Social Impact Heroes: Why & How Tonya Cornelius of The Walt Disney Company Is Helping To Change Our…

Posted on

Social Impact Heroes: Why & How Tonya Cornelius of The Walt Disney Company Is Helping To Change Our World

Never chase a title or money. Instead, let the work lead you. Do what you love and what leverages and develops your strengths. The surprising thing is that titles and money will usually follow.

As part of my series about “individuals and organizations making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Tonya Cornileus with Disney Aspire.

Tonya Cornileus, Ph.D is the senior vice president, learning and talent solutions for The Walt Disney Company where she serves as an integral member of the enterprise Human Resources senior leadership team. Tonya, with 14 years of experience Disney, is responsible for learning and leadership development, talent and succession management, performance management, and career development.

One program Tonya’s team manages is Disney Aspire, The Walt Disney Company’s education investment and career development program which allows hourly employees to return to school with 100% of tuition paid upfront at a network of learning providers, from high school to master’s degrees.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

My initial job out of college was as a teacher in the inner-city of Miami, Florida. I taught middle grades, and my students were predominantly children of immigrants. They were surrounded by poverty, but those children had the same ambitions of any children their age. Yet, I knew they would likely encounter more barriers to realizing their dreams. As their teacher, I wanted to help them believe in themselves and in their dreams. I found the teaching experience rewarding, and I knew that I’d want to have a career where I help others to believe in themselves, fulfill their highest potential, and realize their aspirations. I’ve been very fortunate to have a career where I get to do just that.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?

The individual stories of Disney Aspire participants are why I love the program. Their stories of triumph and resilience inspire me every day. I am so pleased to have two Disney Aspire alumni on my very own Learning & Talent Solutions team, who are now in roles helping to bring Disney Aspire to life for their peers and fellow employees — enabling them to truly pay it forward to help others put their own career dreams within reach.

It has been said that our mistakes can be our greatest teachers. Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

My first job out of college was as a teacher to middle schoolers. I had not majored in education, so I didn’t have the training that those who did major in education receive… and I made so many mistakes. Thankfully, I had a mentor-teacher who helped me through my first year.

I recall wanting to be the “cool teacher,” and wanting to be their friend. One day, the principal visited my classroom and my students were not “on task.” I tried to get them on task, but they wouldn’t listen to me. I then scolded them in front of the principal. My students were shocked and so was the principal. I realized that I wasn’t there to be their friend. My main purpose and priority were to educate them, honor the educational process, to set standards, and hold them and myself accountable to those standards. I had to reset the relationship with my students, with the help of my mentor, and I ended up having a tremendously successful first year of teaching.

Can you describe how you or your organization is making a significant social impact?

Disney Aspire betters our communities and provides equitable growth opportunities by breaking down barriers to education for an eligible employee base of over 90,000 hourly workers. The biggest hurdle to pursuing an education is typically cost. Tuition is 100% covered through Disney Aspire, with no out of pocket tuition expenses for our employees.

Thousands of employees have gone through the program and have been internally promoted as a result, many into salaried roles. We hear time and time again from our employees that without Disney Aspire, their dreams would not have been realized. From first-generation college students to parents pursuing a long-forgotten dream, it’s these success stories that remind us of what we are doing and why.

Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?

I’ll never forget the journey of one of our employees named Maniala. Maniala, a Haitian immigrant and mother of three, began her Disney journey working in housekeeping and not speaking English. Now, she leads entire teams of cast members as a Guest Experience manager. She never would have gotten there without earning her bachelor’s degree in hospitality management through Disney Aspire. Now she’s pursuing a master’s degree in HR.

“I had always wanted to go back to school and I knew exactly what I wanted to take, but I just couldn’t afford it before. I signed up because I wanted to be promoted as a leader in the housekeeping department, because I loved being able to connect with Cast Members from different walks of life. I thought going back to school would motivate and inspire them to do the same” (Maniala).

How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?

Leaders develop other leaders. Leadership is about generosity and service to others.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why.

  1. Failure is a core component of success. Don’t be afraid to fail; be afraid not to fail. If you never fail, you likely will never reach your fullest potential. Failure is not fatal.
  2. Continue learning always. Knowledge becomes outdated quickly. If you’re not a perpetual learner, your knowledge and skills may become obsolete.
  3. Build relational currency. Organizations are human systems. To be successful you must build and nurture positive, effective, and authentic 360-degree relationships.
  4. You need mentors and sponsors to help you develop and succeed. No one succeeds alone.
  5. Never chase a title or money. Instead, let the work lead you. Do what you love and what leverages and develops your strengths. The surprising thing is that titles and money will usually follow.

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I would want to inspire a movement that helps people everywhere to know and believe in themselves, fulfill their highest potential, and live the lives they dream about. I call it the Aha! Life. I believe when we have the world’s people flourishing and living authentically and with meaning and purpose, then the world will be a better place for all.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

One of my favorite quotes is by Ralph Waldo Emerson. This quote reminds me that true success is not measured by what you have, but by who you become, how you treat others, and what you give. My life’s mantra is: “I want the world to know I was here, and I cared.”

“What is success?

To laugh often and much; to win the respect of intelligent people and the affection of children; to earn the appreciation of honest critics and endure the betrayal of false friends; to appreciate the beauty; to find the best in others; to leave the world a bit better, whether by a healthy child, a garden patch Or a redeemed social condition; to know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived. This is to have succeeded!”

Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

There are a few people I’d love to sit and have breakfast or lunch with. Three come to mind:

  1. Malala Yousafzai because of her bravery, activism, and belief in education for girls
  2. President Barack Obama because of his intellect and world knowledge, his commitment to building community organizers, and his compassion and service
  3. Kindergarteners through third graders because they have an innocence, idealism, candor, and creativity that are refreshing. I believe they have some of the answers we need, and they inspire me to keep an open mind and believe in possibilities.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

To learn more about Disney Aspire and meet Disney employees and cast members who benefitted from the program, please visit our website.

This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success in your great work!

Social Impact Heroes: Why & How Tonya Cornelius of The Walt Disney Company Is Helping To Change Our… was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.