Where Are They Now? Donna Fernandes ‘00MBA

We caught up with Donna on her job as President and CEO of the Buffalo Zoo!

Donna Fernandes is using her MBA skills to run a zoo…literally! Fernandes is the current President and CEO of the Buffalo Zoo in Buffalo, New York. She has a Bachelor of Science in psychology from Brown University; a Master’s Degree in biology and a Doctorate in ecology, evolution and behavior from Princeton University; and an MBA from Simmons School of Management. Fernandes has held positions at the Franklin Park Zoo in Boston and the Prospect Park Wildlife Center in Brooklyn, NY. She has also had other adventures such as leading two teacher safaris in Africa and serving as National Public Radio’s animal expert.

Here’s what she had to say…

You have a few graduate degrees and have worked in various jobs. After years of working in zoos and wildlife centers, what made you decide to get your MBA at Simmons? 

I already had an advanced degree in behavior ecology, which was important in my first job in zoos as curator of research. Then I was involved with education and research programs as I got promoted along the way. But, I realized that to take the next step to be a zoo director it would be helpful to have a better understanding of topics like financial accounting, negotiations, marketing, teamwork and leadership…the skills that I never learned as a scientist. 

I really liked the program at Simmons because it was an accelerated one-year MBA and I wouldn’t be out of the workforce for that long. A lot of the soft skills that I learned at Simmons have really helped the most as I have people who perform financial analysis and other areas for me, but I still need to have an understanding of those areas as a leader. I also really liked the focus on being a women’s program and teaching women how to communicate more effectively.

What was your favorite class you took at Simmons? Why?

There was a leadership class called “Doing Leadership Differently” with Professor Joyce Fletcher that helped us to think big and formulate a vision. It helped us think about how you want to make change and how you can be transformational. It was very inspiring to think about what kind of leader you wanted to be. 

How did Simmons help prepare you for your career?

I never had any accounting background or had read a financial statement so I definitely benefited from those courses. I also do a lot of negotiations in my job, particularly union negotiations. Professor Cynthia Ingols had a class about organizational structure that has helped guide me as the zoo has grown and we have promoted people into higher positions they had never worked in before. This was a whole new set of skills that were new to me. I do cash flows all the time! When we are looking at whether or not to do a project, I have to look at cash flows. It’s all about cash flow. The Simmons program opened new opportunities for our existing careers. It was a way to change your personal brand image and change your career path. 

After attending Simmons, what was the job search like for you?

This is a great story! Cynthia Ingols taught a course called Career Strategies at the time. We had to update our resumes, but we also had to find our dream job and write a cover letter for it. This was when people still looked for jobs in the newspaper, not online. At the time, the Association of Zoos and Aquariums had a monthly magazine and one of the jobs listed was for President/CEO of the Buffalo Zoo. I selected that as the job to write my cover letter about and then I figured why not actually submit my resume and cover letter.  That was in February 2000 and I was not graduating until August. I got a call from the headhunter and told them I was not really available yet but the zoo still wanted to meet me. My first interview was with the headhunter at the airport in Boston in March and then they flew me to Buffalo to interview me. They offered me the job in May. I think I was the first person in my class to have a job. I was lucky. I would have never thought to look for jobs that early, had it not been for Cynthia’s class.

What is a typical day like at your job?

It’s all over the place and that’s what I like about my job. This morning I met with other cultural leaders here in Buffalo to discuss collaborative projects. I have design team meetings to talk about the design of new exhibits. I also have fundraising meetings and staff meetings and I do a lot of speaking engagements. There is a lot of public relations work, but there are also the day-to-day operations. I have a great team of people that work for me. I do get to walk around a lot, which is great. We have 24 acres of land! For example, last night I was taking pictures in our new Arctic Edge exhibit after hours and the polar bears were so excited to see me, and the wolves were watching me. I love being at the zoo after hours. You get to have a lot of one-on-one experiences with the animals.

What was your most challenging project over the course of your 15 years at the zoo? How did you address those challenges and overcome them?

The rainforest opened in 2008. It was transformational because it created a reason to visit the zoo in the winter. Prior to creating the rainforest, about 80% of our visitors came between April and October and very few came during the winter months. To try to create a four-season attraction in Buffalo was a logistical challenge of creating a tropical habitat. We needed to implement the life support and environmental controls to maintain 78-degrees and 80% humidity year-round. 

The attraction was in the middle of the zoo, which was tough to build because we had to close off other areas of the zoo in order for the cement trucks and contractors to have access to build the rainforest. But it is so worth it because it’s a great place to go in the winter when we have four-feet of snow, which happens often here in Buffalo. This is a tropical paradise! It’s a place to escape to. It’s modeled after Canaima National Park, where the tallest waterfall in the world is located, Angel Falls. I wanted to replicate that rainforest because we have Niagara Falls here and we wanted to connect with the community.

Working in a conservation field, how does the zoo address sustainability?

We use a lot of green practices in our design. For example, in the new polar bear exhibit that just opened, we used a lot of skylights and natural lighting that not only keeps the animals in a better biological rhythm, but it also reduces electricity. Our roof is stepped at different levels so the water drains into a rain garden on the ground and below that is a cistern that collects the water, which we use as the irrigation water for the exhibit. We use variable drive frequency pumps and filters so we can step them up and down and control energy usage at different times of the year.

In the rain forest we use passive cooling through the roof. Several of the panels are able to open to evacuate heat, which saves energy because we don’t need to use the HVAC system. All of our water systems are closed systems, which means we don’t keep pumping fresh water in. The water is filtered through purification systems and pumped back in as it is recycled. 

We are very much aware of trying to “walk the talk.” We also try to reuse as many of the buildings as we can, which is a sustainability factor but also saves costs. Anything that is of a historic nature over 50 years old we have to save, but we try to re-purpose as much as we can. This is keeping something out of a landfill, preserving our architectural history, AND it generally saves money. It’s just the right thing to do.

What are you most proud of in your career?

Getting people excited about the zoo again. I have had so many people come up to me about the transformation and express gratitude for the changes. We get emails or notes in their membership renewals about how warmly the changes have been received. And the animals are happier; you can see it in their behavior. When the polar bear plays peek-a-boo with the kids on the other side of the glass, it’s all worth it. 

What advice would you give to the current Simmons graduate students?

To find something that you are passionate about. I was lucky. I knew what I loved and I was able to get a job right away. I think sometimes people are desperate to get a job and then are hesitant to leave it to really find something that they love. But you don’t want two years to become 10 years in a job that doesn’t thrill you. Find something that you love everyday so that you aren’t watching the clock all day. Use your skills and don’t be underutilized.