Martha Willits told CBPA students about her journey from music education to CEO.
Drake University recently honored Martha Willits, president and CEO of the Greater Des Moines Partnership, with the Community Leadership Award for her impact on the University and Des Moines business community.
Charlie Edwards, dean of Drake’s College of Business and Public Administration, presented the award to Willits at the college’s annual awards ceremony on Wednesday, April 6, in Sheslow Auditorium. Student and faculty achievements were also honored at the event.
The Community Leadership Award is designed to recognize an individual who has made an impact on the community through his or her business and individual generosity. The individual must have a record of impact to the community through personal philanthropy and volunteer service and be affiliated with a business that has made a significant contribution to Des Moines.
Edwards introduced Willits, a three-time alumna who received her bachelor’s degree in music education, a master’s in teaching arts and a master’s in business administration all at Drake, as a “recognized leader in the Central Iowa civic, political and philanthropic communities.”
Advice from a community leader
Willits accepted her award on the Jordan Stage, where she told students she stood 42 years ago “” almost to the day “” to play her senior flute recital. In her keynote address, titled “The journey from point A to points B, C, D”¦ all began with a Drake degree,” Willits highlighted how her Drake education impacted her career at each stage, from elementary music teacher, to her election as the first female on the Polk County Board of Supervisors, to her current position as CEO of the Greater Des Moines Partnership.
Willits wove examples from her own journey as a Drake student in with advice on how to find success through connecting with one’s community.
Although she never realized her original dream of becoming a female band director, Willits said her later success was shaped by her experiences performing before an audience, being exposed to diversity in the Drake Teacher Corps, where she met the late community leader Evelyn Davis, and through challenging herself to study business at Drake.
The key, she told students, is to form connections within a community and allow those relationships open up new opportunities that will drive their personal and professional journeys “” sometime in unexpected ways.
“This is a very talented time in our business community, and every moment counts,” Willits advised. “Leadership counts. You are always honing those skills.”
Commitment to the community, Drake partnership
Retaining Drake University graduates to live and work in central Iowa is a part of the Partnership’s, mission as the economic and community development organization serving greater Des Moines.
“It’s about attracting folks like yourself, and making the talent pool rich,” she said, citing programming like the Partnership’s “Summer in the City” intern networking events as an opportunity to build community for young professionals in Des Moines.
Willits joined the Greater Des Moines Partnership in February 2004 as president and CEO. Representing more than 4,200 member businesses, the partnership mission seeks to maximize local resources to address opportunities for economic and community growth.
Willits’ responsibilities include operational oversight of the partnership’s $7 million annual budget as well as maintaining strategic alliances with business, education and governmental entities throughout the community.
Prior to joining the partnership, Willits was president and chief professional officer of United Way of Central Iowa. Willits is involved with numerous community organizations, including the Capital Crossroads Vision Steering Committee “” where she serves alongside Drake University President David Maxwell, the Business Education Alliance Roundtable, Grand View University Board of Trustees, Greater Des Moines Committee, Drake College of Business and Public Administration National Advisory Council, the Iowa Chamber Alliance and the American Chamber of Commerce Executives.