill Tiefenthaler as CEO—the first woman to hold this position in the organization’s 134-year history. Now she is forging a new path for women and other underrepresented voices at the Society and bolstering how it shapes the narrative on some of the world’s most pressing issues. Tiefenthaler—who prior to landing at Nat Geo had a successful career in economics and academia, including serving as provost of Wake Forest University and a nine-year tenure as the president of Colorado College—has a deep commitment to advancing work around diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI).
This dedication to leading and accelerating DEI means that the next generation of National Geographic Explorers will be more diverse than ever before as they work to identify, support, and elevate the work and voices of Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC). Also, National Geographic announced in January that they reached gender parity on its board of trustees, and 60% of Tiefenthaler’s senior team are women.
I had the opportunity to speak with Tiefenthaler about her plans to move the National Geographic Society forward, her leadership insights and advice, and the ways in which having diverse voices and perspectives from across the globe helps Nat Geo to achieve their mission to “illuminate and protect the wonder of our world.”
Marianne Schnall: What role or purpose do you see the National Geographic Society fulfilling in the world?
Jill Tiefenthaler: We have this incredibly mission-driven organization with a great mission: to illuminate and protect the wonder of our world. We do that in a couple ways. First, our theory for change is that we’ve always been this science-based organization and we have been able to advance knowledge and to then find ways to disseminate that knowledge and share it with the world. And then, of course, also in our mission is the protection. How do we do both the illumination side, storytelling and education, but also protection and really having conservation programs that have measurable and outsized impact? And that really makes National Geographic a unique organization because there aren’t too many organizations that come at their theory of change in both those directions.
With the world facing biodiversity loss and climate change, that protection mission has never been more important. And with some of the challenges to science in recent years, having a trusted brand like National Geographic out there to keep science and fact-based decision making at the forefront is another big part of our mission. So that’s where I think we can really make a difference.
And I think one of the things that makes us really special is that we do it through this international community of National Geographic Explorers, scientists, educators, storytellers and conservationists—incredibly talented and amazing people. We have about 6,000 of them that have been funded by the Society over the years around the globe in more than 120 countries. I think all of them together show where we’re going–this global reach really is our mission and also really trying to bring a variety of voices to the table.
Schnall: Can you share a little bit about some of these Explorers and the work they’re doing?
Tiefenthaler: Rosa Vásquez Espinoza is a Peruvian biologist. She studies the Amazon’s stingless bees and their special honey. And she’s also done some work on Amazon’s boiling river area. We elevate and support her work, and then help share her work so we can learn about how important it is to protect that region.
And another example that we highlighted in February was our Explorer Tara Roberts. We had a great podcast with her, and she was on the cover of the magazine. She is following a group of Black scuba divers, historians and archeologists as they are searching and helping to document the slave trade shipwrecks around the world.
Schnall: You have broken a glass ceiling being National Geographic’s first woman CEO in its 134-year existence. How do you feel about that?
Tiefenthaler: It took quite a while; I think it took a little too long, actually. It’s a great honor to be the first woman CEO, but it’s also a responsibility. I know from my own experience that representation really matters. I think the signal for the Society that I’m sitting in this role is that we are really headed toward a much more inclusive place at National Geographic. We were really excited and announced in January that we reached gender parity on our board of trustees, which is a big change for National Geographic. And now half of our grants at National Geographic are going to women, about 60% of my senior team are women, and we’re also working really hard in other areas and of inclusion as well.
I think for the Society, the importance of diversity and inclusion is obviously the right thing to do, but it’s also so much about our excellence and really bringing the best voices and the best talent to the organization. So another big step for us here is we just hired our first Chief Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Officer, Shannon Bartlett, who joined us last summer, and she and her team are really working hard with our Explorers and making sure we have the best around the world, but also in the workplace to make sure that we have a really inclusive workspace in this time when we bring people back into the office to really build that inclusive kind of innovative workspace that we’re dreaming about.
Schnall: National Geographic recently launched its first diversity statement, which centers around the principle, “Your Story Matters.” Can you explain what that means and looks like in practice?
Tiefenthaler: Part of an inclusive workspace is really making a place where people can do their best work and bring their whole selves to work. We really believe that what makes us stronger is the diversity of all the people that are part not only of our workplace but our entire community. So we worked really hard on people sharing their stories. Having people’s stories be honored and everybody really feeling like they can be themselves at work is how we get to the kind of inclusive work environment that we want at National Geographic.
Schnall: How do you think the Society has changed and will continue to change under the leadership of women?
Tiefenthaler: We have a wonderful 134-year history, but it’s also a complicated one and some parts of it we’re not so proud of. We were an organization that had a colonial past. A lot of our history was the white male explorer off “discovering” places that actually had been discovered by many others before. So how do we reckon with that past and also pivot toward a future where not only are we bringing representation of women into the picture, which hasn’t always been true in the past, but also our BIPOC populations and our international Explorers?
We’re trying to do much more. About 60% of our Explorers are now international, where they’re doing work in their own home countries. We’re trying to use more and more of our storytellers to be telling their own stories on the ground. We have this wonderful new group of journalists around the world who we can call on for all kinds of projects going forward, and that ability to move away from “parachute science” or “parachute storytelling” is another way that we’re really embracing a more global and a more inclusive model and really empowering people to tell their own stories. One of our Explorers Noel Kok, who runs our African wildlife filmmaking group, said it really well. He said, “If you want to change the story, you need to change the storyteller.” So we’re working really hard to build capacity around the globe and in the U.S. with our marginalized communities.
Schnall: How would you describe your personal leadership style, and what have you learned about leadership throughout your career and your experiences as a leader?
Tiefenthaler: I really like to think that I’m a listener and I try to do very deep listening. When I started as a college president over a decade ago, I called my first year there a “year of listening,” where I listened to all of our constituencies and then wrote something back to them before we thought about our next stage of our future. And I did the same thing when I landed at National Geographic. I did a lot of listening and wrote a document back to the community, and we used that document as a basis for our strategic planning.
But listening is never done; you can’t check it off the list. So I would say the combination of listening and inclusion, but then also being willing to be a leader and make decisions and be decisive when necessary. And also being able to pivot; I always tell our staff, “Pilot and pivot.” Let’s try some things, figure out what works and what doesn’t, continue the dialogue and then work to get it right.
Schnall: What advice would you have for women leaders or for women aspiring to be leaders?
Tiefenthaler: First, I would always say I think a lot of my leadership is built on watching other leaders. I worked for many different presidents in provost and academia department chairs, and I always tried to watch and think about what were their strengths, and then try to learn from each of their strengths. Unfortunately some of us also have to work for leaders that make mistakes, so it’s also good to learn from others’ mistakes when you can.
And the other thing is, let people mentor you. I always felt very lucky to have really great mentors in my life—men and women who were so helpful to me in my career. But having great mentors means being willing to be a mentee, to really respect their experiences and wisdom and invest time in relationships and listen to the criticism, as well as the accolades. And then we have to pay it back, right? So be a mentor when you can: find those who can really benefit from your support and give them latitude to act by delegating and empowering liberally, but also don’t be afraid to provide lots of good feedback. I was lucky enough to work with Maya Angelou when I was at Wake Forest. She was a professor there when I was provost. I always loved her quotes, and one of my favorites was, “A leader sees greatness in others. You can’t be much of a leader if all you see is yourself.”
Schnall: The progress of advancing women’s leadership and breaking glass ceilings has been really slow. What do you think it will take to really create a more equitable world?
Tiefenthaler: It is actually going to take commitment. Women and men and everyone has to be committed to representation at every level. And I do believe it’s about excellence. We have so much evidence out there that teams are better when they’re diverse; you get the best ideas when you have a diverse community. So I’m just convinced that as we continue to have more women and those from other underrepresented groups, those are going to be the organizations that will race to the top and others are going to come along.