Wanda Alexander is President and CEO of Horizon
Consulting and recipient of the
Distinguished Alumni Award for 2013.
Wanda Alexander: Miss A’s Daughter
Learning the many ways that Wanda Alexander has stood out from others can keep one busy. As a 5'10" freshman in 1976, Wanda Alexander was nearly a foot taller than her freshman roommates. Academically dismissed in 1979, she soon returned to the University, left her business courses behind, and concentrated her coursework in offerings by the Department of Family and Community Development. Wanda graduated in 1981 with a General Studies degree from the Office of Undergraduate Studies. In the next year, she completed 30 credits of a Master's degree with a 3.83 grade point average.
In 1995, Wanda purchased majority interest for $20,000 in the start-up company Horizon Consulting Incorporated, and over the years turned that investment into a business that has made over $70 million. As President and CEO of Horizon, she has won numerous awards recognizing her business acumen. Now, as President-Elect of the Maryland Alumni Association Board of Governors, she is the recipient of the Undergraduate Studies Distinguished Alumni Award for 2013. She was honored with the award at the 2013 Alumni Association Gala on October 25th.
What circumstances of character and conditioning allowed Wanda to navigate her way to such extraordinary success? In a recent conversation with me, Wanda answered this question first by talking about her parents, in whose honor she has established an endowed scholarship at the University of Maryland.
Born to Grace and Samuel Alexander, Jr., Wanda was the middle of five children. Her father had a career in the Army before moving to Washington, D.C. where he worked for the District of Columbia Fire Department; first as a firefighter then as the Fire Chief Aid, the first African American to hold this position. Wanda remembers him working long, sorrowful hours fighting fires after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968 — she was ten years old.
Also employed by the District of Columbia, Grace Alexander, Wanda's mother, worked in Government Services Administration in the Work Incentive Program (WIN), created in 1967 to help welfare recipients move into the workforce. In this position, Grace negotiated with businesses and public service agencies to give jobs and training to women on welfare; among which were positions in the cafeteria of National Corporation for Housing Partnerships (NCHP). When Wanda, as a college student, took a part-time job with NCHP, Grace often stopped in to see her and visit with the cafeteria workers — who affectionately called her "Miss A." Wanda had no idea that her mother had anything to do with these workers having jobs. They grew very fond of Grace, and eventually discovered that she was Wanda's mother when they attended her homegoing services in September 1981. It wasn't until returning to work after this loss that Wanda learned that the women with whom she joked everyday had this amazing connection to her mother.
Leaders need to help others achieve the goal. Do not compromise integrity. Serve the clients. Exceed expectations. Give your team what they need to be successful.
Raised by caring and productive parents, Wanda herself was a standout from an early age. When she was in seventh and eighth grades, she placed into higher-level mathematics classes. In ninth grade, when she found the algebra class too easy, she taught the students herself. As the years went by, Wanda repeatedly found herself in situations where, without being asked, she delivered what was needed. As a student at Maryland, she fixed hair, "The girls bought the perm kit, I put it in, and charged $5.00." "I always had money," she declares, "and I loved to go to work." She modeled part-time and kept the clothes. She took a job at the Department of Labor — working twenty hours a week during the academic year, full-time in summer. Self-described as living "La vida loca"— a crazy, free life (Ricky Martin's signature song), Wanda quit her job at the Department of Labor, and two weeks later interviewed on the telephone for a part-time job at NCHP — a position that would launch her career. But let us not get ahead of the story. First she had to finish at Maryland.
Always learning and leading, Wanda is as eager to share her business acumen as she is the standards she has set for herself in the treatment of her employees. "My employees are my customers," she explains, as she lists the many employment benefits she provides in exchange for their honesty, integrity, hard work, and professionalism.
Wanda started at Maryland majoring in Business. She did not thrive. At the end of her second year, Joseph Mattingly, Assistant Dean in the Business School, sent her to Noel Myricks, a professor in the Department of Family and Community Development who helped her choose the courses that led to her degree. Always a self-starter, Wanda was suited for the General Studies program. She liked that she could design her own program, finish the degree and advance her career.
In her first job with NCHP, Wanda taught herself computer skills and helped others learn as well; she worked as a floater and learned budget and management along the way. "People are watching," Wanda explains, "People want good workers around them. I knew that and it made me want to do my best." With that attitude, Wanda moved from assistant to executive assistant to analyst to senior analyst over a team. She had important mentors along the way who taught her the business. Wanda insists, "Never act as though you know everything. Always learn, always ask questions, be thorough."
At one point riffed, but then called back to NCHP, Wanda pressed them to hire her in a position in asset management. They agreed. She went to work turning around a lot of bad properties, and before long emerged as the lead person on the team. Wanda knows what leadership requires: "Leaders need to help others achieve the goal. Do not compromise integrity. Serve the clients. Exceed expectations. Give your team what they need to be successful."
By 1993, while working for a consulting company in Bethesda, MD, Wanda was working 16-18 hours a day, "following the money." She fell seriously ill, and also experienced the deaths of two friends. These back-to-back incidents impacted her greatly and there was a paradigm shift in her approach to life and work. She suddenly was asked to take on a nationwide training program for the company's client, U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), working with HUD Under Secretary Helen Dunlap; she accepted. By the time she had completed the project, she had worked on a scale well beyond her previous experience and had acquired name recognition nationwide, creating a platform for further large scale work.
Finally, in 1995, she took the advice given previously by a friend: "Invest in yourself," he had said. The investment she made was $20,000 for 51% interest in Horizon Consulting Incorporated, which by 2002 was listed by Inc. Magazine as being among the Top 500 fastest growing companies in the nation. In 2012, she purchased the remaining 49% interest in the business and is now the sole owner. Looking back on her experience, Wanda understands how she acquired her expertise, how the challenges she faced and the opportunities she pursued came together, gradually building her vast knowledge of HUD's insurance programs, and serving them as her largest client. Currently, one hundred percent of the loans submitted to HUD's homeownership centers for insurance are processed by Horizon's team.
Wanda's success has earned her repeated awards, including: SmartCEO BRAVA! Award Hall of Fame Inductee (2013); named one of Loudoun County's Innovators of the Year (2012); named Loudoun County's Outstanding Women in Business (2005); named Women Business Champion of the Year by Small Business Administration (2007); named Outstanding Minority Business Leader by the Washington Business Journal (2009); selected by SmartCEO Magazine for both a BRAVA! and Smart 100 Award; recognized as An Enterprising Woman of the Year by Enterprising Women Magazine (2010). In 2009, Wanda was elected to the Board of Governors for the University of Maryland Alumni Association, and this year serves as President-Elect.
Proud of the company she has built, Wanda describes Horizon Consulting as "a minority and woman-owned, small business with a long history of providing successful, mission-critical services to government agencies of all sizes." Always learning and leading, Wanda is as eager to share her business acumen as she is the standards she has set for herself in the treatment of her employees. "My employees are my customers," she explains, as she lists the many employment benefits she provides in exchange for their honesty, integrity, hard work, and professionalism. Entering her 20th year in business, Wanda is proud of the fact that her current team has 233 collective years with Horizon, and many of her employees have gone on to significant positions in the industry.
Undergraduate Studies is immensely proud to honor Wanda Alexis Alexander with the Undergraduate Studies Distinguished Alumni Award for 2013.
Donna B. Hamilton
Associate Provost for Academic Affairs and Dean for Undergraduate Studies