Learning through Leadership: How a COE Graduate and Role Model is Inspiring Women Entrepreneurs to Succeed

Kristin Spindler (Ed.D., ’23) forged a long and successful career in finance as an investor and advisor, but after enduring an unexpected challenge in her personal life, she found a new passion: helping women entrepreneurs fund their businesses and find their voices. Spindler felt motivated to evaluate entrepreneurship from an academic perspective, so she enrolled at the College of Education and completed her doctorate in the Executive Ed.D. program focusing on Higher Education Leadership, all while holding a full-time job and raising high school and college-aged sons. Now an assistant professor at Concordia University Texas, Spindler has become an influential speaker and writer regarding public policy and is using her platform to boost women entrepreneurs throughout the world. We talked with Spindler about how her experience led to a thriving higher education career, and the importance of supporting women entrepreneurs.

Can you tell us a little about your background and what led you to the College of Education?

I’ve had a 20-plus year career in business and leadership, so higher ed is chapter two for me. I currently teach graduate and undergraduate students in the College of Business and Communication at Concordia University Texas and run the entrepreneurship program, which I’ve been doing for six years. My long-term plan was to get my doctorate, and since I had already earned my MBA at UT Austin, I knew I wanted to return to UT for my doctorate. The Executive Ed.D. program was designed for working professionals in higher education, so I could complete my doctorate while keeping my full-time job and coming in on the weekends. That worked out perfectly.

You had a long and successful career in the private sector as an investor and banker, which led you and your family to move abroad for a time; what happened next?

Long story short: I got divorced. My husband divorced me under the personal status laws governed by Islamic law in the United Arab Emirates where I didn’t have any rights to shared assets or child custody. We had this crazy story where we got divorced in Texas and I spent years appealing the Dubai divorce to have it reflect the terms of the Texas agreement. Since it is extremely unusual for a woman to have custody under the local personal status laws, my ex-husband had to assign his guardian and custodial rights to me. It was a difficult time for all of us. Here I was, this empowered woman with my own successful career, family, and twenty-year marriage who had seemingly done everything right, and my children and assets could have been taken away from me overnight. Experiencing this inequality and injustice in the way women were treated lit a fire under me. I thought, “If this could happen to me, I really need to help all these entrepreneurial women who don’t have access to the same advantages and resources as I do.”

What led you to go back to school?

Kristin Spindler

Going back to school, for me, was a chance to look at entrepreneurship from an academic point of view to see what we are doing in higher ed to help women entrepreneurs. I thought, ‘If 58% of undergraduates in the United States are women, why aren’t they either getting their MBA or getting funds for their businesses?’ I wanted to address that gap, and that was much of my research for my dissertation. I have finished my doctorate: I am teaching, speaking and making things happen on a local and global level.

Is there any specific element about the Ed.D. program at UT that you found interesting or influential?

I thought the program was so well crafted. Dr. Juan Gonzalez and Dr. Joe Wilcox really put a lot of thought into the program, not only the structure of the courses but building in milestones so that, as full-time working professionals, we could graduate in three years.

Looking back on your Ed.D. program, are there specific experiences or courses that significantly shaped your understanding of leadership or gave you a deeper understanding of leadership, policy, or academia?

The focus on rigorous research was super important. I would say the courses that were the most fun were the DEI courses which were taught by Dr. Colette Pierce Burnett during the pandemic and the protests, so that was very timely. The politics class taught by Dr. Molly Beth Malcolm was very interesting because she was in politics herself, and she brought in the best guest speakers. We had the opportunity to learn all about the Texas legislative system regarding education. In Dr. Richard Rhodes’ class on finance and economics, we looked at big educational projects, so for me with my background, I just loved that. We had the opportunity to visit the Moody Center when it was under construction. We learned all about ACC Highland Mall renovations and talked to everyone involved. We learned from people who managed the bond issues for various expansion projects. That, from a nuts-and-bolts real estate and finance perspective, was right up my alley.

Can you discuss any instance where your leadership has influenced or led to the development or implementation of educational policies at a broader level?

After graduating with my doctorate, I have become more involved in women’s entrepreneurship on a local and global level. I have presented at an international research conference. I’ve volunteered to be the Austin ambassador for the Women’s Entrepreneurship Day Organization (WEDO); that organization is based in New York, and it’s in 144 countries and serves about 4 billion people. In November, with the help of Austin City Councilmember Alison Alter and Mayor Kirk Watson, the City of Austin declared November 19 as Women’s Entrepreneurship Day. That was a neat experience. After that, I traveled to the United Nations to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the organization. I am reaching out to entrepreneurs not just at a local level, but also stepping into teaching, speaking and writing globally.

How do you balance the need for innovation with established norms and structures?

That’s a good question. Entrepreneurship is messy; it’s about having an idea, pursuing it and pivoting when you need to adapt. Higher ed organizations are typically more structured, so I think it’s great to have pockets of entrepreneurship in higher ed, but there’s always a bit of friction there. I think my role is to push things, to take those risks, to advocate for change. Sometimes there’s some pushback, but hopefully over time you can make those changes happen.

How do you foster collaboration among diverse stakeholders, and what role does collaborative leadership play in shaping effective educational programs?

Collaboration is super important. There’s an African proverb that says, “If you want to go fast, go alone; if you want to go far, go together.” I believe that’s very important for everybody, whether that’s in a start-up or a business or an educational environment. Listening to people, working together, even if you think it might slow you down initially, will help you achieve your objectives in the long run.

How do you integrate a global perspective into your leadership approach, and why is it important for leaders to have that international perspective?

I’ve always had a global perspective; we grew up in a household where we often had foreign students living with us. My parents oversaw American Field Service (AFS) in our area, so I had that international exposure early on, and I was also an exchange student in different countries. I have also been an expat and visited more than 66 countries. Having different voices in the room is important, whether that’s diversity of gender, culture, religion or background. The more diversity the better; you will have more viewpoints and make better decisions.

What’s the next step for you?

I plan to take my doctoral research further to tell the stories of amazing entrepreneurs who have impressed me. I continue to teach, and I want to set aside time for research and writing. Longer term, I hope to make an impact on students and women entrepreneurs starting, growing and funding their businesses so that they become financially independent leaders positively impacting future generations.

If someone asked you why they should be in the Ed.D. program, what would you tell them?

I would say as an entrepreneur, higher ed needs to be disrupted. We need innovative leaders who have the skills and competencies to take us through this transition and get us to the next level. It’s a great program! If people are thinking about enrolling, they should really commit to it and have their institution’s support, because it takes time and focus. Be sure to have your family and friends on your side, so that in moments of doubt you have some cheerleaders to keep you going. Staying focused and persistent in a multi-year program is critical. One of our professors often reminded us to “keep our eyes on the prize.” As my 2020 “Covid crusher” classmate-colleagues can attest, collaborating and supporting each other was a key to our success on our doctoral journeys.