Sophia Siskel '99 provides a 100-year plan for enduring civic value
By Matt Golosinski
"It's about the plants," proclaims the Chicago Botanic Garden's annual report, and the brilliant pastoral scene on the publication's cover leaves no doubt about that claim. This setting would have inspired the poetry of Wordsworth or Shelley.
But anyone retreating into this world-class, 400-acre sanctuary in Glencoe, Ill., 20 miles north of Chicago, will find enough greenery to get reconnected with nature. And about 800,000 people each year do, no matter what the season.
Another aspect of the Garden's mission, though, is conservation and education — in other words, an emphasis on the planet as well as plants, according to Sophia Siskel '99, the Kellogg School alumna who has been the organization's president and CEO since 2007.
"What the visionaries of the institution created in 36 years is nothing short of miraculous," she says. Today, the Garden has entered an "aggressive growth period," and Siskel sees much of her job now as overseeing the maturation of existing programs and communicating the organization's mission to a broader audience.
Much of that effort focuses on interactive events that visitors immediately see — such as winter holiday initiatives like Wonderland Express, featuring indoor trains, which boosted attendance to 50,000 last December. But other important developments are less apparent to the casual observer.
In June, the Garden launched a $50 million campaign to build a new laboratory for its plant conservation team. When completed, the structure will boast 38,000 square feet with nine laboratories, Siskel says. "Most people don't know that we already have 23 PhD researchers," she points out. That's in addition to 250 full-time employees, 45 part-time employees, 170 seasonal staff members and about 1,100 volunteers.
Siskel is responsible for keeping this team focused on the organization's mission, which is "to promote the enjoyment, understanding and conservation of plants and the natural world."
Achieving that goal includes making the Garden a destination for those seeking peace and recreation among the institution's 2.3 million accessioned plants. With some 50,000 member households, the institution claims the largest membership of any U.S. botanic garden. In June, it was selected by the United Nations Environment Programme to be the sole North American host site for World Environment Day, an educational initiative that aims to increase awareness of issues such as climate change.
Siskel's ability to deliver results garnered her a spot on Crain's "40 Under 40" list in 2002 for the rare ability to "understand both art and commerce." Recently, the Chicago Council on Global Affairs recognized her with an "Emerging Leader Award." Her nonprofit career has included directing exhibitions for Leslie Hindman Auctioneers and serving as a curator at Chicago's Museum of Contemporary Art. In 1998, at the age of 29, she became director of exhibitions at Chicago's Field Museum.
Siskel considers her former boss, John McCarter, president and CEO of The Field Museum, an influential mentor. "His leadership and nurturing of my professional growth cannot be underestimated," says Siskel. "That's what's allowed me to be where I am."
Managing a cultural institution, she explains, bears some similarity to leading any resource-constrained organization, although there are differences. One of these is the need to take a longer-term view on the institution's mission while still delivering on that mission now.
She points to a Kellogg course like Nonprofit Board Governance as important for preparing future leaders to meet such challenges. Siskel says the class provides clarity in defining a nonprofit as "an institution created to serve a purpose that is larger and more long lasting than is perhaps a business that's set up around the consumer industry."
That mentality, she says, is built into the thinking at the Chicago Botanic Garden, which is essentially a museum with a living collection, where an oak tree may need a century to mature. She believes that this approach needs to be part of all cultural institutions.
"I really see cultural institutions in terms of their civic responsibility," Siskel says. "We're not only planning for tomorrow, but we have to ask ourselves, 'What is the enduring legacy of our institution that fulfills our civic responsibility?'"