CEO, Huntsville Botanical Garden
Sue Wagner joined the Huntsville Botanical Garden as Chief Executive Officer in October 2019. She came to the Garden from the Morton Arboretum, a 1,700-acre botanical garden west of Chicago where she served as Vice President for Education and Information. Her extensive experience includes leading public engagement initiatives that inspire people to connect with nature, providing vision and strategy for long-term mission-based impact and supporting organizational growth and sustainability.
Before joining the Morton Arboretum, Sue served as Vice President for Exhibits and Programs at the Adler Planetarium in Chicago. She began her career as an educator, teaching K-8 science, math, and language arts with an emphasis on problem-based learning. During that time, she received the National Science Foundation’s Presidential Award for Excellence in Math and Science Teaching, among other accolades.
Sue is actively involved in the American Public Gardens Association and Botanic Gardens Conservation International. She has been an international keynote speaker on topics such as designing mission and strategy for impactful programming and creating experiences that catalyze children to take action on behalf of plants. Additionally, she has been featured in professional publications, podcast interviews, and industry research throughout her career. She is passionate about conservation, education, collaboration, and connecting people to plants.
When you were little, what did you dream of being when you grew up?
I did not know what I would be. I had many interests and dreamed many dreams!
What circumstances or people helped shape you in your career?
Countless people and circumstances brought me to where I am today, but a special few stand out. My family, especially my uncle, provided me with chemistry sets and a microscope for my basement “lab” where I spent many happy hours listening to the radio and doing experiments.
My professors encouraged me to explore science, psychology, and business. I planned on pursuing a PhD in Counseling Psychology in tandem with my degree in education. Instead, I landed in the classroom teaching science and math in elementary and middle schools while attending graduate school. I earned a master’s degree in Curriculum and Instruction from University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign and continued graduate school to pursue more science courses to increase my content knowledge for teaching science in middle school. After getting involved with teacher leadership work with Illinois State Board of Education, I saw opportunities to impact many more students through informal museum programming and experience design.
I was recruited to become the Director of Education, and one year later, the Vice President of Exhibits and Programs at Adler Planetarium in Chicago. One of my first projects was to collaborate with Jim Lovell, Apollo 13 astronaut, to create the “Mission Moon” exhibition: how the United States became the first nation to put a man on the Moon, what it’s really like to be an astronaut, and why it takes a team to explore uncharted worlds. Our team had an opportunity to work with Sesame Workshop to create an NSF-funded planetarium show and educational materials for children in the U.S. and China called “One World, One Sky: Big Bird’s Adventure.” Kellogg Graduate School of Management’s Executive Scholar program was influential in providing me with the resources and experience in leading a large nonprofit organization. My experiences teaching science as well as my experience in museum and public garden leadership and business have shaped the leader I am today.
What do you love most about your job?
People and plants!
What differentiates you from your peers or competitors?
Our mission to connect people and plants affords us opportunities to create unique guest experiences.
What’s your favorite thing about living in the Huntsville/Madison County area?
So many favorites. . . the people, the plants that we can grow in this area, the warmer winters, less traffic.
What civic organizations or nonprofits have you been involved with, and why have those been important to you?
I am on the Committee of 100, and most recently, a NW Huntsville task force. Rotary Club to learn more from the community, and WEDC to connect to women in leadership. I am also involved in the American Public Garden Association and Botanical Garden Conservation International.
What awards, accolades or accomplishments are you proudest of?
I am proud of my family. Professionally, I’ve received awards and recognition for my work that leads to positive impact on people and organizations. One recognition in particular was the 1998 Presidential Award of Excellence for Math and Science Teaching by the National Science Foundation.
What is the Garden’s mission statement?
The Garden exists to connect people to plants in order to support a healthier quality of life for the region. Our vision is to inspire, encourage, and catalyze our community to take part in conserving our regional ecosystem.
How has the business community changed for women since you began your career?
Women may have adopted behaviors they saw demonstrated by executive men in the workplace. As the trend towards women in leadership positions rises, soft skills like effective communication, empathy, conflict management, adaptability, and self-awareness are valued and may prove to be a key competitive advantage for women in business.
Do you have a favorite quote about powerful or strong women you’d like to share?
“Life is yours to live to the fullest: Be proactive, mindful, and true.”
Huntsville Botanical Garden
4747 Bob Wallace
Huntsville, AL 35805