Meet Melissa Hortman, EdD, an experienced higher education leader and disruptor who has expertise in leading digital transformation and accelerating academic research in U.S. higher education. She is enthusiastic about enabling personnel advancement and understudy versatility to make advanced education more agile and firm during disruptions now and later on.
Melissa’s father told her from a very young age, “If you aren’t having fun, don’t do it“. She has lived by these words in her personal and professional lives. She found that fun is in the challenges one works to overcome, in the successes one finds, and in the relationships one builds. Being a disruptor determined to transform education for generations to come, she chose to be the Higher Education Leader for Research and Education Transformation at Microsoft.
Melissa’s professional path was never meant to lead her to work for a large tech company, but she realized that she wanted to pave new paths in areas that were still dirt roads. She is a purposefully driven disruptor. In all that she does, she intentionally and strategically challenges the status quo to create positive change. “If you see a person working outside of the mainstream, that is most likely me,” gleams Melissa. After working across various areas and teaching different courses in higher education for over 12 years, she found that she could have a larger platform to help others and make a positive impact in the world with Microsoft. Her goal is to bring together higher education and Microsoft because she and the company are both working on solving the same problems, serving the same people, and driving forward a future of innovation in education. Her goal is to empower faculty innovation and student resiliency to make higher education more agile and stronger during disruptions now and in the future. “We live in a time when disruptions are all around us, increasingly more in higher education than there ever was in the past. I work with colleagues across academia to help solve these current challenges and anticipate future needs,” shares Melissa.
The Tech Giant
Melissa makes an effort to explain how Microsoft, a major player in technology, is dedicated to making a positive impact on the world by living out its mission. While Microsoft is a long-standing leader in technology, the company is and does so much more than engineer a platform. They are leading national and international policy, supporting global sustainability goals, and lifting all communities in any way they can. Its mission statement is ‘to empower every person and every organization on the planet to achieve more.’ Microsoft’s vision is ‘to help people and businesses throughout the world realize their full potential.’
Microsoft is truly an innovative company that has demonstrated a proactive and reactive approach to product strategy. One can witness this with all of the cutting-edge developments in AI-infused products across the Microsoft platform. All of this is only possible because Microsoft has successfully created a culture where innovation thrives. The democratization of innovation everywhere within the company has pushed research and development further than siloing off this approach within a specific area of the company.
Melissa believes that self-care is a journey. She has had highs and lows on this journey, but as a mom of two young kids, it has never been more important for her to focus on it. “When you can model good self-care as a leader, it gives everyone around you encouragement to do the same,” she mentions. She has encountered numerous challenges throughout her journey as a woman in predominantly male-dominated fields. Whether it was architecture, big tech, or pursuing advanced degrees, she often found herself one of the few women in those environments. In spaces where female voices were scarce, she felt a strong urge to speak up, offering a different perspective and challenging the status quo. It required her to confront her fears and voice her opinions, even when surrounded by individuals who may not agree with her. During the early stages of her career, this became a defining moment. Discovering and harnessing her voice proved to be an immensely difficult yet profoundly liberating experience. She realized that her voices hold immense power, serving as her strongest asset to drive personal and professional missions forward. She discovered that by speaking up and sharing diverse viewpoints, she could create meaningful change and shape the narrative. She states that embracing the courage to express ourselves authentically not only empowers us individually but also paves the way for others who may feel unheard or underrepresented. In a world where diverse perspectives are essential for progress, she firmly believes that our voices have the power to shape a better future. “By embracing our unique perspectives, challenging the norm, and fearlessly speaking up, we can foster innovation, drive change, and make a lasting impact,” she continues.
Moreover, Melissa emphasizes that having strong mentors has not only been instrumental in shaping her career journey, but it has also propelled it forward in unimaginable ways. Their guidance, wisdom, and support have opened doors she never knew existed and provided her with invaluable insights and perspectives. Through their mentorship, she has gained clarity, honed her skills, and navigated professional challenges with greater confidence. She feels she has been blessed to work with some of the most giving mentors, who have given her more than she could have ever imagined, allowing her to overflow and give to others. Melissa expresses that growing your network is one of the most important pieces of growing your career. The impact of strong mentors on her career trajectory cannot be overstated, as their influence has been transformative, empowering her to realize her full potential and achieve goals beyond her wildest dreams.
While reflecting on the past, Melissa would advise her younger self to look for a career with an impact that is aligned with her values rather than longing for the title. She would always look upward on an organizational chart when considering the next step in her career and look for the titles that sounded significant. She mentions that even the titles that appeared to correspond with the roles that had the greatest influence and significance did not always match the actual roles. Additionally, she would tell her younger self to be more present in the moment. It is difficult to be still and grow where one is planted, but sometimes that can be the moment where one can prevail. She suggests that every day can be an opportunity to learn something new, so do not forego that because you are trying to go up the ladder too quickly. Finally, she would tell her younger self to speak up for herself more. Early in her career, she spent much of her time being a people-pleaser but rarely spoke up for herself. “Now I am much more comfortable with my voice, and it has really been a powerful asset. I guess I would tell my younger self a lot of things, but I am a pretty hard-headed person, so I don’t know if I would have even listened to my future self,” adds Melissa.
As the world around us is always changing, she is adamant that it is crucial to disrupt or be disrupted in order to lead during these moments of uncertainty. “Change is constant, so it is important to be agile as a leader,” she says. Melissa emphasizes that higher education, in its most traditional sense, has been severely impacted since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. Many business processes and student lifecycle expectations have been flipped on their heads because of a single event. While this is not the first time higher education has ever been impacted by global events, this is the first time one is witnessing the pressure to transform being so profound. Melissa suggests that change in higher education will be ubiquitous and disruptive over the course of the next ten years, affecting everything from admissions procedures to how people interact with one another both inside and outside of their institutions. She concludes by saying, “Leaders can inspire and influence transformation while providing stability during change.“