Shortly after being named to lead Whitaker Center for Science and the Arts last fall, Mary Oliveira hit the ground listening.
She wanted to learn from the experience of staff members who had weathered the Covid-19 shutdown and then kept the nonprofit center operating following the departure last March of its former leader, Ted Black.
“They really are the frontline of what has and continues to keep moving Whitaker forward,” Oliveira said.
At the same time, she has been digging for what makes Whitaker unique, an effort summarized by the tagline “Whitaker Why.”
“We are looking to not only continue to honor and pay respect to the past 25 years, really stay true to that founding mission, but also evolve it into the next 25,” said Oliveira, the first woman named president and CEO of the 130,000 square-foot center combining art, science and theater in the heart of Harrisburg. It employs about 25 people.
Oliveira worked previously in leadership and executive roles for Harrisburg-based marketing firm Color & Culture, the Pennsylvania Chamber of Business and Industry and Harrisburg-based PSECU, the state’s largest credit union.
Part of what’s next is a series of festivities leading up to and celebrating Whitaker’s 25th anniversary. The center opened its doors to downtown Harrisburg in September 1999. The center, for example, plans to show movies that came out 25 years ago, a list that could include the first installment of “The Matrix” series starring Keanu Reeves.
Oliveira spoke recently with biznewsPA about her new job and her views on the future of Whitaker.
biznewsPA: What attracted you to the job?
Mary Oliveira: I’ll start with one that is, I think, a point of pride both for myself as well as for the current board of directors, and that is being the first installed female president and CEO. I have a 20-year-old daughter and every day I wake up trying to live up to the standards of being a role model for her and her generation, as well as all the other young female professionals coming behind me.
biznewsPA: How would you describe the legacy of Whitaker’s first 25 years?
Oliveira: It continues to be a unique opportunity for the community, with so many different facets under one roof. We’re tasked with the challenge of ensuring that all components of what Whitaker offers are really part of the story.
biznewsPA: Do you see foot traffic eventually getting back to where it was pre-pandemic?
Oliveira: We’re already starting to see that, and that’s what’s so exciting. For the week between Christmas and New Year’s, we saw double-digit increases year over year from 2022 to 2023, just in that week alone. So that’s motivating us to continue not just to talk about the planning but to execute ideas.
biznewsPA: What do you see as the challenges going forward for Whitaker Center?
Oliveira: We have an aging infrastructure, just like our own personal homes. We know that there is a lot from a capital investment perspective and we’re facing that right now. So, we are working on a plan to ensure that Whitaker is a safe venue for our community and a welcoming and inviting venue. That is at the top of our list as a leadership team. Programmatically, it’s encouraging more artists both from a local, regional and even national level to want to come back to Harrisburg and interact with our community and our guests.
biznewsPA: How would you describe your leadership style?
Oliveira: Collaborative. I don’t like using buzzwords, but to know me is to know some of these are applicable, day in and day out. I lead with my heart. I lead with and through people. I’ve gone through amazing servant leadership development, and I truly believe that leading from behind is a way to do that. Also in my role, I’m a visible, relationship-driven face of the organization and I take that seriously.
biznewsPA: What has been the most fun part of the experience so far for you?
Oliveira: Engaging with the children who come in the door and seeing the surprise, the joy and the delight in their faces. These younger students are growing up in such a digital age. To invite them in and introduce them to fun experiences that incorporate learning through play – even when they don’t realize that – it’s just wonderful to see the impact that it can have on this generation. We need to encourage more of it.
biznewsPA: What would you like people to be saying about Whitaker Center five years from now?
Oliveira: That they are saying to a neighbor, a friend, a colleague, ‘What do you mean you haven’t gone recently?’ Because we have just continued to offer so many reasons for so many more Whitaker Why’s to exist in our community.
Note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.