(Photo by Glynns Thomas)

Women in Leadership: Michelle Willard

Our annual salute to women at the top of their field

Back Article Mar 14, 2024 By Judy Farah

This story is part of our March 2024 issue. To subscribe, click here.

Michelle Willard

Chief of External Affairs, Sacramento State

Michelle Willard has always been a hard worker. From a young age, she saw the effort put in by her mother, an executive in New York City, and her father, an international salesman, to succeed in the corporate world. And as a ballet dancer for the renowned Maine State Ballet, Willard learned the discipline it took to perform such challenging ballets as “Swan Lake.”

Those early life lessons served her well. Willard has just taken a big career leap by leaving her powerful post of chief public affairs officer for the Greater Sacramento Economic Council to take a new position at Sacramento State under the leadership of Pres. J. Luke Wood and become its new chief of external relations.

Willard thrived at GSEC, working with more than 45 CEOs and community leaders, going on international travel trips and being part of the team that brought the $1.5 billion mega deal of Bosch, the semiconductor company based in Germany, to Roseville. Willard credits Barry Broome, the CEO and president of GSEC, for being her “biggest mentor and advocate.”

“I encourage everyone at the beginning of their career to work as hard as they can and learn as much as they can. You have to be the best you can be. And the only way to do it, is to learn and to work really, really hard.”

“I’m most proud of the reputation I’ve helped to build and the community collaborations I’ve helped establish and all the relationships I’ve gotten to build,” she says of her six years with GSEC.

Now at Sac State, where she just started last month, Willard will be working closely with President Wood overseeing federal, state and local policy initiatives, as well as developing strategic partnerships with private industry leaders to help transform the university.

“I sat down and really said to myself, this is an opportunity where I get to help transform a university system and really make an impact and legacy on my community,” she says. 

But being an executive was not part of Willard’s original game plan. Her goal was to become a network news anchor, so she threw herself into getting there just like every other thing she’s done in her life. Willard attended Lyndon State College, now Vermont State, taking broadcast journalism courses. She drove from her home in Maine to Tampa, Florida, for an internship.

“I knew that I loved communicating with people, and I knew I loved to share people’s stories. I love learning about people,” says Willard, who enjoys reading biographies and is currently reading one about Elon Musk.

Her news anchor career took her to Abilene, Texas, where she arrived with just one box of her possessions, then to Columbia, South Carolina. She would often work 12-day weeks and 16-hour days, filling in on the anchor desk whenever she could to get the experience. 

Along the way she met Lt. Colonel Dustin Willard, the 9th operations support squadron commander of the U2 program at Beale Air Force Base. He brought her to Sacramento, where she made a career switch, deciding she wanted to work in public policy and help people in a new way. “I’ve always been passionate about community,” she says.

Willard loves the Sacramento region, going to Kings games, skiing and snowboarding, tennis and golf. She has two sons, Mason, 4, and Jackson, 2. “I absolutely adore the people here. I think they’re so special, kind, humble, but also have a hard work ethic. I love the amenities it offers my family,” she says. Willard has also done work for Ronald McDonald House charity and GiGi’s Playhouse, which supports people with Down syndrome.

Willard is not shy to admit she’s passionate about her career, and it’s what drives her. 

“I encourage everyone at the beginning of their career to work as hard as they can and learn as much as they can,” she says. “You have to be the best you can be. And the only way to do it, is to learn and to work really, really hard.” 

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